Revolutionary Remembrance: The O’Duffy Problem

The centenary decade is all about remembrance and commemoration, of famous men and women, of their deeds and their results. But should we confine the focus of our remembrance to that ten year period, and ignore anything that happened outside of it?

Take one person I have in mind. Born in 1892. Became an engineer and an architect in his native country. Very prominent in local GAA, to the extent that a terrace is named after him in the county stadium. Joined the Volunteers in 1917. Co-led the first capture of an RIC barracks in his country. Caught the attention of Michael Collins for his initiative and leadership. Enrolled in the IRB. Imprisoned on several occasions, but escaped. Appointed director of the Army in 1921. Elected a TD the same year. Re-elected in 1922. Appointed commander of an IRA division. Led IRA efforts in Belfast during the Truce period. Becomes the youngest General in Europe at age 30. Appointed IRA Chief of Staff in 1922. Served as a Commander in the Irish Civil War on the pro-Treaty side, leading forces in Munster, especially in the Limerick fighting. In the aftermath, appointed as the first peace-time commissioner of the new police force, leading the way on the formation of an unarmed constabulary.

Now that all sounds like a seriously impressive resume for a revolutionary at the time, on a par only with some of the more illustrious names. Would it not be fair to mention such a person in the same breath of Ernie O’Malley, Richard Mulcahy and Liam Hogan? But this person isn’t.

Some will know who I’m talking about already, but you’d be surprised at the amount of people who would know the name “Eoin O’Duffy” from Irish history, and not have the slightest inkling of any of his activities pre-1930. Part of that is probably that Irish history of the last century has been one dominated by accounts of inspiring and loved figures, and popular knowledge of someone like O’Duffy suffered for that.

O’Duffy’s life after 1923 is what has gained him far more attention, for all the wrong reasons. His relationship with successive governments was strained as Garda Commissioner, and many claim he encouraged a military coup to prevent Fianna Fail from taking office in 1932. Sacked by De Valera’s government, O’Duffy founded and led a succession of organisations (the Army Comrades Association, the National Guard, the League of Youth, the Young Ireland Association and then the National Corporate Party) designed at first to protect Cumann na nGaedheal members under pressure and attack from the IRA, which later began to espouse progressively more aggressive and fascist ideology. Eventually thrown out of the conglomeration of groups that became Fine Gael, which he had helped to found, O’Duffy organised and led an Irish Brigade in support of the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Their time and impact in Spain was minimal. O’Duffy retired from public life, his health deteriorated, and he died in 1944, aged 52. He was given a state funeral. He is thrice  scarred in history, thanks to the Republicans who hate him for his pro-Treaty stance, the democrats who hate him for the fascism, and his own party, Fine Gael, who dislike him for the bad image he left.

When it comes to remembrance, what do you do about a man like Eoin O’Duffy? He was undoubtedly an important part of the IRA war effort from 1919 to 1922, and a leading figure in the pro-Treaty military.

And then he was Ireland’s fascist, in the same way that Mosley was in Britain, our very own proto-Nazi. (And, to ensure I don’t get accused of leaving critical details out, was also a drunk, megalomaniacal, somewhat delusional,  lost his organising touch spectacularly during his later years, seemed to flounder when placed in positions of command autonomy, and perhaps did his best work when placed in the right position by wiser superiors like Collins).

In terms of remembrance, O’Duffy hasn’t got much. As stated, a terrace is named after him in Clones, but that is more in recognition of his GAA work in Monaghan than anything else. The attachment of fascism to his legacy has destroyed any chance of a positive reception in history. Is this just? The GAA did it after all. Is it possible to separate one part of someone’s life for commemoration, when it contrasts with another, deeply disturbing, part?

I would say no, no it isn’t.

Firstly, commemoration should never mean, as I have previously stated, veneration or condemnation. We should be capable, as a nation, of looking back at the actions of O’Duffy throughout his life as dispassionately as possible, and appraising them for their time. That doesn’t mean we have to act like O’Duffy was some kind of folk hero, any more than it has to mean we treat him as some kind of inhuman monster.

We don’t have to praise him. A fascist is a fascist. But we don’t have to forget his revolutionary period service either.

We have to look at people’s lives as a whole and weigh things up. O’Duffy provides an excellent example of the shades of grey that can be found all throughout our centenary decade, of men who may very well have fought the British with great bravery, only to become lesser individuals afterward. Think of any major figure from those ten years who survived them and went on to be as prominent later, and I’ll show you someone with a disputed legacy. De Valera, Mulcahy, O’Kelly.

It’s one of the reasons people like Pearse, Collins and Barry have become so venerated. It’s the great advantage to dying young (or keeping out of public life), and as a hero. You never get the chance to tarnish that legacy. If O’Duffy had been killed in a Civil War ambush, our history would undoubtedly be far more positive towards him.

But that’s not what happened. What we have is a man of mixed legacy. A fascinating individual to be sure (check out Fearghal McGarry’s excellent biography), and the kind of guy who provides an excellent glimpse into the political and military life of the birth of the state and its formative years.

What is not right, or just, is to try and act like, in the coming centenary, people like O’Duffy never existed at all. When the documentaries come rolling around, when we read and watch and hear about that time period in the next ten years, we owe it to ourselves to form as complete a picture as possible, which means including in our remembrance people like O’Duffy and what they did. We can look at his activities and service with an eye for his later life, try and see the formative reasons for his turn to fascism, whether it was always his ideology or if he was pushed towards it by his experiences during and after the revolutionary period.

Fascism, the kind that so threatened Europe in the 1930s, isn’t really in Ireland anymore, not to the extent or popular support that it once had. We shouldn’t be afraid to address its origins or its impact from the distance of historical study. We can do that in the centenary decade by putting O’Duffy, if only in a small section and for a short time, as a focus.

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