Fascism can be generally defined as a far-right political ideology with traits of hard-line nationalism, authoritarian government, the forceful suppression of dissent, the embracing of warfare as a key part of international policy and a strict control over society and economy. The concept has its roots in various late 18th and 19th century movements that found more concrete form in the 20th century after the end of the First World War throughout Europe and beyond, but of course most prominently in Italy under Benito Mussolini and then Germany under Adolph Hitler. Fascist political parties, paramilitary organisations and other groups could be seen pretty much everywhere in the 1930’s, fuelled by increasing discontent brought on by the Great Depression, international tensions and a perceived failure of liberal democracy in that period. Ireland was no exception to the trend, and one of greatest challenges to Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fail government in the 30’s was that presented by the fascist far-right.
The legalisation of the IRA in the aftermath of the 1932 election facilitated a storm of unrest on Irish streets throughout the following few years, with many Volunteers not of a mind to leave their previous Civil War opponents be. One of those, a Limerick-born veteran of the War of Independence named Frank Ryan, was especially voracious upon his release from imprisonment, helping to lead a nationwide campaign summed up by the phrase “No Free Speech For Traitors”, the traitors in question being Cumann na nGaedheal and other members of the pro-Treaty movements. In the months that followed March 1932, there were repeated instances of intimidation, harassment and attacks on Cumann na nGaedheal members, while any meeting or rally of the party was liable to be disrupted or prevented by bands of IRA Volunteers, who would use whatever means were to hand to do so, to the point of firing guns over the heads of people. With the ruling government not especially interested in taking extra steps to protect their main opposition, those under attack had to take other action.
One of those was Ned Cronin, a veteran of the War of Independence who had served in the National Army since the Civil War. In August of 1932 he founded the Army Comrades Association, or ACA. Nominally a society for veterans of the National Army and Irish Defence Forces, it gained thousands of members very quickly, though its own estimates of 30’000 before the end of 1932 was undoubtedly an exaggeration. Prominent members at the beginning included Thomas F. O’Higgins (brother of Kevin), Ernest Blythe and Desmond Fitzgerald. The ACA provided security for Cumann na nGaedheal meetings and other events, and rapidly became engaged in clashes with the IRA, that were little more than street fighting. It was Cronin who allegedly suggested that the members of the ACA wear distinctive colours so they could more easily recognise each other in the middle of such brawls, which was the genesis of the “Blueshirts” moniker commonly applied to the core of Irish fascist movements.
Such a group needed a key figure to really grow, and Cronin wasn’t really that figure, lacking the necessary charisma or notoriety. Instead, the emerging Blueshirts found their icon in the form of Eoin O’Duffy. Despite his obvious disdain for the de Valera government and his well-known role in fermenting efforts to prevent Fianna Fail from taking power, O’Duffy had been retained in his post of Garda Commissioner for a time by de Valera, who reasoned that getting rid of him then and there would have been politically unwise owing to Fianna Fail being a minority governing party, and de Valera himself had pledged to avoid wholesale replacement of pro-Treaty figures within civil departments. But the outcome of the 1933 election gave de Valera more leverage, and O’Duffy was dismissed from his post shortly after: he simply could not be trusted to not actively work against the government of the day, and his continued leadership of the police force of the state in those circumstances was intolerable.
Admired for his organisational ability, fierce Catholic identity and at least a perception of charisma, O’Duffy was not liable to be out of the spotlight for long. A few months after his sacking, he was offered the leadership of the ACA by its leading lights, and happily accepted. Under him it was renamed the National Guard, and was rapidly re-organised into a more outwardly fascistic organisation, with much inspiration taken from Mussolini’s own brand of fascism specifically. Uniforms, a roman salute and large organised rallies addressed by O’Duffy became synonymous with the Guard very quickly. Through the use of widespread social occasions – dances, the GAA, other outdoor excursions – O’Duffy spread his movement far and wide in a very short space of time.
He also helped to devise a constitution and manifesto for the National Guard, with corporatism – the organisation of society through corporate groups, such as agriculture, industry, etc – as its basis. Under O’Duffy, the National Guard claimed to stand for the reunification of Ireland, opposed communism and “alien influences”, embodied a strict Catholic ethos, called for a national service system to funnel Irish youth towards “constructive national action”, greater state control of the economy and a commitment to maintaining “social order”. While we will never know for sure just how popular the National Guard became, the more important thing in some respects – as was the case with other fascist entities throughout Europe – was the public perception of how popular they were. The sight of O’Duffy leading bands of uniformed men or speaking to what seemed like large rallies of supporters was enough. At this time O’Duffy began to really lean into the idea of being a fascist leader on the same level as Hitler and Mussolini, dubbing himself “the third most important man in Europe” and encouraging his supporters to address him with the words “Hoch O’Duffy” or “Hail O’Duffy”.
The Blueshirts became a large enough group so quickly that by August of 1933 the Fianna Fail government had become concerned they faced an existential threat from O’Duffy and his followers. The license previously granted to individual members of the group to bear arms – like former Cumann na nGaedheal TD’s who carried pistols after the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins – were revoked. In the late part of that month, the Blueshirts planned for a large rally in Dublin, one that was to move from Glasnevin Cemetery into the city centre, eventually to end near government buildings, where speeches in honour of men like Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins would be read. De Valera was worried enough about the march, and the obvious allusions that it carried towards Mussolini’s “March on Rome” in 1922, to enact Article 2A of the Free State constitution which granted his government the power to ban the march outright. De Valera would, many years later, admit he was unsure if the Defence Forces could be relied upon to prevent a coup d’état if O’Duffy attempted one, as so many ex-soldiers were part of the Blueshirts. He may also have been concerned about the possibility of violent clashes between the Blueshirts and the IRA in the city centre.
In this pivotal moment, O’Duffy could have maintained his resolve and led the march, though it is genuinely unclear what his intentions had been. Perhaps he really did want to just give a few speeches, and e gave little indication that his plan was to overthrow the government. But the man’s prior involvement with potential coups are enough to make one think he may have had Mussolini on the mind. Regardless, he choose to obey the edict, though several smaller regional rallies were held instead. That was enough provocation for the government to declare the Blueshirts an illegal organisation, proof enough of how worried O’Duffy was making de Valera. Efforts to extend the ban to all political entities that wore uniforms would be defeated the following year.
In response to the banning, O’Duffy and the Blueshirts choose to sacrifice their own individualism as an entity and merge with two other more respectable, and politically acceptable groupings. These were Cumann na nGaedheal, which was already beginning to struggle with being in opposition, and the more recently formed National Centre Party, a rural-based alternative to Fianna Fail that had won 11 seats in August. Cross-membership between the Blueshirts and either of the two parties was large enough that a merger was not all that difficult to arrange, and in September the three joined together to form a new political party, one that would join Fianna Fail as the most dominant in Irish political history since independence: Fine Gael (“Tribe/Family Of The Irish”). Fine Gael would become the political representation of the pro-Treaty movement, opposing Fianna Fail and the IRA, calling for an end to the Economic War and advocating for a the peaceful reunification of the country from within the confines of the Commonwealth. O’Duffy became its first President, with W.T. Cosgrave and the National Centre Party’s James Dillon under him. The National Guard became the youth wing of the new party. Reaction was mixed, with many seeing Fine Gael as merely a new name on Cumann na nGaedheal: Sean Lemass would call this triple alliance “the cripple alliance”.
He was not an enormous way off in his assessment, at least in terms of Fine Gael’s earliest years under that name. It was going to take O’Duffy a while to fully realise it, but he was already a busted flush, having reached the apogee of his popularity in the summer and Autumn of 1933. In early 1934 the party underperformed relative to expectations in local elections, winning control of only six of 24 authorities, and their claim to represent the interests of farmers being affected by the Economic War began to lack substance the longer the Economic War went on. O’Duffy began to adopt more and more extreme rhetoric, with his encouragement of farmers to refuse to pay land annuities concerning more moderate members of Fine Gael who wanted the party to follow purely constitutional means. With O’Duffy now more fully embracing a fascist ideology, his leadership of a party that was dedicated to following democracy was untenable.
In September of 1934, after discussions with party leaders, O’Duffy resigned, which came as little surprise. Cosgrave would eventually assume the party leadership. O’Duffy attempted to resume direct control of the Blueshirts, but was resisted by Ned Cronin: a split within the National Guard resulted, with Cronin retaining the loyalty of the majority, who eventually ceased to exist as their own wing of Fine Gael. Though the party would never be able to entirely shed its fascist beginnings – the term “Blueshirt” is still used as a pejorative towards members of Fine Gael to this day, and likely always will – Fine Gael would be dedicated to upholding the principles of liberal democracy.
The question must be asked though, and has been asked, as to how truly fascist the Blueshirts were. The argument can be made that they represented more of the trapping of fascism – with the uniforms, the salutes, the large rallies and the planned march on Dublin – without ever really encapsulating the political ideology in the same way that Hitler and Mussolini did. Many historians view the Blueshirts more of a conservative nationalist/corporatist movement, rather than full fascist. O’Duffy can probably be considered a fascist himself, but the movement he led was less so, and especially after the creation of Fine Gael.
But this is not to downplay the Blueshirts as a fascist force either. Getting into arguments about the exact nature of their ideology belies the threat that they represented to the Irish democracy as it existed at the time: maybe they were not out to create a state on a par with Nazi Germany, but it is unlikely that a man like O’Duffy, should he have been given the opportunity to take power, would have maintained the democratic systems that had allowed de Valera’s Fianna Fail to become the dominant political force on the island. What would have happened from a point where the Blueshirts swept to power as Mussolini had is anyone’s guess: a full on fascist state, or some manner of Salazar-like dictatorship on corporatist lines?
But of course O’Duffy never got that chance, largely due to his own weaknesses. He could organise, he could speak, he could put on a good show of power in the short-term. But O’Duffy was never the kind of man who would succeed in a political arena, not really. He lacked the guile for the kind of politics that Hitler and Mussolini excelled at, and he lacked the popularity, even if his own ego prevented him from realising that, to carry it off as well. With the constant turn to the extreme, he was never likely to remain in a position of power for long, not when the Fine Gael entity was dominated by less hard-right conservatives. But for some extraordinary events, O’Duffy may well have faded from Irish history from that point on, but we will encounter him again one more time relatively soon.
Despite surviving its brush with fascism, Ireland was not going to be immune to what was happening in Europe: it will not be too long before we have to reckon with the events of 1939 and after as they pertained to Ireland and the Irish. But before then we have other matters that need consideration. We will go now to the north of Ireland, to discuss how things had been panning out in the early decades of Northern Ireland, with a serious flashpoint of sectarian tensions occurring in the Summer of 1935.
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