“One of the interesting things about biography is its limits. You can make educated guesses but you can never really know people’s motivations and desires. People aren’t necessarily conscious of the motives which drive them. It’s very easy to rationalise anything we want or that is in our interest, no matter how it appears to others. Hitler – one of the most incontrovertibly evil people in history – perceived himself as doing good. The same goes for most fanatics, then or now. Like most fascists, O’Duffy was egotistical, megalomaniacal, irrational and full of contradictions. But his entire career was also informed by a desire – whether consciously hypocritical or not – to make Ireland a morally and culturally pure nation.” (Fearghal McGarry)
Eoin O’Duffy came to prominence as a Gaelic Athletic Association activist in Monaghan, leading the IRA there during the War of Independence. A protégé of Michael Collins, he rose rapidly within the IRA, ending up chief of staff in 1922. He ran the police during the first decade of the Irish Free State and, after his dismissal, became leader of the fascist Blueshirt movement, going on to found the main opposition party, Fine Gael, in 1933. After he was forced out of Fine Gael, he set up a fascist party, raised an Irish Brigade to fight for Franco in Spain, and ended his life as a Nazi collaborator. Remembered as one of the more notorious figures of Irish politics, he is a hate figure for Republicans and a source of embarrassment for Fine Gael.
Fearghal McGarry, lecturer in Irish History, Queen’s University, Belfast, is the author of the first biography of the infamous O’Duffy. McGarry kindly participated in the following interview (via email).
fascists – like all villains – generally do attract a lot of interest. O’Duffy didn’t because he was a failure. He is also an unattractive figure in many ways. Writing a biography involves a big investment in time and there’s not much point in doing it without some degree of empathy, so there were difficulties there.
Why has it taken so long for a biography of Eoin O’Duffy to appear?
A number of reasons. Political biographies are often written because their subjects are seen to have some contemporary relevance, particularly in Ireland, where there’s a great awareness of history. Biographies of republican heroes sell very well. Even minor figures who achieved very little – such as Peadar O’Donnell or Frank Ryan – have three or four biographies because people admire them, or because they see some ideological significance there, whereas much more significant figures – people who actually exercised power – such as W.T. Cosgrave, founder of the State, have been neglected because they lack that contemporary appeal. On the other hand, fascists – like all villains – generally do attract a lot of interest. O’Duffy didn’t because he was a failure. He is also an unattractive figure in many ways. Writing a biography involves a big investment in time and there’s not much point in doing it without some degree of empathy, so there were difficulties there.
Why did you give the book the sub-title ‘Self-Made Hero’?
It’s taken from a French movie by Jacques Audiard about the aftermath of the Vichy occupation. It’s about a man called Albert who led a meaningless life during the occupation but reinvented himself afterwards by inventing a past as a resistance leader, reading the right newspapers, expressing the right opinions, and so on. He rises to government office before his inevitable exposure and disgrace. It’s a clever exploration of the intersection between history, politics, and the invention of identity. In some respects, the comparison is unfair. O’Duffy did fight in the War of Independence and he did lead the army and police effectively. But, I argue in my book, the real key to his success was his ability to invent a persona that reflected the political and cultural ethos of his time. No one had a better war record, no one was more pious, no one was stauncher on the North, or Gaelic, or temperance, and so on. And a lot of people bought into the image, even though it had little to do with the reality – he didn’t actually speak Gaelic, he was a bit of a drunk, a closet homosexual. The sub-title highlights what I think is the most interesting aspect of O’Duffy’s life story, that he was able to fool most of the people most of the time – which says a lot about the ethos of that time. It wasn’t difficult to play the super-patriot after the revolution, to tap into cultural defensiveness on issues like the language or the north during that period of great insecurity and bitterness.
Was his life a tragedy or farce?
It’s remembered as farce. The popular image is that of a ridiculous man leading a ridiculous movement; there’s almost a sense that fascism was inimical to the Irish. I feel that’s a bit complacent, in that it lets a lot of people off the hook who did – albeit briefly – line up behind O’Duffy as Blueshirt leader. He was leader of the opposition, and the Blueshirts were a much more significant movement in Irish politics than Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were in Britain. But certainly by the latter part of his life – his disastrous involvement in Spain – there’s a good deal of farce. Was it a tragedy? His life ends as a tragedy – he dies an alcoholic, a discredited figure, shunned in circles where he was once feted. There are personal issues too which contributed to his extremism and downfall and that idea of being brought down by your own flaws is central to tragedy.
Michael Collins called him “the best man by far in Ulster”. How did he get it so wrong?
I’m not sure he did. O’Duffy was a very effective subordinate. When Collins needed someone with a big ego to sort out unruly IRA units in the sticks, O’Duffy did the job very well. When he needed someone to go to Belfast during the sectarian riots of 1921 to show Catholics that GHQ hadn’t forgotten about them, O’Duffy was his man. When the south was on the verge of Civil War and Collins needed to keep the northern IRA loyal to the treatyites, O’Duffy was also very effective. Like all good leaders, Collins seems to have got the right person for the right job. It was also necessary for Collins to have people of unquestioned personal loyalty – his Fenian Brothers – in these key positions. But if Collins – as has been suggested – identified O’Duffy as his successor to lead the nation if he died in the Civil War, I must admit that doesn’t reflect well on his judgement.
In 1931 O’Duffy took over the presidency of the National Athletic and Cycling Association and in short order the number of clubs in Munster grew from 40 to 200, repeating a pattern of successful organisation he had established years earlier. And yet a few years later his National Corporate Party is struggling with organisation and recruitment. When and why did he lose his organisational Midas touch?
For most of his early, very successful, career, he was surrounded by effective subordinates: Dan Hogan in the IRA in Monaghan, his cousin, Patrick Walsh, in the Gardaí. He was also kept in line by strong leaders – Michael Collins during the revolution, Kevin O’Higgins during the early years of the Free State.
O’Duffy was a very efficient doer, one of many who rose to important positions in what was an incredible period of flux and opportunity. His problems began when he found himself out in front, making his own decisions. He lacked a sense of proportion – a key characteristic of zealots. Drink increasingly became a problem, and he left the guards a bit of a burn-out. He still put a huge amount of time and effort into travelling the country and meeting supporters as Blueshirt leader but organisational skills are less necessary in political life than qualities like charisma, the ability to inspire loyalty or obedience and good judgement which he didn’t have.
His decline was a gradual process – certain character flaws and limitations were evident from the early days – but it was the accumulation of power as Garda Commissioner, combined with a growing sense of frustration about the rise of republicanism, and the shortcomings of the treatyite politicians that he served who didn’t share his sense of urgency about the unfinished business of the revolution – the Irish language and the north – which tipped him over. When you add the heavy drinking, megalomania and zealotry which his colleagues began to notice, you get a fairly volatile mix. Before de Valera even won power, his own government had decided to fire him if it was re-elected. What happens in 1933, after his dismissal by de Valera, is that he’s carried forward by inertia – because of the public and political sympathy for him, his track record and his image as a strong man, he seems like the obvious choice to lead the treatyites out of their crisis. It soon became very clear that he wasn’t, and it was all downhill after that point.
O’Duffy seemed to have mastered the ‘I’m only a fighting man’ rhetoric. Was this ‘simple fighter’ genuine in O’Duffy’s case? Or was he always a politician at heart?
I think, like most of his generation, the real preparation for politics stemmed from his involvement in the Irish Ireland movement during the early 20th century. If you were in organisations such as the GAA or Gaelic League, you learnt all about organising events, winning votes, passing resolutions, the role of secretaries and executives and so on. A lot of the ‘fighting man’ rhetoric which characterised Sinn Féin during the revolution also derives from the same movement. People like O’Duffy defined themselves as true Gaels in opposition to the constitutional nationalists, who they depicted as corrupt, immoral, subservient to Britain, not properly Irish. I think it was entirely possible to revel in the ‘fighting man’ rhetoric while also striving for nomination to a Dáil seat without conscious hypocrisy because militarism was an essential aspect of the political language and self-perception of republicans at that time, while ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ were dirty words. Collins and de Valera are good examples – very effective politicians who, certainly in the early stages of their careers, depict themselves as fighting men. You still have that outlook to a certain extent within contemporary republicanism. His career in local government was also important – it’s not very romantic but a lot of those who got ahead in the revolutionary movement were people like Collins and Richard Mulcahy who had worked in the Post Office or civil service and knew about things like filing and administration and how large organisations operated.