How fascist and how dangerous were the Blueshirts?
This is a much contested question in Irish politics. Republicans emphasise the fascist nature of the Blueshirts because it is something which tarnishes the treatyite tradition which is based on respect for law and order and upholding democracy during the Irish Civil War. Blueshirt violence muddied the water – which is something that leaders like W.T. Cosgrave were aware of at the time. Many on the Irish left have also emphasised the fascist danger to reinforce their anti-fascist credentials, which were an important part of their image in the interwar period, given that everything else they did was pretty much a failure. In reality, most Blueshirts were motivated by genuine grievances – de Valera’s economic war with Britain and his placation of the IRA threatened a lot of people – and knew little about fascism. The Blueshirts first emerged because the police were failing to protect the opposition’s public meetings from attacks by republicans, so it can be argued both ways.
O’Duffy was clearly a fascist but his extremism was very unrepresentative. What I argue in the book is that there were a lot of establishment figures – in the army and in the treatyite party – who went along with anti-democratic rhetoric because they felt the republicans – the people who had tried to destroy the State in 1922 – couldn’t be trusted with power. In this sense, the position is similar to many countries in 1930s Europe where traditional elites allied themselves with the far right against socialists or republicans out of a sense of fear and self-preservation. There was never any prospect of a Nazi-style regime but the idea of an Irish Salazar or a Franco was not impossible – these regimes were the norm in ‘Catholic’ European countries in the 1930s whereas democracies were the exception.
James Hogan, a history professor, and Michael Tierney, professor of classics, were influential in the Blueshirt movement. Some of the statements of Ernest Blythe (later a director of the national theatre) are quite shocking in their extremity. Is fascism especially appealing to intellectuals?
Lots of historians have tried to analyse fascism in class terms – it tended to be seen as the movement of the lower middle class: people who are educated, have a certain degree of status and aspirations but who are also most vulnerable to economic crises and most threatened by a socialist working class. But the interesting thing about fascism is it appealed to everyone – men, women, workers, employers. Fascism is essentially an extreme form of nationalism – which has the same broad appeal. No one is safe from the virus. There was certainly a big appeal among intellectuals – possibly because they share a lot of the traits that attracted the lower middle class: status conscious, prone to frustration etc. Also, I think intellectuals are particularly drawn to silly ideas, to see things in black and white. Many spend their lives working their way through a spectrum of extreme opinions. In Ireland, specifically, intellectuals of a certain background – treatyite university lecturers, for example – were drawn to reactionary Catholic social thought and extreme anti-communism, and very much admired dictators like Salazar and Franco. They weren’t fascists, but they weren’t a million miles away either. But it’s very hard now to recapture that 1930s mentality when it really did seem to many intelligent observers that democracy was on the way out and the future lay with dictatorships of one sort of another.
On the other hand, fascism seems more explicitly directed at men of action rather than intellectuals…
Politically, masculinity or virility was absolutely central to the appeal of fascism. Masculinity is a major theme running through the book, and in many ways is the key to understanding his personality. O’Duffy’s career was dedicated to manly pursuits and manly organisations. It would be easy to relate this to his homosexuality – and it would be impossible to say that his sexuality was not bound up with his extremism – but the ideal of manliness was widely admired in the inter-war period.
In discussing the cult of personality you quote an extraordinary poem in praise of O’Duffy (“The General’s awake, yes awake! … So calm, so collected and cool”). The sycophancy seems crude now. Could it happen again? Are we more sophisticated?
Yes, very crude fare. The main reason was that it was still an age of deference, which was still reflected by the media. In those days the press carried news, and not much opinion, bar lofty editorials. There weren’t political columnists or investigative journalists, and people were very rarely criticised in the press or in newsreel or on the radio. Could it happen again? Not where there’s a free flow of opinion – if people think someone is dishonest, or hypocritical or just plain ridiculous, that opinion will be expressed. The press or the internet will at some point pick up on a politician if he is an alcoholic or a covert homosexual.
How complicit was the media in the rise of the Blueshirts?
As regards the press, the Irish Press was always, naturally, opposed to all things treatyite. The Irish Independent has a particularly poor reputation on this front. That newspaper, the biggest selling by far, had a very marked, almost hysterical, pro-treaty, ultra-Catholic and anti-communist ethos – so it was very much in tune with O’Duffy and the Blueshirts (and international fascism). You could make a comparison here with Rothermere’s Daily Mail and the British Union of Fascists. The attitude of the Irish Times, still then the newspaper of the well-heeled Protestants of the south, to the Blueshirts was quite interesting. In 1933 it was sympathetic to O’Duffy – it felt that O’Duffy’s dismissal was unfair and it didn’t understand why de Valera proscribed the unarmed Blueshirts but not the much more dangerous IRA. So, quite interestingly, conservative and liberal opinion (the Irish Times reflected both) was initially sympathetic to the Blueshirts on the grounds that de Valera appeared to be something of a threat to democracy. Of course, it soon revised its opinion as it became clear that de Valera’s position was far more reasonable, and that the Blueshirts did represent a threat to law and order. The Irish Times, incidentally, was the most anti-fascist of the newspapers – the main nationalist newspapers were often quite keen on what Mussolini and Hitler were up to – the anti-communism and the tearing up of unloved treaties and annexing of bordering states to unite the national population all had a fair bit of appeal for many Irish nationalists.
There was talk in 1932-33 of a ‘sense of crisis’. Did de Valera in fact carry out a ‘purge’? Was there any justification in Blueshirt fears of a ‘communist’ Fianna Fáil or IRA? Are there parallels with the ‘crisis’ then and, say, modern concerns about terrorism?
There was certainly a real sense of crisis. If you think about it, what happened was really quite remarkable. Republicans who had attempted to destroy the State only ten years earlier in a bitter Civil War were peacefully handed power by their enemies, who absolutely despised them and had real fears about retribution. De Valera did not carry out a purge – far from it. He assured the civil service and security forces that there would be no revenge or dismissals, and he held to this line despite the disappointment of a lot of his own followers, who assumed that they would get the plum jobs which they had been excluded from. The only exception was in policing, where O’Duffy and some senior Special Branch officers were sacked. Fine Gael wrongly interpreted this as the beginning of a political purge but it eventually became evident that de Valera understood the necessity of a depoliticised State – which was partly why O’Duffy had to go. The nearest modern parallels I would see would concern Northern Ireland where you had – equally remarkably – republicans entering government in Stormont – with policing issues and suspicions about the loyalty of Special Branch being probably the most difficult issue to deal with (and still unresolved today).
You say that article 2A (the Public Safety Act of 1931, which permitted, for example, censorship and internment) probably cost Cumann na nGaedheal (the pro-treaty party, forerunner of Fine Gael) the election. Why has the Patriot Act not sunk George W. Bush?
They’re obviously very different situations but the point about Article 2A was that a large section of the public didn’t believe the government’s claim that the country was on the verge of a red revolution. There was a serious threat from the IRA, which was at that point was very socialistic in terms of its rhetoric, but there was also a good deal of confidence in de Valera and Fianna Fáil – despite the government’s crude attempts to smear them as reds. In fact, realistically, only de Valera could have dealt with the IRA – as he went on to do. Obviously, in America, because of 9/11 and the other bombings throughout the world, there is a real sense of fear, based on a genuine threat, which means that people will put up with the loss of certain liberties. Also, there is a long tradition in the U.S. of patriotic politicians and intelligence bodies successfully stoking people’s fears, going back to Hoover and McCarthy and the Cold War. Adam Curtis’s documentary, The Power of Nightmares, is good on how the red scare has been replaced by the fear of Islamic terrorism.
Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero by Fearghal McGarry is published by the Oxford University Press