Inside the Blueshirt's closet

 

Biography: It has been a long time since anyone thought of Eoin O'Duffy as a hero. Once numbered among the heavyweights of Irish politics - a successor to Michael Collins, a rival to Eamon de Valera - his reputation now resembles that of PG Wodehouse's Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts and Bertie Wooster's least formidable foe. It is not surprising that he has lacked a serious biographer before now.

Fearghal McGarry has already produced a major study of Ireland and the Spanish civil war as well as a marvellous biography of Frank Ryan, the republican saint/Nazi collaborator. He has the tools and the depth of knowledge to take on O'Duffy. Political biographers often skimp on private lives and early years but McGarry has methodically and thoroughly researched every phase and aspect of O'Duffy's life, from his Monaghan upbringing and working life in the 1890s and 1900s to his careers in the GAA, IRA and National Army in the 1910s and early 1920s, on through his long stint as Garda commissioner and into the Blueshirt years, the farcical Spanish crusade in 1937, and the final twilight period leading to his death in 1944.

The result is a very good book indeed. McGarry is a talented writer, well able to put his battery of sources to good use. He weaves together local and national history, personal and organisational details, O'Duffy's and his own perspectives, in a smooth and persuasive way. His exposition is always clear, his quotations and illustrations are always well-chosen and he has an understated and elegant style. This isn't a short book but it is very readable: nicely paced, packed with illuminating detail and fully engaged with its subject. McGarry doesn't like the man, but he takes him seriously as a person, not just as a political figure or ideological bogeyman.

O'Duffy started off as a prototypical Irish revolutionary: upwardly mobile, hard-working, one of nature's joiners and organisers. He wasn't a sportsman or even much of a soldier (these roles had to be invented), but he was good at running things. He put up a good fight with the Monaghan Brigade, got called up to the big leagues by Michael Collins and, after some job-shuffling in the Army, ended up with his very own empire - the brand new Garda Síochána - and a personality cult to go with it.

Much of the book is concerned with the construction and disintegration of O'Duffy's heroic persona: hence the subtitle. From this came his power and, later, ridicule. Heroes need foes and over the years these ranged from West Britonism to republicanism and communism to Judaism. His mission stayed the same, however: moral regeneration and improved national virility. The drive behind it was also consistent throughout his life - not just self-aggrandisement but a deep identification with manly organisations, from the GAA to the Irish Brigade in Spain. Uniforms and discipline were the answer, not politics.

Where did this urge to cleanse society come from? He was no role model, smoking and drinking, fat and addled by early middle age, dead at only 54. Most important psychologically, he was apparently actively gay (the evidence isn't conclusive but McGarry detects fire behind the smoke). McGarry suggests O'Duffy both sublimated his sexual needs into brotherly camaraderie and turned his personal "crisis" into the very thing he publicly dedicated himself to eradicating. And it was this conflict between the general's actual behaviour and his "clean" image and message that led to his political and personal crack-up. As Wooster said of Spode: "You can't be a successful Dictator and design women's underclothing."

MCGARRY ACKNOWLEDGES IN his careful discussion that O'Duffy's presumed sex life has tended to make him seem even more pathetic and should not be taken as the sole key to his personality. I was still a bit uncomfortable with the implications of his argument, not to mention the use of that pseudo-science, psychotherapy. People can be alcoholics and liars without repressing their sexuality and vice-versa. J Edgar Hoover had a most atypical private life without losing his political edge.

I also couldn't help thinking of the comparison with Michael Collins, the man's man who supposedly had a secret sex life, exaggerated his martial image, liked to drink and smoke and who was gaining weight rapidly in the last years of his life. Given another 10 years, would he have been in better shape than his erstwhile protege? Would we blame it on his heterosexuality?

Of course, what sets O'Duffy apart, and sets him up for abuse, is his identification with fascism. McGarry is masterful in assessing what he said and did in the 1930s and 1940s, how his thinking developed, and how this fitted in with both Irish and European politics. Was he the real thing or was blue just the new green? For every argument that he was a genuine fascist, and therefore a real threat to the democratic order, there is a response that the same ideas were already present in the Volunteers and Army, the Catholic Church, conservative nationalism in general or, as with anti-Semitism, in society at large. But, McGarry points out, it was exactly these continuities that produced dictatorships elsewhere under the right conditions. Given better luck and opportunities, O'Duffy's boast of being the third most important man in Europe might not be so amusing. Even after his career went into terminal decline, his contacts with Nazi Germany could have made him Ireland's quisling if events had worked out differently.

THIS SEEMS ABOUT right to me. If there had been a powerful socialist movement in Ireland, if de Valera's republicans had stayed out of the Dáil, if the Border had been a bigger issue, if Germany had invaded, O'Duffy might finally have become the central character in the national drama. As it is, he is a guide to what might have been and to some of the creepier recesses of Irish nationalism. McGarry gives O'Duffy credit for his military career, his involvement in sports and his good years as police commissioner - but he'll never escape that shadow.

Peter Hart's new biography, Mick: the Real Michael Collins, is published this month by Macmillan

Eoin O'Duffy: A Self-Made Hero By Fearghal McGarry. Oxford University Press, 448pp. £25