Showing Blueshirts in their true colours

 

The 1930s in Ireland were turbulent and uncertain, echoing in miniature and perhaps parodic form the political uncertainties of the European continent in general. The rise of extremist movements on left and right promised warfare and the long-expected war eventually arrived in 1939.

Democratic governments, many of recent provenance and with little popular support, were destroyed at the hands of authoritarian, romantic and racist mass movements. Italian fascism, headed by an admirer of Vladimir Lenin, became the model for other "shirt" movements, most fatefully the German Brownshirts: the Nazis.

Ireland has been seen as being no exception to this general pattern: between 1932 and 1936 the Blueshirt movement, at its height having 50,000 members, appeared to parallel similar shirt-movements elsewhere; a march on Dublin and a coup d'etat might have been expected, in imitation of Mussolini's notorious march on Rome of 1922.

However, as last night's RTE programme, Patriots to a Man: the Blueshirts and their Times, documented, following the argument of Maurice Manning's 1972 classic The Blueshirts, and Michael Cronin's more recent The Blueshirts and Irish Politics, the Irish movement owed far more to Irish local circumstance than it did to continental or even British example.

The National Guard, or Blueshirts, cannot be understood without an awareness of the rise of de Valera's Fianna Fail, then a radical nationalist party. Fianna Fail was built on the ruins of the anti-Treaty IRA of 1922-'23 and retained much of its national radicalism.

On gaining power in 1932, de Valera instigated an economic war with Britain, at a time when all of Irish trade was with the United Kingdom, the bulk of that trade being unprocessed agricultural products: cattle on the hoof.

The casus belli was de Valera's refusal to remit to London certain land annuities payable by Irish farmers under the Land Acts. The British retaliated with tariffs against Irish exports and the Irish cattle trade faced ruin. The Irish raised tariffs against British goods and commenced protectionist industrialisation within the tiny market of the Free State.

As Paul Bew remarks in the programme, while some of the leaders were indeed Mussolini-style fascists and looked to the abolition of democracy in favour of a corporate and authoritarian state, the bulk of the rank-and-file were essentially "angry rural conservatives", strong farmers and their sons, who saw their livelihoods being wrecked by a malicious and economically illiterate government.

Support for this non-fascist, "aggrieved democrat" view of the movement comes from unexpected sources. Mick O'Riordan, a veteran communist who served in the International Brigade in Spain, remarks in the programme: "I never regarded them as fascists. They saw themselves as involved in a Christian crusade against godless communism in Spain; at worst, then, they were dupes."

The Blueshirts were in large part a movement of rural defence; many of the leaders had been in the Army of the new Free State during the Civil War, and in a sense the Blueshirt versus IRA confrontation of the 1930s was an echo of the more serious conflict of a decade earlier.

T.F. O'Higgins and others make the important point that, despite its apparently totalitarian trappings and rhetoric, the movement was, at grass-roots level, a freespeech movement which saw Fianna Fail and the IRA as hostile to freedom of opinion, regarding all those who disagreed as being anti-Irish and unpatriotic West Britons. "Free speech at that time was more than a cliche."

There was no television, virtually no radio, commonly no loudspeakers. The press had small circulation, and culture was oral. It was easy for small gangs of wellorganised militants to shout their opponents down or intimidate them into silence. One prominent and not atypical IRA leader, Frank Ryan, remarked famously that "as long as we have fists and boots, there will be no free speech for traitors".

Strangely, many in this shirtmovement saw themselves as defending the law against a lawless and resurgent IRA, with the government egging it on. Many were veteran gardai. Even the blue shirt is somewhat misleading; as Michael Cronin points out, many communists also had "shirt-movements at that time".

The programme has a marvellous clip of de Valera condemning a proposed Blueshirt march on Leinster House in tones reminiscent of Kevin O'Higgins in 1922: no democratic government "worthy of the name" could tolerate the strong-arm tactics of an O'Duffy.

Dev won the political struggle, and did for both the Blueshirts and the IRA. However, Dev also abandoned quietly a central plank of Fianna Fail: the redistribution of land to smallholders, and the breaking up of large farms. From 1936 on, in the shadow of the approaching war, the economic war was wound down and the raison d'etre for O'Duffy's movement evaporated.

Cronin describes the movement as being the "drunken uncle" of Fine Gael: an elderly relative whose embarrassing behaviour is not to be aired in public.

My own impression is that many modern Fine Gael supporters remain rather proud of their militant predecessors of a militant time. They think the Blueshirts achieved something by putting some sort of halt to Dev's gallop.

Tom Garvin is professor of politics in University College Dublin. His most recent book is 1922: the Birth of Irish Democracy. His Mythical Thinking in Political Life will be published in 2001