Tuesday 16 July 2019

From a Free State hero to a buffoon in a Blueshirt

Eoin O'Duffy's name became a byword for fascismbut a new documentary reveals there was moreto his life than just that, writes EDWARD McCANN

The key force in shaping the Garda Siochana, a founder member of Fine Gael and the youngest army general in Europe at the time - Eoin O'Duffy's achievements were considerable. But today if one thinks of him at all it is in connection with his latter-day flirtation with fascism.

The man who was one of the most respected figureheads of the fledgling Irish Free State saw his successes being eclipsed by a decade of failures before he died in 1944.

But this complex character played a vital role in the creation of modern Ireland - and reflects a wider European malaise in the late Twenties and Thirties that led many to see liberal democracy as bankrupt and hail a new era of authoritarian nationalism.

Happily for Ireland, O'Duffy's Blueshirts, modelled on the thuggish Nazi Brownshirts, never achieved a significant following and fizzled out after a couple of years.

A new documentary to be screened as part of the Hidden History series offers a more nuanced portrayal of O'Duffy.

His biographer, Queen's University history lecturer Fearghal McGarry says: "Eoin O'Duffy has to a large extent been airbrushed out of Irish history and certainly he's been airbrushed out of the history of Fine Gael.

"But this was a man who had been a driving force behind the IRA in the War of Independence in Monaghan, who had been Chief of Staff of the national army, who had largely set up the Garda Siochana and run it for its first decade. He was a key figure in the building of the Irish Free State."

Born in Co Monaghan in 1892, his mother died at the age of 12 and he wore her ring for the rest of his life - surely a significant psychological indicator if ever there was one.

Despite him being the head of the IRA in a county that had a large Protestant and unionist minority, McGarry says: "O'Duffy emerged from the War of Independence with a strong reputation. . . . Ultimately he was seen as a 'doer'." So much so, in fact, that some think Michael Collins had him earmarked as his potential successor.

Following a brief spell as the IRA's chief of staff in 1922, O'Duffy became the Commissioner of the newly formed unarmed Civic Guard. For DCU historian Diarmuid Ferriter, O'Duffy's proto-fascist tendencies were clear even at this stage.

He says: "He put a lot of store by the moral and physical attributes of recruits to the new police force. But he was a megalomaniac. He saw the Garda as an extension of him and of his own values.

"These were Catholic, Gaelic, Republican and often pioneers - pillars of the community."

Of course, O'Duffy's private life didn't necessarily reflect this ideal and he became a heavy drinker - an addiction fuelled by his fury at the political rise of his former Civil War foes.

Although O'Duffy remained unmarried, there is no conclusive evidence that he was homosexual. However, following O'Duffy's death rumours began to circulate that hinted at his involvement in a homosexual relationship with actor Micheál MacLiammoir in the Thirties.

O'Duffy's anti-democratic tendencies were heightened by Fianna Fail's election victory in 1932 as O'Duffy believed the party was intent on destroying the State he had put so much effort into bolstering. It took a year for Eamon De Valera and his new Fianna Fail government to dismiss O'Duffy as Garda Commissioner and it was this decision which tipped him over the edge. Now he was just an ordinary citizen and of a country which had voted in his arch-enemies, the "sham patriots of Fianna Fail".

Seen as a charismatic leader, the newly formed Fine Gael party chose him as its first president but his activities with the Blueshirts and increasingly extreme speeches made him a liability and he was pushed aside after a year.

Of O'Duffy's genuine admiration for Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy at this time there can be little doubt. Richard English, professor of politics at Queen's in Belfast, says: "He was enthralled with Mussolini and later with Hitler. He was a fascist."

Today O'Duffy is remembered as a figure of ridicule - as the buffoon whose Irish brigade, when sent to Spain to aid the Fascist coup led by General Franco in 1934, was sent home for its incompetence and drunkenness.

But as Diarmuid Ferriter puts it: "He was a mirror to the Ireland of the Twenties and Thirties. He represented a lot of the contradictions and inconsistencies, or perhaps the double standards and hypocrisies."

'Eoin O'Duffy - An Irish Fascist' is on RTE1 on Tuesday at 10.15pm

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