The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Eoin O’Duffy’s biography by Fearghal McGarry

Eoin O’ Duffy: A Self-Made Hero
(Oxford UP, 2005, £25)

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 20 August 2006

QUB historian McGarry, complementing his Irish Politics & the Spanish Civil War, examines the life of one of the major figures in both of these areas, and concludes that rather than a joke, the career of General Eoin O' Duffy should be regarded ‘a cautionary tale’. Reactionary characters have never earned the Irish attention given their more radical foes, but McGarry, veteran by his previous stint writing about Irish volunteers in Spain, has delved into diaries and archives to examine O’Duffy without prejudice. Eschewing jibes or cant, he sifts through primary sources to reconstruct a careful re-creation of a man now nearly erased from his nation that he helped build.

The result, Eoin O’ Duffy: A Self-Made Hero (Oxford UP, 2005, £25), is the first extended study of a man once ranked next to Collins and Richard Mulcahy as the key treatyite leaders of the Irish Civil War. A brief overview of his life provides context. Monaghan-born 1890, one of the lower middle classes who found opportunities and idealism combined in the Irish-Ireland cause, he moved from GAA organising into the IRA, serving as one who knew the North along with the rest of the island thanks to his sports advocacy. A tough-minded, yet rather incompetent, leader of men, he rose high into the republican ranks. Like Gerry Adams and Eamon De Valera, he was skilled at rewriting his role in the republican movement when it suited his politicking and his need to keep face before his comrades and his enemies.

He contended against Mulcahy for command after Collins’ death. Failing to do so, he moved laterally: building the Free State’s police force. His career lasted a dozen or so years, a long term considering the tumultuous power shifts as the Saorstat struggled to emerge. Resigning in the mid-1930s only after the rise to power of his nemesis DeValera and Fianna Fáil necessitated a leader both tougher and more circumspect in dealing with the renewed threats by communists, conservative malcontents, and the irregulars to Dev’s regime. The Long Fellow was seen to have compromised with armed republicans he had tempted into the fold as ‘Broy’s harriers’. O’Duffy then led the Blueshirts, allying briefly if unforgettably with Fine Gael, before that party out-maneouvred him to leave him longing for a new right-wing cause, which would soon arise with the Spanish conflict. His clumsy posturing as El Supremo of the Irish Brigade proved disastrous. During the Emergency, he again flirted with entangling tiny Irish fascist and reactionary agitators both with the conservative, pro-bombing campaign IRA (who had broken from its left wing back around 1936) and to the Nazis. Soon, drink and depression brought him to an early end in 1944.

Relying upon historians Tom Garvin and R.V. Comerford for their perspective upon an Irish nationalism that bursts upon the early 20th century with characters able to stir up patriotism by a narrow appeal that first named and then selected Celtic traits and disdained British qualities, McGarry supports recent studies. These place such up-and-coming young men from modest backgrounds such as O’Duffy among those obsessed with promoting a ruralised, nativist, and Gaelic ethos even as they moved into urban politics, modernising schemes, and international diplomacy. Comerford aligns such religious and linguistic correctness within those who began as Celtic Leaguers then to turn into powerful militants. Having kicked out the British from most of the island, they then tore apart each other. This ‘judgmental self-righteousness’ mars O’Duffy damningly. Internal opponents sustained Irish-Irelanders’ revenge. Only a return to the native could, it seemed around 1924, save Ireland from the fate of a secularising, decadent, and sinful Anglo-American hegemony. For instance, when training the first Gardaí, O’Duffy required two hours daily for study of Irish, ‘the same amount of time as was allotted for policing duties’. (119) It was difficult, after the heady and brutal exercise of physical-force nationalism for years, for both General and his new policemen to settle down– in the phrase of one Monaghan veteran, ‘every soldier was a little republic of his own’. (77)

McGarry observes, touchingly, the telling detail; at this time, the height of his influence over Irish destinies, he sent out 300 Christmas cards yet holidayed alone. Probably a covert homosexual (McGarry handles this supposition intelligently and objectively), he preached as a Pioneer against tobacco and alcohol yet would eventually drink himself to death on brandy. His early demise could not have been averted by his habit of smoking eighty Sweet Aftons a day. He sneaked self-aggrandizing comments into his diary and his conversation. He could not stop inflating his stature. A handsome, if bombastic and socially awkward man as he appears in snapshots in the early 1920s, ten years later he looked twenty-five years older. This discrepancy between a strutting youthful public figure able to gain respect of soldiers, police, and politicians– and a bloated, sickly pariah who soured into delusion– portrays his premature collapse after tension that he exerted for quarter-century to grip his perch so high within Irish power.

Readers of The Blanket curious about how the republican movement has in the past managed to jump through ideological hoops hoisted by a variety of guest ringmasters will find McGarry’s study of O’Duffy’s evolution from GAA to IRA to Cumann na Gaedhael-republican to (albeit at times more ambiguous than the stereotype of Blueshirts has allowed for) fascist propagandist instructive. The limits of my review do not allow an in-depth analysis. In the second half of this biography, McGarry traces O’Duffy’s track from the mid-1930s into right-wing extremism by careful examinations of the political and military pressures the State was under, as DeValera frantically reined the government from subversion by his bitter Civil War rivals in Fine Gael on the right. He suppressed or co-opted the radical left-wing of his former IRA comrades under sway by communist factions who sought to create a popular front against Fianna Fáil. O’Duffy’s own threat, as represented in the Blueshirts both alongside and then cast out by FG, is exaggerated by historians, McGarry implies. If we remember O’Duffy at all today, it is more as an inspiration for denigrating FG members as ‘Blueshirts’.Yet, given Nazi, Red, anti-British and rabidly Catholic nationalist contingents and their overlapping allegiances, the Free State did recognise in O’Duffy’s attempt to rouse resentment and stir up sedition a potential danger to the stability of an insecure government as FF sought to represent itself as the true heir to the ideals of 1916– and all of those competing rivals, McGarry illustrates, shared Dev’s claim as rebel heirs.

Separatism potentially could, McGarry avers, have benefited the tiny band of Irish fascist subversives more than their more prominent British counterparts. The energy of anti-British sentiment still barely contained beneath Saorstat normalcy served as a reserve fuel that could have ignited a militant uprising if not smothered. Not that the Blueshirts could have led such a putsch. They, as shown in damning first-hand citations by McGarry, lacked the intelligence, the ideological foundation, and the leadership skills that their European fellow-travellers could rally from many more millions eager to lash out as antisemites, anti-communists, and– often– anti-imperialists or even anti-capitalists. The corporatist economic philosophy, it should not be forgotten by those who can recall the ‘Éire Nua’ policy Provisional Sinn Féin once promoted, took much of its idealism from concepts similar to those preached by not only O’Duffy but Connolly, Saor Éire, and the IRA itself– who similar to O’Duffy contended that pre-feudal Celtic communal administration and centralised management of the island’s wealth had predated its continental imitators by many centuries.

A small start to such allotment of resources, in fact, led to dissent. Fianna Fáil proposed to slaughter 200,000 cattle to feed beef to the Depression’s poor. In protest against what they regarded as state seizure of property, farmers and ranchers withheld their rates. Unrest worsened. Civil War antagonism fostered by FG combined with calls for overthrow of the Saorstat by the IRA. Blueshirts were only the most pompous and histrionic of insurgents who berated the FF’s claim to legitimacy. O”Duffy was not alone in furthering anachronistic hatreds that thwarted Dev from carrying out his plans to better life for many of Ireland’s impoverished, and to keep hundreds of thousands from emigrating to Britain. Such judgments may not be popular today, but McGarry’s analyses present a sensible case that neither exaggerates or minimises the damage done by Blueshirts. O’Duffy does emerge as more a symptom than a cause of much pre-WW2 extremism that rumbled as naysayers readied to undermine the Free State.

As this threat eased slightly after O’Duffy’s incompetence led to the rapid dwindling of an already marginalised Blueshirt element, the sudden coup in Spain led to the opportunistic raising of an Irish Brigade ready to defend Catholic Spain. Even Ken Loach’s Land & Freedom film acknowledges ruefully (recall its Irish Loyalist recruit), what scholars contend: the chance that the Irish would have rallied for socialist, anarchist, syndicalist, and/or Red manifestoes as opposed to the calls for defense of the Church by its allied gentry was nil. Choosing between revolutionary and reactionary action, few Irish joined the Loyalists. But not many more sought to aid Franco’s Nationalists. Why so diminished a rank of mossback Irish brigadiers?

McGarry synthesises SCW research to enrich his documentation of dilettante O’Duffy’s ineptitude. He rarely visited his soldiers. Funds were few; the Brigade could only afford to send about eight hundred out of a planned five thousand to Spain. Franco mistrusted martinet O’Duffy. When the Brigade entered their first battle, they– suspected as English-speakers and wearing unfamiliar uniforms– were fired upon and returned fire. Trouble was, they were shooting other Nationalists. This own-goal hastened the Brigade’s demoralisation and dissipation amidst their half-starved squalor and their realisation about how brutal was this internecine war. The Irish were horrified not only by Loyalist savagery against the clergy but rampant slaughter in Ciempozeulos, the town where the Brigade first assembled after its citizens had been massacred by Moorish Loyalists. Abandoned by O’Duffy, this glorious crusade crumbled ignominiously.

He returned to Ireland, after the failure of first the Blueshirts and then the Brigade, to dabble in contacts with the Nazis. More for their anti-British position than their ideology: this is the common wisdom shared by republican apologists. The Abwehr, German intelligence, was so lacking in leads that they went upon arrival in Ireland to O’Duffy, asking where the IRA could be found. O’Duffy, familiar with many Irish malcontents who contended for power, obliged. McGarry does assert that the evidence contradicts O’Duffy’s tendency to sidestep the question of how fascist he and the shadowy Irish organisations with whom he fraternised were. McGarry tips the balance in O’Duffy’s case towards a pro-Nazi–as opposed to merely anti-British– motivation. Nonetheless, O’Duffy– characteristically– often hedged this odious allegiance with claims that the Irish, after all, had started this corporatist system millennia ago, not Aryans or Romans.

As the war went on, after 1942 the Germans had to worry more about the Eastern Front than the fantasies of Irish sympathisers and hangers-on. For all of their anti-British rancour, most Irish supported Hitler’s foes. O’Duffy was discarded. Two years later he had drunk himself to death.

This sordid story, however, holds valuable lessons for students of Irish republicanism. It shows, if inadvertently, how ideologies can be manipulated by a party or faction claiming the mandate to use force to further the people’s alleged will. This danger to Free State stability existed in the 1930s and early 40s on the left and the right, and by FF under Dev as he pursued both the radical and the reactionary subversives who once had fought together with him for independence.

Threatened, Dev lashed out and O’Duffy, in charge of the police, could not sustain what he saw as the Long Fellow’s hypocrisy in claiming the republican mantle. The chief of the Gardaí resigned, McGarry finds, but soon wearied of the convoluted justifications of FF, the atavistic grudges of FG, and sought to reclaim republicanism through populist appeals. Often the 1935 Blueshirts fought the IRA. McGarry recounts half-a-dozen deaths attributable to republican or leftist assaults upon Blueshirts and their purported supporters. Yet, O’Duffy when he was out in the cold also sought, more than once, to ally with his former rivals. He employed nationalism as flexibly as Dev. FF opponents might agree to another common front, O’Duffy reasoned, with more legitimate claims than those of turncoat Dev to continuity with those out in the Rising.

It’s tempting to chortle at the empty rhetoric of O’Duffy and his marchers. But, after reading this book, I recognise how heated rhetoric– not in its substance but its style– has inspired so many before and since who hoist the green banner upon which is prophesised ‘a nation once again’. As have leftists and right-wingers, first FG and then Blueshirts insisted that they spoke for the common man. Often they also alleged to have the right to kill in the name of a stillborn Republic. In retrospect, what those who fought for independence may have shared was fear of the modern. A return to the land, prosperity from its farmers and workers, fluency in its native language and advocacy of its ancient culture: these ideals Dev, Peadar O’Donnell, Eoin O’Duffy and Richard Mulcahy all proclaimed, despite later political and military rivalries. They sowed an essentialist ideology rooted in the indigenous Irish soil, resisting anglicisation, greed, and colonialism. Their obsessions may appear to us xenophobic or ludicrous. Yet, those who pledge fealty to the republican movement today, in whatever manifestation, also inherit this complex legacy.

O’Duffy like his former comrades was a diehard. Most who took up the republican cause, as he had early in its campaign, yearned for tricoloured dawn. It is indicative of McGarry’s control of his investigation that he places O’Duffy within a more familiar Irish situation than we– inured by his caricatured and now but dimly recalled career– might expect to find him. He proposed sport, politics, violence, rabble-rousing, espionage, and ranting idiocy to further, at various periods, the Irish cause. Somewhere, his path crosses yours. O’Duffy cheered what you may have also urged on: perhaps an Irish boxer born in one of six counties but fighting for 32, GAA hurlers, a republican politician, a policeman secretly loyal to the cause, an informer’s execution, or a speaker demanding national security, jobs, and wealth redistribution. In these instances, republicans mirror their own effigy of hate, Blueshirt O’Duffy. His frustrations would repeat in another generation. Unfinished revolution irritated both O’Duffy and his genteel opponents. Nobody in the 26 Counties’ early decades anymore than the Troubles in the 6 could be content.

The longing to unify ‘truncated’ Ireland, as O’Duffy would reveal in 1932 in an unlikely but symbolic setting, shows the contradictions he and his onetime comrades and longtime enemies would agree on, for they were all basically old IRA men. They all languished halfway– or maybe three-quarters– from the Sunburst. Only when republicans had been unified against a common foe could they have agreed. In these fratricidal skirmishes, as McGarry illustrates by O’Duffy’s unsparing combat in Monaghan, O’Duffy resolutely if not always reliably demonstrated, that a cause was easier to fight for and to kill to gain when its external if not internal enemies were easier to mark out and hunt down, once upon a (as yet unmythologised) pre-independence time.

One example will conclude this contentious issue, one that readers of The Blanket also debate. Consider this incident. O’Duffy managed Ireland’s 1932 Olympic team in Los Angeles. He refused to have the team march behind a banner inscribed ‘Irish Free State’. He threatened to withdraw (four athletes and four boxers) since, in the delegation’s phrase as recalled by O’Duffy: ‘it should never be forgotten that without a moment’s hesitation [the team] declared: “We refuse to compete as representatives of a truncated Ireland.” I asked for permission to announce on the loud speakers this unanimous decision to the assembled 100,000 people of Irish descent.’ (qtd. 154) McGarry may have overlooked here– in an example that sums up his subject’s bluster, self-promotion, and grand gestures to thousands massed– one more instance of O’Duffy’s tendency to fudge the facts. The Coliseum where the Games were held can accommodate about a hundred thousand, true. But, could all of those spectators in Los Angeles for the opening ceremony have happened to be (and as unanimously for the tricolour that next waved over the eight Olympians) ‘100,000 people of Irish descent’?

 

 

 


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

 

 

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Index: Current Articles



21 August 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Throwing the Book at Gerry
John Kennedy

The Man With the Planter Name
Liam O Comain

Diplock Delay Equals Justice Denied
Martin Galvin

Kevin Lynch, INLA Volunteer
Ray Collins

1981 Hunger Strike Commemoration in Chicago
Richard Wallace

The Question of Paisley's Legacy
Dr John Coulter

Turf War
John Kennedy

Eoin O’Duffy’s biography by Fearghal McGarry
Seaghán Ó Murchú

The Proclamation to Me
Mick Hall

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 3
Michael Gillespie

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 4
Michael Gillespie

House on Notting Hill
Dr John Coulter

Courage, Muslim Leaders
David Adams

Middle East Conflict Has Abandoned Rules of War
Anthony McIntyre

A Warning From History
John Kennedy

Cartoon Commissar
Anthony McIntyre

The Letters page has been updated.


13 August 2006

Hunger Strike Anniversary
Martin Galvin

"Let the Fight Go On"
Willie Gallagher

Apology Owed
The Family of Volunteer Patsy O'Hara, INLA

Right the Wrong
Harry Boland

It's Who You Talk To
Dr John Coulter

As They Were Made They Were Matched
Liam O Comain

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper
John Kennedy

Criminality Figures Do Not Add Up
David Adams

The Siege of Derry
Anthony McIntyre

Repeat After Me: No Gods, No Masters
Mick Hall

Dual Presidency More Realistic
Nathan Dowds

Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 2
Michael Gillespie

Santa Coming Early
Dr John Coulter

Media Matters
Anthony McIntyre

Light, Freedom & Song: A Cultural History of Modern Irish Writing
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Pass the Gravy
John Kennedy

ILIR is Blowing the Green Card Game for the Irish
Patrick Hurley

From Belfast to the Middle East
Davy Carlin

Manifesto of the Third Camp
Anthony McIntyre

 

 

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