General Eoin O'Duffy:

Ireland's Answer to Mussolini

by Niall Cunningham, The Irish Post, 2nd March 2001

Niall Cunningham looks at how Ireland's Duce-in-waiting, General Eoin O'Duffy, came to embrace fascism.

Glasnevin Cemetery is a 3-D Who's Who of Irish history. Collins, Casement, de Valera and Parnell all rest in the shadow of O'Connell's round tower. The grave of General Eoin O'Duffy is on the edge of that area, dedicated to the country's elite. It is a perfect metaphor for his place in the Irish consciousness. Had O'Duffy not met Mussolini in 1929 he would probably be further up the hill, still rubbing shoulders with his former comrade, Michael Collins. As things turned out, he chose to embrace fascism and to embark upon a quest to become Ireland's 'Green Duce'. This is the story of the Blueshirt leader who challenged Éamon de Valera's grip on Ireland in the 1930s.

In 1917 O'Duffy joined the IRA and began a remarkable rise to prominence. By the time of the 1921 truce he had served two jail terms, had a British bounty of £1,000 on his head and, as the IRA's Director of Organisation, was effectively the right-hand-man of Michael Collins. When the Free State split over the treaty and the Civil War began in June 1922, O'Duffy was on the winning side. But, despite representing his native Co. Monaghan as a pro-treaty TD in 1921-22, his threat to "use the lead" to coerce unionists into a united Ireland showed that constitutional politics were not for him.

However, his career continued to blossom. By mid-1924 he was in charge of both the Free State army and the new Garda Siochana. All of this by the age of 32 and the youngest General in Europe to boot. He was a popular choice as head of the police, having a great rapport with rank-and-file officers. In his 1927 Christmas message he told them: "You will remain steadfast and devoted in the service of the people and of any government which it may please the people to return to power."

Something radical must have happened to change his views because, when the pro-treaty Cumann na nGaedheal (Fine Gael from 1933) party finally had to yield power to de Valera's anti-treaty Fianna Fáil in 1932, O'Duffy had already considered the possibility of staging a coup. Little wonder then that Dev doubted his impartiality and sacked him as police chief in February 1933. In July 1933 he assumed control of the Free State army veterans' body and relaunched it as the National Guard. He immediately introduced the blue uniform, echoing Hitler's SA and Mosley's Blackshirts. However, O'Duffy denied the organisation was fascist and said anything they "may have borrowed from abroad was incidental and subsidiary". While he said they were not anti-Semitic, non-Christians were not invited to apply.

O'Duffy was hungry for power. In August 1933 he played his hand. He announced a march past Glasnevin Cemetery and on to the Dáil, nominally to commemorate the martyrs of the pro-treaty cause (Collins, Griffith and O'Higgins), but in government there was a real fear he might try and stage a coup by emulating Mussolini's 1922 'March on Rome'. De Valera moved quickly to snuff out the possibility of insurrection by banning both the march and the Blueshirts outright. O'Duffy backed down.

O'Duffy's views were not representative of those of most Blueshirts. I spoke to a veteran from Co. Clare who stressed that the Blueshirts were not fascist, their role being to defend democracy. "Back then the IRA had a slogan: 'No freedom of speech for traitors'. "Whenever a Fine Gaeler addressed a meeting, the chances were the IRA would stone them out of it. We had to do something. We only wore the blue shirts so we wouldn't be beating the heads off our own if things got a bit lively."

Things did get lively. The death of Cork Blueshirt Michael Lynch during a riot proved events had got out of hand. O'Duffy was also coming into greater conflict with his Fine Gael colleagues, who had elected him party chairman the previous year. To have a leader who suggested that they "break the skulls" of political opponents was simply no longer tenable in a party which prized law and order. When Professor James Hogan, a respected party figure, resigned in protest at the General's increasingly hysterical language, O'Duffy himself quit in a fit of pique. For the first time in his career the General was in the wilderness.

It was Cardinal Joseph MacRory who released O'Duffy from political purgatory in late 1936 by suggesting the General raise a force to aid the nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. O'Duffy jumped at the chance, and his Irish Brigade departed that autumn. But the 'Crusade in Spain' became an unmitigated disaster that would ultimately cost the General his reputation. After a couple of months training, the Irish Brigade moved to the front at Ciempozuelos in early 1937. The farce began about a mile outside the town when a Francoist force from the Canaries took the Brigade for 'Reds' and opened fire killing two Irishmen. When they reached the front their biggest enemies were the water, the twin issues of diarrhoea and a lack of underwear, and frustration. Frustration due to a lack of engagement on a relatively quiet part of the line led to division.

Meanwhile, O'Duffy did not help matters by spending his time getting drunk miles behind the line. Franco's patience eventually broke and the Brigade was disbanded in July 1937. Three months later a former devotee, Captain Thomas Gunning, lambasted the General in a letter, which showed just how divided the Irish were. He wrote of O'Duffy: "I did a poor day's work for both Spain and Ireland when I helped that insane, uncultured lout to put his flat and smelly feet across the frontier last October."

Despite failing health the General took an active interest in the fortunes of fascism during the Emergency, even acting as an intermediary between the Nazis and the IRA. However, as the likelihood of a German victory grew less likely, so O'Duffy came to dwell more on an alternative reality. His 1942 offer to Hitler to raise a 'Green Legion' to fight on the Russian front was symptomatic of that. Would the siege of Stalingrad have lasted so long had Marshal Paulus also had to endure the drinking habits and digestive sensibilities of 700 Blueshirts?

O'Duffy's state funeral in December 1944 was an attempt to embrace a memory the Irish public has had more difficulty in appreciating. O'Duffy wanted to be Ireland's Mussolini. Had he succeeded it is likely that he too would have ended up swinging from a lamppost dripping blood and spit. As it was, he passed away peacefully in a plush nursing home in Ballsbridge, Dublin