A Dictator of dressing up

Eoin O'Duffy: A Self-Made Hero

Fearghal McGarry, Oxford University Press, (36.99)

Reviewed by Dermot Bolger The Sunday Independent, November 27, 2005

OCCASIONALLY, future generations are inclined to take major historical figures and rather unfairly turn then into cartoon caricatures - like the way in which Eamon de Valera became a figure of fun on Eighties television shows such as Nighthawks. However, there are other historical figures whom it is impossible to parody, because they had turned themselves into figures of fun in their own lifetimes.

The Irish fascist leader Eoin O'Duffy at one stage regarded himself as "the third greatest man in Europe". But the guards in his native Monaghan, when asked to observe his wartime activities, cut him cut down to size, noting that whenever he appeared in Monaghan "he'd knock you down for a bottle of brandy . . . [he] had no interest in life but to get hold of brandy."

This wasn't quite true. By then his other grandiose schemes included using sport to rescue the nation's youth from moral depravity, campaigning for the imprisonment of bicycle thieves and requesting that the Nazis fly him to Berlin to discuss organising a 'Green Division' to fight communism on the Russian front.

Germany actually offered some encouragement, but only so that they could use the propaganda fact of some Irishmen being willing to fight alongside the SS. O 'Duffy's fiasco in the Spanish Civil War would have made any Axis power wary of Irish Trojan horses bearing Greeks and, besides, O'Duffy was unlikely to find too many naive young Irishmen willing to follow him twice.

In this first (and excellent) biography of O'Duffy, Fearghal McGarry concludes (on not altogether substantiated grounds) that O'Duffy was a homosexual. The tragedy in some respects was that he was not a transvestite, because if he had found some such mechanism to dress up in colourful clothes, he might have saved Ireland much conflict and division.

Because essentially O'Duffy loved dressing up and preening. The diary of his Spanish escapade is crammed with details of parades, presentations and being feted by grandees of Spain and princes of the church, while his men (one fleeing a bigamous marriage and another hoping that the warm climate would cure his TB) introduced Spanish society to such previously taboo sights as public drunkenness.

Franco's filing cabinet filled up with letters from zealous Irish volunteers bitterly condemning other zealous Irish volunteers, while O'Duffy caused scandal with his lavish lifestyle well away from the front where his Irish volunteers were freezing in poorly constructed trenches.

When O'Duffy reluctantly allowed himself to be summoned to the front to lead his brigade's first military test (to take a village on the opposite side of the Jarama River), he ordered his men to stand-to after their first attack was repelled with the loss of just three men - and requested permission from his startled superior to have their orders set aside. If the case is unproven that his volunteers (many of them honest and sincere) were cowards, Franco quickly realised that O'Duffy was one. After that it was a case of working out some formula to allow him to return home with his head held high and his tail between his legs.

To Fearghal McGarry's great credit, however, he takes such a delusional, self-regarding 'hero' and treats his career with great seriousness, from being an iron defender of the Free State as first Commissioner of the Garda Siochana (where he proved a tireless - if paranoid, domineering and pompous - administrator) to briefly becoming the greatest threat to Irish democracy with his planned march on Dublin by his fledgling Blueshirts.

In between, and leading to his dismissal as Commissioner, were his plans for military coups and increasing attempts to politicise the police force. If the founders of this State were the most conservative revolutionaries in history, then O'Duffy was the most conservative even of them. McGarry follows his career through three stages: chief of staff of the IRA and Sinn Fein deputy; chief of police and briefly head of the State's second biggest party; and finally, lonely alcoholic and failure.

What is interesting is his fixed purpose, how the same ideals and contradictions drove him all of his life. The crusading advocate of teetotalism, who could not stop drinking; the likely homosexual obsessed with public morality and the purity of youth.

Fine Gael rarely mention this black sheep who thankfully never managed to be a meaningful public figure after 1934. However, had the war in Europe gone differently, he might have been Ireland's Vidkun Quisling, presiding over a puppet regime with the help of his old arch-enemy Frank Ryan, who, although far braver in the battlefields of Spain, shared an equal contempt for the conventions of liberal democracy.