Eoin O'Duffy - A Cautionary Tale

Eoin O'Duffy - A Self-Made Hero

by Fearghal McGarry, Oxford University Press, 2005, €35/£25

Review in Irish Political Review, May 2006

Fearghal McGarry first made his mark as a historian with Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (1999), described by me as "the definitive textbook on the subject" in the Fall 2003 issue of Irish Literary Supplement. This was in the context of a review of his second book, Frank Ryan (2002), a biography criticised as both disappointing and sensationalist, with little evidence of the depth of research and analysis required to do justice to its subject. The hope was nonetheless expressed that the author's future work would demonstrate a return to the "high standards of scholarship, balanced presentation and conscientious evaluation" that he had previously shown.

How then does McGarry's third book, a biography of the Irish fascist leader Eoin O'Duffy, measure up to such hopes? The author states that he has attempted to explain rather than condemn such a life, but that he has uncovered little to warrant revision of previous negative assessments of O'Duffy. But this is not for the want of trying. In contrast with his previous biography, this work is meticulously researched. It is the story of a one-time avowed champion of democracy who had fought to vindicate the will of the Irish people in the 1918 election, being transformed into a convinced fascist who sought to crush the will of the Spanish people after their 1936 election; of a highly disciplined and impressive military leader who had led by selfless example during the War of Independence, becoming the high-living commander who selfishly abandoned his own troops during the Spanish Civil War.

McGarry begins by portraying the younger O'Duffy's devotion to duty through tireless work on behalf of the Gaelic Athletic Association. His leadership qualities would subsequently come to the fore as IRA leader in his native County Monaghan during the War of Independence. In contrast with much latter-day writing of Irish history, it is to the author's credit that he begins by clarifying the essential character of that war: "Established by democratic means, the Republic would be defended by violence". And when O'Duffy personally led the attack on Ballytrain RIC barracks in February 1920 he took the opportunity to give the police the following lesson in democracy: "At the general election the people had voted for freedom. The police were acting against the will of the Irish people. He appealed to them to leave the force and join their brother Irishmen."

A year later, in January 1921, there was a sharp escalation in the Monaghan war. McGarry conscientiously chronicles the complexity of such a war in an Ulster border county that not only had a 25 percent Unionist minority, but also a sullen hardcore of defeated Redmondites, which ensured that local hostility to the Republic amounted to as much as a third of the population. The minority was furthermore a very powerful one, in terms of property, influence and guns. McGarry describes the town of Clones as "a Protestant stronghold", while there were as many as 1,800 UVF members throughout Monaghan county as a whole.

In such a frontier society it was inevitable that there would be an inter-ethnic aspect to the conflict. McGarry, however, does himself an injustice by comparing his own detailed narrative of the war in Monaghan with Peter Hart's earlier approach to Cork in The IRA and the Enemies (1998), although he does acknowledge that other historians have questioned the accuracy of Hart's research. But it should also be pointed out that Cork was no border territory. The minority of Cork Loyalists who supported Britain's war against the Republic were against self-government for any part of Ireland. In contrast, the two Ulster communities involved in a conflict of nationalities in County Monaghan can be viewed, at least in retrospect, as having been engaged in creating their own de facto Boundary Commission, through a struggle to determine on which side of a future border they would lie. That this was essentially a conflict between two national allegiances rather than a religious war was underscored by O'Duffy's willingness to embrace an Ulster Protestant like Ernest Blythe who had crossed over from his own community in order to give his allegiance to the Irish independence struggle.

It was, of course, a conflict that could very easily have degenerated into something far more ugly. McGarry writes that "Republican violence in Monaghan was inevitably more sectarian than much of the rest of the country", but he also gives credit to O'Duffy for "the relative restraint demonstrated by the IRA during this period." In terms of the ruthless pursuit of informers, the author recognises that "order could not be maintained without discipline." He concedes that notwithstanding the high proportion of Protestant targets, "few, if any, people were shot solely because of their religion." And where he does speak of "questionable murders", it is to his credit as a historian that he presents the pros and cons of each individual case surveyed, allowing the reader to come to different conclusions than his own. For this reviewer there is just one such killing that remains questionable as to whether the motivation might have been less a suspicion of informing and more a desire to eliminate a vociferous political opponent who had disrupted a local authority vote of sympathy on the death of Cork Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney. However, that particular victim had not been some Unionist opponent but rather a Redmondite Hibernian one; not at all a Protestant Orangeman but a Catholic "Molly Maguire".

Eoin O'Duffy emerged from the War of Independence with a well-deserved reputation that his Civil War opponent Ernie O'Malley described as "energetic and commanding". How then, in the years before his death in 1944, did O'Duffy end up being described in intelligence reports as the "representative of the Axis powers in Ireland" and a "potential Quisling, suffering from acute alcoholic poisoning"? McGarry retells the story of O'Duffy's disastrous 1937 intervention on behalf of the fascist side in Spain that "cost Franco a small fortune - and killed more of his own soldiers than the enemy." He presents some new research in this area, notably O'Duffy's recently found diary of that escapade, and he quotes the description of O'Duffy as an "Operetta General" penned by one of Franco's own generals. McGarry concludes that Spain destroyed O'Duffy's reputation as a man of action, as previously "the General's reputation as a politician had been destroyed by his leadership of Fine Gael." But how had this degeneration come about?

McGarry devotes a lot of attention to O'Duffy's position as a protégé of IRB President Michael Collins, who would eventually promote him to Treasurer of that body's Supreme Council. While the IRA itself was a democratically structured organisation, the continued existence within its ranks of a secret society like the IRB was to have a profoundly destabilising effect, both North and South. Collins hailed O'Duffy as "the coming man", proceeding in July 1921 to pull off a stunt behind the back of Minister for Defence Cathal Brugha by unilaterally making O'Duffy Deputy Chief of Staff of the IRA for the post-Truce period. Collins brought O'Duffy with him to London for the start of the Treaty negotiations and it was O'Duffy who would obtain the artillery from Britain's General Macready in order to commence the Civil War in July 1922.

Meanwhile the IRB leadership was the behind-the-scenes manipulator of another little war. In the summer of 1921 O'Duffy had already explicitly criticised deValera for suggesting that counties with a Unionist majority should be allowed to opt out of a unified Ireland if Britain would agree to a Republic for the rest of the country. With Collins by his side, O'Duffy delivered an inflammatory speech in Armagh in September 1921 in which he threatened the majority of people in Belfast that, if they were not going to accept being part of the Irish nation, "they would have to use the lead against them." Such bombast only had the effect of intensifying the horrific Orange pogroms against that city's Catholic minority, just as in the post-Treaty month of March 1922 the murder of the McMahon family followed a Collins/O'Duffy military offensive in West Ulster. Without the knowledge of the Free State cabinet, O'Duffy and Collins were to be responsible for yet another failed Northern offensive during the month of May that ended in further disaster for Northern Ireland's Catholic minority. O'Duffy had indeed subdued the Unionist minority in his native Monaghan, but to ham-fistedly dream of similarly taking on the Unionist majority in Antrim and Down was quite a different proposition.

During the course of the Civil War, as well as in his capacity as Commissioner of the Garda Síochána for the first decade of its existence, O'Duffy continued to employ the rhetoric of democracy in his public utterances. McGarry, however, also highlights O'Duffy's cultivation of a highly orchestrated personality cult on his own behalf, at the same time as the Commissioner's private reports to Cabinet were complaining that "the Irish public is rotten." The General even began to alarm his own ruthless Minister for Home Affairs Kevin O'Higgins who, in the months prior to his 1927 assassination, had been on the point of sacking O'Duffy.

Knowing the threat that O'Duffy had come to pose to their own regime makes the Cumann na nGaedheal leadership all the more culpable in their attempt to bring down the Fianna Fáil Government in 1933 with a strategy of installing Blueshirt leader O'Duffy as the first President of Fine Gael. McGarry provides chapter and verse to demonstrate just how thoroughly fascist-minded and anti-democratic O'Duffy's own personal philosophy had become at this stage. And while quibbling with a statement of my own in a 1984 study - that anti-semitism had also come to form an integral feature of O'Duffy's personal ideology - he nonetheless provides year-by-year examples of such anti-semitism that actually confirm my conclusions. But McGarry does not always get his facts right. When he quotes Seán MacEntee's accusation that one particular Blueshirt had personally murdered a Dublin Jew, he states in a footnote that this had occurred during the Civil War. It had not. It had occurred six months after the conclusion of that particular conflict, in November 1923, and the subsequent escape to America of the army officer charged with that murder had been facilitated by both Garda and Free State Army authorities.

The very last words of McGarry's narrative sum up O'Duffy's biography as "a cautionary tale". What makes it all the more so is the author's determination to demonstrate that O'Duffy was not just some solitary freakish individual. He highlights how the Cumann na nGaedheal leadership's own virulent propaganda had already begun to publicly question the legitimacy of the Fianna Fáil Government's election victories of 1932 and 1933, before they ever came a-courting O'Duffy to become the leader of their blueshirted second coming. But McGarry also says a lot more. In the first history of that movement, The Blueshirts (1970), Maurice Manning of Fine Gael had expressed some disquiet at one or two of Ernest Blythe's 1933 utterances. Blythe's importance as an ideologist of the corporate state was more specifically highlighted by Mike Cronin in The Blueshirts and Irish Politics (1997). McGarry, however, takes research in this area very much further by providing a systematic narrative of the highly racialist and violently anti-democratic hate-propaganda penned by Blythe throughout the course of 1933 and 1934.

O'Duffy's own personal pietism has sometimes led to a far too simplistic classification of Blueshirt fascism as being little more than an excess of Catholic zeal. Blythe, of course, also knew how to opportunistically play the Papal encyclical card, but he himself never ceased to be an Ulster Protestant. Blythe's fascism was profoundly political and was in many ways much more alarming than that of O'Duffy, because it was all the more coherently thought out. McGarry notes that Blythe's fascism continued unabated throughout the war years and that Irish military intelligence also viewed him as another potential Quisling. Blythe surely merits a biography in his own right. Having produced such a comprehensive biography of O'Duffy, one hopes that Fearghal McGarry might be motivated to do just that.

Manus O'Riordan