History article from Anti-Fascist Action's Fighting Talk magazine, issue 8 (1994)
The Blueshirts, Ireland's home grown variant of Fascism developed in Ireland during the 1920's and 30's. The bitterness created by the betrayal of the principles of Republicanism in 1920 led to the Civil War during which the Bourgeois forces allied themselves with the defeated British to ensure the dominance of anti-republican and anti-socialist forces in the emerging neo-colonial Irish state.
During the 1920's the Cumann Na nGael party, which had won the Civil War, were in power for ten years. In government they implemented draconian anti-working class and anti-republican policies. The reality of life in the Irish Free State was one of grinding poverty, slum housing and emigration. The world economic crisis of the 1930's was an important aspect of the rise of Fascism throughout Europe and this was also the case in Ireland.
Opposition to Cumann Na nGael came from the diverse forces of the Republicans divided on the question of policy and tactics after their defeat in the Civil War. The main Republican grouping was centred around Eamonn de Valera who set up a constitutional Republican party, Fianna Fail, to challenge Cumann Na nGael for power in parliamentary elections. It gained significant support between 1927 and 1932 when it defeated Cumann Na nGael in the general election.
The left wing of the IRA, grouped around leaders such as Frank Ryan and George Gilmore, argued that the Republican movement should adopt a more radical stance on social issues to win the support of the working class and small farmers away from Fianna Fail. Ryan and his supporters were routinely denounced as communists.
The run up to the 1932 election was marked by increasing repression of Republican and Socialist groups with the indiscriminate banning of progressive political organisations and the regular imprisonment of their leaders. The General Election campaign itself was characterised by the Chief of Police, Eoin O'Duffy, touring Bishop's palaces with Special Branch files which, he claimed, proved the rapid spread of communism in Ireland. The Bishops obliged by issuing pastoral letters denouncing this non-existent threat.
Despite this clamp-down on dissent, Cumann Na nGael still failed to win the election and this defeat marked a serious setback for Irish conservatism and was the backdrop to the rise of the Blueshirts. Having been defeated in the democratic field they turned to extra-parliamentary means to regain power. Cumann Na nGael launched a reactionary campaign to portray Fianna Fail as an extreme organisation supported by communists, republicans and atheists.
“While we have fists and hands and boots to use and guns, if necessary, we will not allow free speech to Traitors.” (Frank Ryan)
The Blueshirts had been set up in the spring of 1931 under the name of the Army Comrades Association comprising ex members of the Free State army. Their first leader was Dr. T F O'Higgins. In late 1931 the ACA claimed a membership of 100,000, adopted the uniform of a blue shirt and changed its name to the National Guard.
A new leader, Eoin O'Duffy, was appointed in 1933 after he had been sacked from his post as Police Commissioner. O'Duffy had been prominent in the Free State army during the Civil War and had been responsible for the murder of eight Republicans by tying them together over a landmine in Kerry. The Blueshirts used the handy label of "anti-communism" as a cloak for their fascist activities. This excuse was used to justify the breaking up of republican and socialist meetings. James Hogan claimed that:
"It was the growing menace of the Communist IRA that called forth the Blueshirts as Communist Anarchy called forth the Blackshirts in Italy".
The movement went through many name changes over a period of five years but were generally known as “The Blueshirts". The organisation confined its membership to those of the Christian faith. The policy of the Blueshirt movement included the demand for the creation of an Irish Corporate state.
While O'Duffy and other military figures were the public face of the movement its ideologues included ex-government ministers and college professors. One of these was Prof. James Hogan who wrote a paranoid tract entitled "Could Ireland Become Communist?". The famous poet WB Yeats composed a marching song for the Blueshirts. The Blueshirt newspaper commenced publication from August 1933. Blueshirt propaganda was racist - and anti-semitic, as in this extract from their journal:
"The founders of Communism were practically all Jews. This can scarcely be a mere coincidence. It may appear singular that Marx, Engels, Lasalle and Ricardo were all Jews".
Blueshirt publications also proposed that the leader should be greeted in the Nazi style, suggesting the ludicrous "Hail O'Duffy".
In February 1934 John A Costello, a leading Cumann Na nGael member declared in the Dail:
“The Blackshirts have been victorious in Italy and Hitler's Brownshirts have been victorious in Germany, as assuredly the Blueshirts will be victorious in Ireland".
O'Duffy had contacts with European fascist groups. In December 1934 he attended an International Fascist Conference in Switzerland which included representatives of far-right groups in 13 European states.
At this stage Fascism was firmly established in Italy and Salazar had come to power in Portugal. Germany had embarked on the Nazi nightmare. The far right had made strong headway also in Eastern Europe and the Franco coup d'etat in Spain was only two years away. To themselves and to others the Blueshirts seemed to be on the crest of a wave that would sweep fascist regimes into power throughout Europe.
Although the Blueshirts had, to a large degree, grown out of a specifically Irish situation they shared a lot of the features with fascist movements abroad. These included anti-Semitism, anti-communism, hatred of democracy, indoctrination of children in youth wings, the uniform of a shirt (the blue came from the traditional colour of St. Patrick), the ideology of the corporate state, violent attacks on opponents - and stupidity.
The main force of the Blueshirts was drawn from the conservative class of big farmers but the organisation also mobilised lowlife elements of the working class, particularly in Dublin, as a street mob to attack "communist" meetings. This group of thugs were known as the "Animal Gang".
O'Duffy proposed a huge march of Blueshirts in Dublin in August 1933 to commemorate the deaths of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, two Free State leaders. It was not difficult to discover O'Duffy's motivation for this suggestion. He was attempting to recreate, in an Irish setting, Mussolini's March on Rome.
De Valera invoked a Public Safety Act to ban the march. Huge contingents of police were drafted into Dublin to enforce the order. Armed IRA volunteers, unsanctioned by their leadership, were prepared to physically stop the Blueshirts from marching. O'Duffy drew back from the confrontation and cancelled the parade. From this period on the Blueshirts went into terminal decline. This was partly because O'Duffy had failed to live up to his rhetoric but also because the promised Communist takeover did not emerge.
On the political front the politicians who were sympathetic towards, or openly supportive of the Blueshirts realised that there was not going to be a fascist coup d'etat in Ireland and that they would have to revert to parliamentary tactics to regain power. The Cumann Na nGael party amalgamated with the Blueshirts and a number of smaller groups to form the Fine Gael (United Ireland) party in 1933. O'Duffy was its first president but became an embarrassment to the organisation and was soon ousted to make way for more moderate leadership.
The youth wing of Fine Gael, the "Young Ireland Association" continued the militaristic tradition of the Blueshirts. This faction was banned in December 1933 and reappeared as the "League of Youth".
The Blueshirts did not lose faith in the idea of a coup d'etat although they were always on the decline after O'Duffy's failure to confront the ban on the Dublin march. This has been portrayed by liberal historians as being the result of the failure of the Blueshirts to win power in the political sphere. The strong working class and left opposition to fascism in Ireland is pointed out by Michael O'Riordan in his book "Connolly Column":
“The fascist threat was not demolished by the De Valera government. This was done by a powerful anti-blueshirt movement that developed in the streets and in the countryside. A fighting united front met them everywhere This front drove them off the streets after many violent encounters."
The anti-fascist united front was composed of Republicans, Trade Unionists, Communists and small farmers. It was led by Frank Ryan, Tom Barry, Peadar O'Donnell, Sean Murray and George Gilmore. O'Donnell and Ryan issued a call for a united front to fight fascism and imperialism:
“The dangers that face this and every other country from Capitalism, Fascism, International War and Imperialism are too real and too serious for us to remain parties to artificial divisions within working class ranks. We call for a truce among all who stand for an Irish Workers Republic and a united front against the common enemy".
The Labour party refused to participate in the united front. The official Trade Union movement passed policy against fascism but did little to implement it. "An Phoblact", edited by Frank Ryan, condemned the failure of the trade unions and called for mass mobilisation of the working class to defeat the Blueshirts.
The leadership of the mainstream of the IRA discouraged the involvement of volunteers in the struggle against fascism. It denounced street battles against fascism as "aggravated faction fights" and boasted that only six of several hundred anti-fascist prisoners were IRA men. The Army Council argued that the campaign against the Blueshirts was hysteria whipped up by the Fianna Fail "Irish Press". The right wing of the IRA saw the main fight not as the advancement of the working class or the defeat of fascism but instead hoped for the re-commencement of the Civil War.
In 1933 a mob incited by catholic reactionaries attacked and burned Connolly House, the headquarters of the Irish Revolutionary Workers and Small Farmers Groups. Members of the IRA who were present defended the building but were disciplined by the organisation for doing so.
The organisation of the battle against the Blueshirts was carried out by the left wing rank and file of the IRA, the tiny Communist Party of Ireland and a number of radical trade unionists. Urban workers and rural small farmers were mobilised to physically break up Blueshirt meetings and rallies throughout the country. The police and the army were used to break up anti-fascist protests and on many occasions the demonstrators had to face bullets, baton charges and bayonets as well as the Blueshirts themselves.
The full force of the Public Safety Act was invoked against anti-fascists and more of these were jailed than were Blueshirts. In his book 'The Irish Republican Congress" George Gilmore reports on a fascist meeting in Co. Mayo:
"Blueshirts were driven in military lorries to a rally in Swinford to be addressed by O'Duffy....many of them were escorted home without any shirts".
In another incident in Tralee, Co. Kerry:
"O'Duffy was struck on the head with a hammer on his way to address a meeting and over 100 Fine Gael supporters were besieged in a hall by a stone throwing crowd outside. O'Duffy's car was burnt and he had to have a Garda escort as far as the county border. An unexploded bomb was found at the rear of the hall the following day".
The Republican Congress was founded in 1934 to organise a broad front campaign against fascism, imperialism and British occupation on the basis of the mobilisation of the progressive elements of the Irish people towards the establishment of the Worker's Republic. The Republican Congress received its greatest publicity and historical recognition as a fighting anti-fascist group.
After the defeat of the Blueshirts, Fianna Fail brought the full force of repressive legislation down on the IRA and the Republican Congress, banning both organisations in 1936.
In 1936 O'Duffy resurrected the Blueshirts into a 700 strong Irish Brigade to fight for Franco in Spain. O'Duffy had the open backing of the Catholic church in this venture as evidenced by the statement of the Dean of Cashel:
“The Irish Brigade have gone to fight the battle of Christianity against Communism. There are tremendous difficulties facing the men under O'Duffy and only heroes can fight such a battle".
The media was strongly pro-Franco. The Irish Independent declared:
"All who stand for the ancient traditions of Spain are behind the present revolt against the Marxist regime in Madrid".
There had been strong links between Irish Republicans and the Basque people of Euskadi who were strongly anti-fascist. The Basque priest Fr. Ramon La Borda spoke at meetings in Ireland refuting the pro-Franco propaganda of the Catholic Church. The suppression of the Basque and Catalan nations, the murder of workers and the destruction of democracy in Spain was not only condoned but actively supported by the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The Blueshirt organisation ended soon after their farcical intervention in the Spanish Civil War. O'Duffy's group joined the Tercio, Franco's Foreign Legion. In their first military engagement they shot at their own side. There were regular threats of mutiny among the Blueshirt Brigade and on one occasion O'Duffy had to review his army without guns for fear that they would shoot him. O'Duffy wrote a highly amusing account of the Spanish fiasco under the title "Crusade In Spain".
The demoralised Blueshirts voted to return home after only a few months of the fight for Christianity. Brendan Behan quipped that they were the only army in history to return from war with more soldiers than they left with. Despite their pathetic performance the returning "heroes" received a civic reception in Dublin. After his disastrous intervention in the Spanish Civil War O’Duffy offered to recruit Irish volunteers to fight for Hitler in Europe but the Nazis showed no interest in his suggestion.
The Republican Congress activists of the anti-fascist struggle in Ireland supported the Spanish Republic during the Civil War. 300 volunteers, under the command of Frank Ryan, went to fight in the 15th International Brigade. 59 of the best socialists and republicans in Ireland gave their lives fighting for democracy and freedom in Spain.