WHO & WHAT WERE THE IRISH BLUESHIRTS?
Updated: Sep 7
Figure 1: Blueshirt & belt sold for €1,400 at auction in 2015.
Fascists? The last breath of the Civil War? Comrades in arm against Fianna Fáil and Éamon de Valera? In reality, the Irish Blueshirt movement was multifaceted; it meant different things to different members.
Interwar Europe was a hive of political activity with a number of shirted movements. Le Faisceau (Blueshirts), an anti-semitic party was created in France in 1925. Camsas Azuis; the Brownshirts were found in Portugal and in Britain, a fascist group led by Oswald Mosley were formed; the Blackshirts. Of course, the most well remembered shirted movements were those formed by Mussolini and Hitler, in Italy and Germany respectively. Even in Ireland in 1929, Éamon de Valera declared that ‘Fianna Fáil could be for Ireland what Fascismo was for Italy’ during a speech in Longford.
Whilst the right-wing Blueshirt movement might be familiar to many people, the left-wing Saor Eire, formed in the early part of the 1930s may not be so well-known. According to William T. Cosgrave, ‘a new element of danger has been added to our existing perils. The I.R.A. has accepted as its ally the new organisation known as "Saor Eire" an organisation for setting up in this country a State on the lines of the Russian Soviet Republic.’
Figure 2: Saor Eile Manifesto.
Blueshirts - the beginning
Prior to the 1932 General Election, former soldiers of the Irish Free State Army formed the Army Comrades Association (ACA) with the aim of promoting the welfare of its members. The results of the election led to a Fianna Fáil and Labour coalition with Éamon de Valera at the helm as President of the Executive Council. De Valera called a snap election in January 1933 following the formation of a new opposition political party, the National Centre Party. The ACA provided stewards at Cumann na nGaedheal (political party, a precursor to Fine Gael) and clashes regularly broke out between the ACA and Irish Republican Army (IRA), particularly in the lead up to the 1933 election. On 24 January, the General Election was held, and excluding the Ceann Comhairle (speaker), Fianna Fáil won exactly half the seats and formed a government with support from the Labour Party, eventually winning enough by-elections to govern with solely as the majority party.
In March 1933, the ACA members began to wear blueshirts, the motivation being to distinguish the group from other organisations in the event of violence. The colour blue was chosen by Ernest Blythe, specifically because it was Saint Patrick’s blue and the philosophy behind the choice was to rekindle the Irish nationalistic spirit. Four months later, Eoin O’Duffy, the former Garda Commissioner, sacked by de Valera, took charge. He renamed the organisation, the National Guard and it became better known as the Blueshirts.
Figure 3: Eoin O'Duffy, Leader of the Irish Blueshirts.
Several principles embraced by the Irish Blueshirts ensured that the organisation became associated with fascism. In addition to the uniform, members greeted their comrades by raising their arms above the head and indeed they addressed their leader by saying ‘Hoch O’Duffy’. Whilst certain parallels existed between the Irish Blueshirts and its European counterparts, in the main the Irish organisation supported democracy and did not engage in extreme violence. The leadership of the Blueshirts may have possessed fascist tendencies yet the strongest support for the organisation came from farmers whose income had fallen during the Economic War. In addition is must be remembered that ‘shirt movements were not necessarily fascist.’
Figure 4 :Irish Blueshirt salute 'Hoch O'Duffy'.
The battleground in 1930s Ireland was the economic war with Britain and the contentious issue of annuities payable by the farming community to the de Valera government. The annuities debacle stemmed from the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. In 1926, the Government of the Irish Free State, Cumann na nGaedheal, undertook ‘to pay to the British Government at agreed intervals the full amount of the annuities accruing due from time to time under the Irish Land Acts, 1891-1909’. However, in 1932, when Fianna Fáil came to power, one of the new government's first acts was to suspend the payment of land annuities to Britain. Britain retaliated by putting high taxes on Irish cattle and dairy goods. The Irish government then put high taxes on British coal.
In Ireland, tension was mounting and matters came to a head in August 1933 when Eoin O’Duffy announced a Blueshirt march in Dublin to commemorate Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and Kevin O’Higgins. Exercising his power, de Valera banned the march and used the Garda to enforce order.
Figure 5: 1933 'De Valera Outlaws Blueshirts', billboard poster.
However, this move only antagonised O’Duffy and the Blueshirts as the same rules were not extended to the IRA. De Valera’s actions incited cause for concern that he was about to establish a dictatorship. One must remember that political hostilities were rife during this period. A month later, Cumann na nGaedheal, the Centre Party and the Blueshirts converged forming a new party; Fine Gael, with O’Duffy elected as its first leader.
The formation of this new party certainly changed the road the Blueshirts were following and whilst the organisation continued, the strongest motivation for joining the Blueshirts was the economic situation in Ireland. In fact, fifteen members were asked why they joined the organisation, and the economic war was the main motivator for enlisting.
Figure 6: Motivating reasons for joining the Irish Blueshirts.
O’Duffy encouraged farmers to refuse to pay land annuities to the Government. This lead to a conflict, whereby the Gardai seized animals and farm equipment and auctioned them to recover monies due. Matters came to a crescendo in 1934 with a serious of anti-establishment outrages being attributed to the Blueshirts. These ranged from petty violence, such as breaking windows, to more serious offences including assault and shootings.
It must be remembered that less than one hundred years ago, politics and life in general was akin to a house of cards, and the earth permeated with paranoia. For all the hysteria that existed around communism, the radical left was numerically insignificant and lacked influence in Irish political life or broader society. For those on the right of politics however, this was an irrelevant. The Blue Flag, a newspaper affiliated to the Blueshirt movement, warned that ‘the organised Communist Party in Ireland is numerically weak, though no weaker than the Communist Party in Russia a year before it became the Government of Russia.’
Eoin O’Duffy became more and more entrenched in fascism and in September 1935 he resigned as leader of Fine Gael. The Blueshirts began to decline meaning that by the end of 1935, the organisation was a spent force. However O'Duffy was not about to let the movement die. He launched a fascist political party inspired by Italy's Mussolini, the National Corporate Party, and in 1936 he organised an Irish Brigade to fight for Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Aftermath and Conclusion
Lasting barely three years, the Blueshirt era in Irish history was brief but material. The organisation was intense and frenetic and it left a bitter legacy with many unanswered questions. Were the Blueshirts the last embers of political animosity still present since the end of the Civil War? Was the an organisation a fad taking inspiration from 1930s Europe which was a boiling pot of political activity? Was it both?
The Irish Blueshirts differed from their European counterparts in terms of the extremes of fascist tendencies. The Irish ‘fascists’ were more concerned about domestic issues such as the economic war and freedom of speech. Case in point is the narrative that Senator Wilson uttered after the murder of Michael Lynch, ‘it is not political bias or political conspiracy at the bottom of this unrest, it is economic hardship.’
Maurice Manning summarizes the movement in a sentence; ‘the Blueshirts had much of the appearance but little enough of the substance of Fascism.’ Finally, perhaps the most poignant synopsis of the history of the Irish Blueshirts can be found on the memorial stone of Michael Lynch. He was ‘shot by State Forces at Marsh’s Yard Cork 13th August 1934 on the occasion of a public protest by the Farmers of Co Cork against gross injustice.’
Figure 7: Memorial to Michael Patrick Lynch, Dunbullogue, County Cork
Michael Patrick Lynch
Michael Patrick Lynch was shot dead on the 13 August 1934, a new blog will be available on the 85th anniversary of his death, 13 August 2019.
 Anglo-Celt, 21 September 1929.
 https://www.difp.ie/docs/1926/Settlement-of-financial-obligations-between-Britain-and-the-Irish-Free-State/721.htm. In theory, the annuities were obligations arising from the compulsory sale of land to Irish tenant farmers under various land acts.
 Mike Cronin, The Blueshirts and Irish politics (Dublin, 1997).
 Seanad Debates, (July 1934 – January 1935), vol. 19, p. 741.
 Maurice Manning, The Blueshirts (Dublin, 1970), p. 244.
 Inscription on the headstone of Michael Lynch, Dunbullogue, County Cork.
 Mark Quigley, Empire's wake : postcolonial Irish writing and the politics of modern literary form (New York, 2013), p.118.