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Blueshirts
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Blueshirts

The Army Comrades Association (ACA), better known by its nickname The Blueshirts, was an Irish organisation set up by former police commissioner General Eoin O'Duffy in the 1930s. Its opponents accused it of being the Irish Free State's equivalent of Hitler's Brownshirts and Mussolini's Blackshirts which were all members of the European fascist movement, given that Blueshirts leaders all wore Fascist-style blue-shirts and gave a Nazi-style salute. Its leaders argued that it was simply defending democracy, citing the actions of the IRA, who had attempted to break up meetings of Irish opposition groups whom they regarded as 'traitors'. It viewed its role as protecting opposition political parties from IRA attack.

Origins

In 1932, Eamon de Valera became President of the Executive Council in the Irish Free State. One of his first acts as prime minister was to repeal the ban which made the IRA an illegal organisation. De Valera also released many Republican prisoners from jail. Once the ban was lifted the IRA began to disrupt meetings of the former governing party, Cumann na nGaedhael and intimidating its members. The Garda Síochána seemed to do little or nothing to prevent these attacks from taking place. Some hardline IRA members referred to Cumann na nGaedhael as the murder government, and mounted their campaign of threats and intimidation under the slogan No Free Speech for Traitors.

In February 1932, the Army Comrades Association (ACA) was formed. It was set up to promote the interests of ex-Irish Free State army members. In August Dr. T.F O'Higgins, a Cumann na nGaedhael TD became its leader. He was the brother of the murdered TD Kevin O'Higgins. The ACA had the twin aims of opposing communism and defending free speech. However, the ACA increasingly took the role of protector at Cumann na nGaedhael meetings. Clashes with the IRA became a regular occurrence and tensions rose sharply. In April 1933 the ACA began wearing the distinctive blue shirt uniform.

O'Duffy becomes leader

After Eamon de Valera's re-election in February 1933 he dismissed Eoin O'Duffy as Commissioner of an Garda Síochána. In July of that year O'Duffy took control of the ACA and re-named it the National Guard. He re-modelled the organisation, adopting many of the outward symbols of European fascism. The use of the Roman straight-arm salute, the compulsory wearing of the blue shirt uniform and the holding of huge rallies became widespread. Membership of the new organisation became limited to people who were Irish or whose parents profess the Christian faith. O'Duffy was an admirer of Benito Mussolini and the Blueshirts adopted the creation of a corporate state as their chief political aim.

Threatened 'March on Dublin'

In August 1933 de Valera banned a Blueshirt parade in Dublin. Remembering Mussolini's March on Rome de Valera feared a coup d'état, he telling Fianna Fáil politicians decades later that in August 1933 he was unsure whether the Irish army would obey his orders to suppress the perceived threat, or whether it would support the Blueshirts, a movement made up of many ex-comrades of the army. O'Duffy however accepted the government's decision and the parade was abandoned. However, several provincial parades took place to commemorate the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. De Valera saw this move as defying his ban, and the Blueshirts were declared an illegal organisation.

To opponents of Fianna Fáil, who remembered the comments in 1929 of deV's right hand man, Sean Lemass that Fianna Fáil was a "slightly constitutional party", this looked liked the first steps towards a dictatorship. Cumann na nGaedhael's protectors were declared illegal while the IRA, who were threatening Cumann na nGaedhael politicians and supporters and breaking up their meetings, were allowed to remain legal and armed. In response to the ban the National Guard, Cumann na nGaedhael and the National Centre Party merged to form a new party. On 3 September 1933 Fine Gael - the United Ireland Party was founded. Eoin O'Duffy became its first leader with W.T. Cosgrave and James Dillon acting as vice-presidents. (Cosgrave served as parliamentary leader, as O'Duffy had no seat in Dáil Éireann.) The National Guard became the Young Ireland Association and became the youth wing of the party. The party's aim was to create an independent United Ireland as a member of the Commonwealth. The party also advocated social reform and an end to the proportional representation method of voting.

O'Duffy, however, proved to be a weak leader of the new party. He proved to be tempermental and incompetent, with poor political judgment; Cosgrave had planned to dismiss O'Duffy as Garda Commissioner had he won the 1932 general election. At the party's first ever annual conference in September 1934 O'Duffy was forced to resign as leader. He was replaced by W.T. Cosgrave. O'Duffy tried to keep the Blueshirts going as a separate organisation but it soon disintegrated. O'Duffy later fought on General Francisco Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War.

How fascist were the Blueshirts?

While it adopted the fashion accessories of fascism, modern historians do not generally perceive it as a serious fascist movement, though the then Irish President of the Executive Council (prime minister), Eamon de Valera, feared it might become so. O'Duffy is generally seen as a weak and incompetent leader of no political skill who grabbed on to a politically fashionable European movement in the early 1930s, fascism, and adopted its symbolism. None of the senior politicians of the movement, all of whom had facilitated a democratic changeover of government in 1932, proposed unconstitutional action and rapidly turned on O'Duffy and his fascist regalia within a short period of time. While the Blueshirts did promote the concept of the corporate state, it was based largely on an encyclical of Pope Pius XI, rather than the political systems of Mussolini and Hitler—and the concept of corporatism was also used by de Valera in his construction of the new Irish Seanad Éireann in 1937.

Today, Blueshirt is a term of political abuse directed against Fine Gael by opponents, in much the same was as Tory is used against British Conservatives or Loony left is used against left wing British Labour activists.

Additional Reading