RTÉ’s ‘Patriots to a Man’, the Blueshirts & their times

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), News, News, Volume 9

Why do the Blueshirts exercise such a fascination for us? Perhaps because they seem to make sense of Irish history in the 1930s by offering a parallel with the rest of Europe. Irish historians have always been more circumspect about the meaning of Blueshirtism. F.S.L. Lyons, in an optimistic mood, saw the Blueshirt movement as the last gasp of civil war politics. Maurice Manning’s The Blueshirts (1971) was a remarkable exercise in revisionism at a time when many people accepted that the Blueshirt movement was 1930s fascism Irish-style. A generation later, Mike Cronin in The Blueshirts and Irish Politics (1997), displays the insouciant air of somebody for whom this is more a research project than a matter of life or death, for which much thanks. Nick Coffey’s recently broadcast RTÉ documentary arrives in the wake of these scholarly works but while giving due weight to the historians (particularly Cronin), succeeds in adding to their conclusions by opening up a new area of evidence which television is especially well placed to exploit—the direct testimony of the participants.
Much of the history of Blueshirtism has been dominated by its leadership—by analysing O’Duffy or by looking at the ideology of the intellectual right in the 1930s, mainly by focusing on the ‘unpopular front’ formed by Professors Hogan and Tierney. The work of Margaret O’Callaghan and Susannah Riordan, among others, has amply demonstrated that even these intellectuals are hard to categorise in simple ideological terms. Despite the traumas of the 1920s and 1930s, many Irish people continued to believe that independent Ireland might have something to offer the world. Coffey’s documentary sensibly avoided the tricky question of the intellectuals and instead focused on the rank-and-file members of the Blueshirts. Future historians will be grateful for this record of how ordinary people reflected on their part in history. Each contributor brought a unique perspective on the popular politics of the 1930s. Even more impressive was the sense that this particular television history had allowed people to speak for themselves after a long period of silence and casual occlusion.
The programme drew no conclusions, but did ask the experts the obvious question: were the Blueshirts fascists? The consensus was that while the rank-and-file members were not fascist, the leadership might have been. The vagueness of the answers suggested that nobody had any clear idea about the meaning of fascism in the context of 1930s Ireland. Instead, survivors reminded us of what motivated them to join O’Duffy’s movement. Paul Bew also explained the Blueshirts’ roots in Parnellite and Land League politics, in the context of de Valera’s agrarian and economic policies after 1932. The most immediate problem facing the nation in the early 1930s was how to engineer a peaceful transition of power between parties which had been at war nine years earlier. Though we can now see de Valera as an arch-constitutionalist, Lemass’s quip about Fianna Fáil being a ‘slightly constitutional party’ must have been quite chilling. The Broy Harriers and their allies contributed to a belief that the new regime was intolerant of opposition. One must be cautious about retrospective analyses of events. Had European fascism destroyed liberal democracy in the thirties and forties then this review would be unthinkable, and historians of Blueshirtism would probably sing from a different hymn-sheet. On the other hand, if history is a blame game—as the Blueshirts’ detractors suggest—then blame must be apportioned where it is deserved. The collaboration of people like Frank Ryan and Francis Stuart with Hitler’s Germany might even equal O’Duffy’s support for Franco, though neither faction emerged with honour. In the end, as Coffey’s documentary showed, the political conflicts of the 1930s proved the stability of the Irish state.

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in modern history at University College Dublin.

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