Blueshirts, Sports and Socials by Mike Cronin

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Gaelic Revival, Issue 3 (Autumn 1994), Volume 2

Blueshirts, Sports and Socials by Mike Cronin 1The Blueshirts are best remembered as Ireland’s fascists, and as such there has been a tendency not to examine the broader activities of the movement. Between the image of a non-constitutional army, and the highly important role the Blueshirts played in the formation of the entirely constitutional Fine Gael, historians have struggled to give the Blueshirts an identity-indeed, there has been a tendency to ignore them or marginalise their effect on Free State political life. From the small amount of writing dealing with the movement, two overviews do predominate. The first championed by Maurice Manning (The Blueshirts [1971]) and F.S.L. Lyons (Ireland since the famine [1971]) see the Blueshirts as part of the old Civil War groupings still struggling to determine future political ascendancy. The second favoured by Paul Bew, Ellen Hazelkorn and Henry Patterson (The Dynamics of Irish Politics [1989]) views the Blueshirts as a rural based and highly conservative movement which was coloured by the personal fascism of its leader, General O’Duffy. The confusion over the Blueshirts’ place in Irish politics continues, reinforced by the common use of the term Blueshirt in modern by political and popular discourse. John Waters (Jiving at the Crossroads [1992]) offers countless examples of the process that still leads to any supporter of Fine Gael being referred to by their opponents as a Blueshirt. Such common usage of the term only serves to confuse any attempt to properly understand the movement. Previous debate surrounding the Blueshirts lacks recognition of a central theme which was of the utmost importance to the leaders and the members; the movement’s sporting and social life. In the initial stages the provision of a sporting and social life for members was an attempt to boost membership and cement unity within  the Blueshirt ranks. In this the Blueshirts show similarities to the British Union of Fascists and its sporting clubs in the East End, and countless other authoritarian movements (of both the left and right). More generally the Blueshirts’ sporting and social life should be seen as an excited response to mundane rural Ireland during the 1930s, and as part of a tradition common to previous Irish social and political movements.


United Ireland 31 March 1934.

United Ireland 31 March 1934.

The origins of shirted socialising

From its beginnings amongst individuals in the local branches during 1932, the idea that the Blueshirts would have a sporting and social agenda became part of the movement’s official policy. The headquarters staff in Dublin used this agenda solely as a vehicle for political gain, but the members predominantly saw the events as a source of personal amusement and recreation-not as an illustration of political strength. The official adoption of a sporting and social life began in April 1933 with the issuing of Order Number Two from the Dublin Headquarters. It stated, ‘every company shall, if possible, organise immediately a cycle section which shall pay regular visits during the summer months to outside areas for the purpose of assisting in the organisation of new units and of stimulating recruitment’. After the publication of that order, the B1ueshirt hierarchy constantly encouraged the members to become active in sporting and social events. The three B1ueshirt papers (The Blue Flag, The Blue Shirt and United Ireland) constantly reported all local and national sporting and social events, and always in a very positive light. United Ireland stated that already blue shirted cyclists have begun to move about in several counties. Tipperary and Kilkenny in particular. I hear of new units being formed as a result of their keenness for duty. The advantage of the work of the new mobile units is that it will put some of our senior officers, who may have led rather sedentary lives since they left the army, into active service condition. One man who is very prominent in the organisation tells me that he has cycled more in the last three weeks than he has cycled for the past two years.


Eoin O'Duffy at a meeting in Lismore15 January 1934. (CORK EXAMINER)

Eoin O’Duffy at a meeting in Lismore
15 January 1934. (CORK EXAMINER)

General Eoin O’Duffy

The encouragement of this aspect of Blueshirt life reached its peak while the movement was led by General O’Duffy. Despite his erratic political leadership, O’Duffy was widely respected at a personal level by the members and he did much to cultivate the sporting and social side TO u of the movement. His previous career was dominated by his time as Commissioner of the Garda Siochana, but his first love was always sport. He was a leading light in the Gaelic Athletic ASSOCiation, managed the highly successful Irish Olympic team in 1932, was a committee member of the National Athletic and Cycling Association and was one of the main organisers of the Tailteann Games in 1924. Whatever condemnations are made of O’Duffy’s political skills, his understanding of the positive benefits of sport and socialising was unparalleled. He had witnessed such advantages first-hand during the 1920s when he had cultivated the development of sporting clubs and social events for Garda officers. O’Duffy brought a real vigour into the B1ueshirts at countless levels. In particular, participation of Blueshirt members in the social aspects of their movement reached new heights. He believed that the nation’s youth should be fit and disciplined and that this could be achieved through participation in sporting events. Equally he felt that the organisation of social events such as dancing would demonstrate the togetherness and liveliness of his followers. The direct result of O’Duffy’s emphasis on a sporting and social programme produced a wave of events across the country. Ex-members recall a wide range of events including: dances, cycle rides, picnics, whist drives, boxing matches, sports days, gymkhanas, sweepstakes to raise funds, gaelic football and hurling matches. The programme of events were undoubtedly successful. Not only are they fondly remembered by ex-members, but the period of O’Duffy’s leadership of the Blueshirts and his encouragement of such a programme coincided with a growth in membership from 8,337 in October 1932 to 37,937 in March 1934 and 47,923 in August 1934. The bulk of new members were undoubtedly inspired to join because of domestically relevant political concerns (such as the economic war), but the presence of a sports and social programme also boosted membership.


United Ireland 14 April 1934.

United Ireland 14 April 1934.

Whist drives in Tagout

The Blueshirts’ social life was the envy of their opponents. Teenagers in rural Ireland during the 1930s were not traditionally offered an opportunity to socialise, hence the development by an organisation of a coherent programme was a novelty. An exmember of the County Cavan Blueshirts, Dennis Reynolds, recalled, ‘locally when they [the Blueshirtsj organised the social stuff, the whole of the young Blueshirts went. It was a great attraction because the other side didn’t do anything like that. I suppose if you weren’t a Blueshirt you wouldn’t normally be getting to a social at that age, but we got to them, and there was great support for them’. The existence of the Blueshirt socials, attended by hundreds of young men and women in uniform, created not only envy, but also deepened political schisms which were already firmly in place by the early 1930s. For the opponents of the Blueshirts, whether driven by political hatred or social jealousy, the movement’s dances and sporting events were an easy target for attack. The 1993 release of Department of justice files lists scores of violent incidents centred on Blueshirt socials. These included the burning of the Strokestown branch’s dancing platform in September 1934, assaults on Blueshirts building a dancing platform at Rylane in June 1934, the removal of and burning of blue shirts from members returning home after a dance in Dun Laoghaire also in June 1934, and an attack on a bus leased to Charleville Blueshirts travelling to a sports day in Limerick in August 1933.
The increasing politicisation of the Blueshirts social life which created widespread violence produced some ridiculous situations. A rowdy public platform dance held by the Blueshirts was understandably a potential flashpoint which required monitoring; but the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that by early 1934 even a Blueshirt whist drive in Tagout,County Wexf«d, attended by only eighty people was watched over by twelve Garda of’icers! Despite the Blueshirts’ stated political aim of defeating their enemies, their chief rival, the IRA, could not easily be brought into the open and attacked.
The IRA was a secret organisation, and they certainly never held public dances. By holding sports and social events which were essentially public displays of strength, the Blueshirts made themselves readily available for attack. This allowed them to present themselves as victims of a dark force within society which was attempting to halt harmless social fun for political ends. The sense of danger and potential violence which accompanied so many of these events served only to heighten the unity and resolve (and excitement levels) of the young shirted members.


The hierarchy versus the membership
Not content with establishing his own sporting and social agenda, O’Duffy also looked towards the national sporting bodies. In numerous speeches and articles he attacked the domination of the Gaelic Athletic Association by members of Fianna Fail, and demanded that his Blueshirts ‘get in everywhere, and if there is a well conducted dance hall or social club in any area, the local members [of the Blueshirts 1 should get into it and not rest till control is in their own hands’. The whole mentality of producing a social and sporting network dominated by Blueshirts was crystallised in O’Duffy’s oU,tlining .of Fine Gael policy at the 1934 Ard Fhels. He envisaged a Blueshirt Ireland in which the GAA and all similar national bodies were controlled and supervised by the movement. On a national scale and at leadership level the arena of sports and socials was a physical and ideological battleground. For the members, the rationale of their sporting and social life was often different to that of the Blueshirt elite. For them picnics, football matches or dances were not usually politically-motivated or politically- coloured events. They were a release from the drudgery of rural life. If this process entailed wearing a Blueshirt, and thereby backing the traditional patterns of support for Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael endorsed by their parents, then so be it. All the ex-members interviewed rejected the notion of a political angle to their social life. As far as Thomas Kelly, a Leitrim Blueshirt, was concerned ‘sports and functions of a political dimension would not be considered’. Many of the ex-members accept that the social events did a certain amount to attract new members to the movement, but by and large the memory of their Blueshirt  social life seems a self-indulgent one. By wearing a Blueshirt on a night out, they were undoubtedly making a political statement, but that connection is not made in the minds of exmembers. The most common reaction to questions about the sports and social life is a wistful remembrance of happy days spent with people of the same background. According to Andrew Forrest, a member of the Kanturk branch: There were great social events, and the social events were so good that you knew from the beginning, if you were going to a Blueshirt dance, that you were going to meet people like yourself, people of the same outlook, people with a sense of fun, but with a responsible outlook. People who, to put it crudely, were not brought up on free beef.


The battle over platform dances
The most common form of Blueshirt social was the dance. Some of the bigger Blueshirt branches such as those in Counties Cork, Tipperary, Donegal and Mayo could support and fund boxing clubs, hurling teams, and large open air fetes. For the smaller branches this was not possible. Even so these small branches could hold da~ces as a way of gaining and cementing its local support-even the ex-members from Cobh, County Cork, and Oldcastle, County Meath could recall regular Blueshirt dances being held by their branch. This was quite a feat considering the highest recorded membership of the Cobh branch was only fifteen and that of Oldcastle twenty-seven. While the dance was the staple diet of the Blueshirt social scene, it was the most contentious. The violence connected with such public displays was one thing but the dancing itself also caused controversy. Dancing brought the Blueshirts into direct conflict with the moral guidlines laid down by the Catholic Church, and later pursued legislatively by the Fianna Fail government. Although the 1935 Dance Halls Act had little effect on the social life of the organisation (as it was in decline by that stage), the atmosphere of the earlier years of the debate was very important. The Blueshirt membership was drawn from the community of large farmers, who joined the movement in an attempt to protect their own livelihood against the ravages of the Economic War. They were wealthy by normal standards, and their ability to provide vehicles, either lorries or cars, was a great boost to the movement. It was this type of mobile youth which scared the bishops. Many of the Blueshirts had cars, and could thus travel distances to dances which were outside of their locality. This was a common experience for the ex-members. The motor car caused many evils in the eyes of the bishops, because the sexual morals of the young were at risk inside cars after dances. The legislation in 1933 to view cars as part of the public highway, thereby allowing the Garda! to investigate behaviour inside a car, theoretically brought the activities of amorous young Blueshirts into confrontation with the law. By organising weekly dances across the country, on platforms or in halls, and actively encouraging both Blueshirts and Blueblouses to attend, the movement was contravening the moral guidance being offered by the church. The ex-members clearly stated that holding dances was a great boost to membership because the other side did not do it. Apart from commercial ventures, the Blueshirts were the only body who regularly disobeyed the pulpit, and openly organised dances. The direct effect of these dances is difficult to gauge. Certainly none of the ex-members questioned recall fallen Blueblouses destined for night work on the streets of big English cities as the bishops had feared. The regular dances responded to the need for a social outlet. The whole thrust of the bishops’ argument, and the eventual legislation, was a wish to turn the clock back. After the upheavals of the previous decades, and the growth of non-Irish media, fashion, culture, and cinema, this was impossible. The young Blueshirts were usually employed, and had the means and the desire to enjoy themselves. The movement responded to this social need by holding dances. Whether Fianna Fail’s backing of the bishops’ view had anything to do with the Blueshirts opposing reaction is impossible to say. The probability is that the Blueshirts, could not resist the chance to contradict their opponents in the pursuit of enjoyment, both personally and as a movement.


United Ireland 27 January 1934

United Ireland 27 January 1934

An I rish tradition?

The motivations of a member of any political movement will always be difficult to fathom, and in the case of the Blueshirts it is especially complex. Sixty years have passed since the blue shirt has been seen in Ireland. The popular belief that the shirt represented the Irish flirtation with fascism may have led many exmembers to sanitise the whole period in their mind, choosing to remember their social, not their political lives. Despite this, there is a definite case for arguing that many Blueshirts saw their membership as an excuse for socialising and as a chance to liven up their locality. For them O’Duffy’s wider political aims such as his desire to see the Irish adoption of Pope Pius Xl’s Quadragesimmo Anno, are unimportant. Outside of the 1930s there are countless examples of Irish political movements (especially those with a nationalist agenda) attracting support because of their social agenda, and it is in this context, rather than a contemporary European one, that the Blueshirts should be seen. In looking for the reasons behind the popularity of a political movement, the simple needs of people, such as recreation and entertainment, should not be overlooked: especially in the light of the condition of Ireland in the 1930sa country still incompletely modernised and politically uncertain of itself. After the demise of the traditional fair in Ireland during the nineteenth century and the upheavals of the early twentieth century, sections of the populace would not only be receptive to any group preaching traditional and stabilising political ideas, but also to any group offering a social life. The Blueshirt development of a sports and social life as an integral part of membership followed these traditional patterns which had existed for over one hundred and fifty years. The examples of such a process are numerous. Father Mathew’s Temperance movement developed recreation as an alternative to drink. Duffy and Davis combined the ideas of education and recreation to boost the membership of Young Ireland. O’Connell’s repeal movement held mass meetings on days traditionally connected with the old fairs and encouraging the same spirit of revelry. The Catholic Young Men’s Society arranged lectures, trips and amateur dramatics to amuse and educate its members. The Fenians were highly successful at using sport and recreation as a means of recruitment and as a cover for their political meetings. The Gaelic League boosted its membership, as the Blueshirts did, by admitting and mixing members of WH both sexes, thereby adding the attraction of ‘flirting’ socially to the learning of a language. During the critical early years of the twentieth century most Irish people were too preoccupied with issues of life and death to worry about recreation. But by the 1930s when some semblance of stability had re-emerged, the people once again demanded pastimes. The Blueshirts were able to meet that need within the broad framework of their political organisation, and they gained much support as a result.


The sporting and social life of the Blueshirts supplies a fascinating perspective on the activities and functions of the organisation. There was the movement’s official need to boost identification and recruitment. From the members’ point of view, they sought pleasure in contradiction to the movement’s belief that enjoyment should have a political basis. The pursuit of such a lifestyle undoubtedly had many of its roots and much of its inspiration in the Irish cultural trends o JAZZ and political movements of the past. Most notably, the social life was a response to the realities of life around them. Ireland had undergone so many social changes, and the youth now wanted to enjoy their time. The Blueshirts, by organising such a hectic social life (often three or four events a week in the larger branches), allowed the young to play and to dance.


Mike Cronin is History Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University.


Further reading:
 M. Manning, The Blueshirts (Dublin 1971). O. MacDonagh, W.F. MandIe & P. Travers, Irish Culture and Nationalism 1750-1950 (London 1983). J. Hoberman, Sport and Political Ideology (London 1984). J. Smyth, ‘Dancing, depravity and all that jazz: the 1935 Dance Halls Act’, History Ireland (Summer 1993).

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