Ernest Blythe—Orangeman and Fenian

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Volume 25

A startling discovery about Ernest Blythe (1889–1975), a central figure in the Irish revolution and early Free State, who re-emerged as managing director of the Abbey Theatre (1941–67) after his premature departure from parliamentary politics in 1936.

By David Fitzpatrick

Above: A young Ernest Blythe attempting to grow a moustache. (Gaeil á Múscailt [1973])

Ernest Blythe was brought up near Lisburn, but only developed an active interest in the Irish language and nationalism after moving to Dublin at the age of fifteen. His first mentor in Dublin was Seán O’Casey, who introduced him to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and long remained a friend.

Before the Great War, Blythe became a close associate of Ulster republicans such as Denis McCullough, Bulmer Hobson and Seán Lester, and a powerful republican propagandist. He was a leading organiser of the IRB and Irish Volunteers before 1916, an inveterate inmate of prisons, a member of the Dáil ministry from 1919 and a controversial minister in W.T. Cosgrave’s executive council, becoming vice-president in 1927. Though unfairly remembered mainly for docking a shilling from the old-age pension in 1923, he was an effective if conservative minister for finance. His seminal role in the Blueshirt movement and Irish fascism continues to bemuse historians.

In later years Blythe was tireless in declaring his views, especially on the Irish language and partition, through newspapers, radio and correspondence with politicians. He was widely regarded with suspicion because of his Church of Ireland and unionist background. His cantankerous personality ensured that he never became widely popular. Yet his judgements and opinions were typically intelligent and well informed as well as unorthodox.

Blythe was an accomplished writer and journalist, writing under many pseudonyms that test the historian’s detective skills. He wrote three engrossing volumes in Irish, never translated into English, on his life up to 1919. These and other autobiographical works provide considerable insight into Blythe’s upbringing, revolutionary education and social interactions.

Yet that insight is partial, as might be expected of a former politician seeking to justify and explain his career without giving away potentially damaging information. Careful examination often reveals telling inaccuracies and omissions where relevant documentary evidence can be found. According to a fellow journalist in Ulster, he was ‘essentially honest’. Though Blythe deserves a full biography, my own study has the more modest aim of deploying fresh documentation to challenge Blythe’s version of his revolutionary education up to 1913. Any future assessment of his subsequent career must take account of the astonishing duplicity of his conduct as a young republican.

My starting point was the discovery that the young Blythe, when already a member of the IRB, joined the Orange Order. This occurred during his period as a journalist for the unionist North Down Herald (1909–13). Had that fact become widely known, Blythe’s revolutionary and political ambitions would have been immediately and permanently dashed. Nowhere in his writings did he allude to this episode, though he indicated his need to lead ‘a double life’ while working in north Down and simultaneously organising republican bodies in Belfast. By this he meant that he concealed his republican sympathies in Bangor and Newtownards while reassuring his Belfast comrades that his work on a unionist newspaper was a matter of money rather than conviction.

Though partly true, Blythe’s account of his ‘double life’ is utterly inadequate. The purpose of my forthcoming book is to unveil the reality of his double life as a young activist, to explore its probable origins and significance, and to relate this episode to his subsequent views on partition and Ulster unionism. More broadly, it challenges the assumption that militant republicanism and unionism were polar opposites. Blythe was not alone in discerning the pre-war revolutionary potential of militant loyalism—yet what other republican dared to pursue that perception to its logical conclusion?

Above: The Blythe family home at Magheraliskmisk, Co. Antrim, outside Lisburn. (Trasna na Bóinne [1957])

On 26 September 1910, the Newtownards District Orange Lodge confirmed the admission of a 21-year-old recruit into ‘Volunteers’ Lodge 1501. He was returned as Ernest Blythe of East Street, where the North Down Herald’s town correspondent had recently taken lodgings with the Doggart family. A few weeks earlier, Blythe had been introduced to the mysteries of the Loyal Orange Institution in the town’s Orange Hall. He remained an Orangeman until his resignation from the order on 14 February 1912.

Like all candidates for the order’s first (Orange) degree, Blythe participated in a simple ritual of initiation. Before admitting him, the lodge was required to satisfy itself that Blythe fulfilled the ‘particular qualifications’ for an Orangeman, notably ‘that he is not, and never was, and will not become a member of any Society or body of men who are enemies to the lawful Sovereign, or the glorious Constitution of the Realm, as established in 1688; and that he never took, and never will take any oath of secrecy, or any other oath of obedience, to any treasonable Society’.
After Blythe had been led into the lodge room, the worshipful master (a draper named James Wright) addressed some pertinent questions to the candidate:

‘Do you promise, God being your helper, that you will continue to be faithful, and to bear true allegiance to His Majesty the King; that you will support and maintain, to the utmost of your power, the Laws and Constitutions of these Realms? … Do you promise to avoid and discountenance all societies and associations composed of persons who seek to subvert … the union which connects these Kingdoms? … Do you promise that you will not communicate or reveal any of the proceedings of your Brother Orangemen, in Lodge assembled, nor any matter or thing therein communicated to you, unless to a Brother Orangeman, well knowing him to be such? … And do you also solemnly promise never to marry a Papist?’

To each question the young republican idealist responded with exclamations such as ‘I do promise, the Lord being my helper’.
Less than four years earlier Blythe had joined the IRB, a society devoted to repudiation of the Union, the sovereign and the Constitution, and to ‘the establishment of a free and independent republican government in Ireland’. The oath matched his undertakings as an Orangeman in its invocation of divine power, affirmation of allegiance and insistence on secrecy:

‘In the presence of God, I … do solemnly swear that I will do my utmost to establish the national independence of Ireland, and that I will bear true allegiance to the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Government of the Irish Republic and implicitly obey the Constitution of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and all my superior officers, and that I will preserve inviolable the secrets of the Organisation.’

Blythe remained unfamiliar with the full constitution until it was read out at a later meeting. It proclaimed that any member breaching his ‘oath of fidelity and inviolable secrecy’ in peacetime was guilty of a ‘grave misdemeanour’, but ‘in time of war, every such act or attempted act shall be treason and punishable with death’.

It is no wonder that Blythe remained silent about his Orange interlude throughout his recorded life, apart from the offhand observation that, when a journalist in north Down, ‘I would get invitations to join with the Orangemen and with the Masons’.

Above: Ernest Blythe (front, left) with the cast of The Drone, performed by Newtownards Amateur Dramatic Society in January 1913. (Gaeil á Múscailt [1973])

In making sense of Ernest Blythe’s engagement with the Orange Order, and his willingness to perjure his republican allegiance only three or four years after joining the IRB, several hypothetical explanations arise. As a novice reporter, did he consider it his professional duty to penetrate the inner workings of Newtownards society by joining the town’s élite Orange lodge? Was he temperamentally drawn to the secrecy, drama and paraphernalia of secret societies in general, regardless of their political objectives? Was he still uncertain of his political objectives and willing to try out any available option? Was he attracted by any movement that seemed likely to become involved in armed conflict with the Crown? Did the IRB’s Belfast Centre enter Lodge 1501 as a spy, hoping to collect information on Ulster’s resistance to Home Rule and to entice brethren with potentially radical views into the IRB? Conversely, was he a loyalist spy in the republican camp, or even an agent provocateur or a police informant?

More or less plausible arguments may be presented in favour of each of these explanations, as shown in my forthcoming book. Blythe’s primary motive in joining and leaving the Orange Order remains elusive, despite ample evidence of his thirst for inside information, playful fraternalism, political adventurism, romantic attachment to rebellion, desire to recruit republicans through infiltration, respect for the deadly earnestness of Ulster loyalists and intimacy with policemen.

There remains a more comprehensive explanation for his conduct. Was Blythe at least briefly a double agent who exploited the knowledge and trust that he accumulated in both camps to try to mitigate the mutual misconceptions of loyalists and republicans? It seems likely that he used his dual membership to try to spread national sentiments among Orangemen, and to persuade his republican brethren of the earnestness and revolutionary potential of Orangemen.

Initially sceptical, Blythe soon realised that militant unionists were more likely than republicans imminently to come into armed conflict with the state. As he wrote in April 1914: ‘The day that the Union Jack … fires upon the most rampant Orangeman in Ireland, that day the Irish Volunteers should range themselves with Carson and not against him’. Should this come to pass, Blythe’s dual obligations to the IRB and the Orange Order would be neatly reconciled.

Above: Ernest Blythe in Irish Volunteer uniform. (Gaeil á Múscailt [1973])

To a surprising degree, he maintained the trust of Orange and unionist friends. Newtownards folk who noticed that he held ‘heretical opinions in terms of politics’ would indulgently assume that Blythe was ‘only a bit queer’ in the head. Long after his republicanism became generally known, former colleagues and friends remained notably loyal, never referring directly to his record as a pre-war Orangeman. Political opponents in the Free State were less indulgent. In 1930 Seán MacEntee attributed his disavowal of republicanism to ‘political atavism. He has merely been thrown back to the political opinions and ideas of his forefathers.’

Blythe’s pursuit of a ‘double life’ in Belfast and north Down was most clearly evinced by his undeniable duplicity in belonging simultaneously to two incompatible secret societies, and his attempt to retain the trust of both parties even as he deceived them. In later life, having left the Orange Order in 1912 and disavowed the IRB in 1919, Blythe seems to have avoided the perils of fraternal allegiance.

Yet hints remain of a lingering double life in his idiosyncratic approach to partition, as expressed in public rather than within secret organisations. By opposing counter-productive policies such as the ‘Belfast Boycott’ and Collins’s ‘dual policy’ involving covert coercion in 1922, and by consolidating peaceful coexistence through the settlement of 1925–6, Blythe did his best to allay the fear and distrust that Ulster loyalists felt for the southern state. In 1949 he launched a one-man campaign against the all-party anti-partition crusade. Northern hearts could only be won over by gentle and empathetic persuasion, since ‘the true basis of Partition is religious bigotry, and the fears and suspicions that go with it’, rather than any ‘feeling of absolute oneness with the people of England’. Any form of ‘direct action’, or even a ‘pre-coercion campaign like that at present in progress’, was ‘certain to fail’ and also to make permanent partition even more probable. Whether deliberately or otherwise, his policies and proposals tended to reinforce the legitimacy of the northern state, and to oppose all attempts to subvert its authority from within or without.

‘Purple Star’
In disentangling the deceits and disguises of his singular life, it became frustrating to have so little direct insight into Brother Blythe’s personal experience of the Orange Order. He was doubly bound to silence by his obligation as an Orangeman and, more decisively, by his need to avoid identification by fellow nationalists as an initiate. Two recently discovered contributions to the liberal Ulster Guardian in December 1911 suggest a less trivial connection than simply initiation in 1910 followed by resignation in 1912. ‘Dissension in the Orange Ranks (A Doleful Disclosure)’ concerned a recent meeting of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, which had approved formation of a Provincial Grand Lodge of Ulster to co-ordinate resistance against Home Rule. This tongue-in-cheek article exhibited close knowledge of internal Orange politics. In stating his credentials, ‘Purple Star’ was careful to deny membership of the Order, adding that ‘my most esteemed and warmest friends have all ridden the goat’ and that his ‘informant was an exalted brother of the Arch-Purple Degree and a Worshipful Black Knight’.
A week earlier, ‘Purple Star’ had contributed a remarkable satirical poem entitled ‘The Lodge’:

‘The Master lifts the Sacred Mallet, thrice he smites the board,
The faithful Tyler answers with the pommel of his sword:
What follows then by voice or pen no Protestant would tell,
And from the eyes of Papishes the secret’s guarded well.’

Even as ‘Purple Star’, Brother Blythe remained more or less faithful to at least one of his solemn promises.

David Fitzpatrick is a Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College, Dublin.

E. de Blaghd, Trasna na Bóinne (Dublin, 1957).
D. Fitzpatrick, A double life: Ernest Blythe’s revolutionary education (forthcoming).


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