Analysis: a key figure in the foundation of Fine Gael and the party's first leader was Irish fascist Eoin O'Duffy

Fine Gael is a child of many fathers. For much of the faithful, revolutionary Sinn Féin figures like Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith are regarded as progenitors of the organisation despite the deaths of both a decade prior to the party’s establishment. Added to this are founders such as W.T. Cosgrave, in essence the first 'Taoiseach’, and Richard Mulcahy, who succeeded Collins as head of the Irish Army, and thus the work in ensuring the security of the infant state.

However, not all within the party see their roots in Sinn Féin or, after 1923, Cumann na nGaedheal, but rather in the older Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) tradition. Indeed, one of Fine Gael’s founders and future leader was James Dillon, son of John Dillon, the last leader of the IPP. Some too, though perhaps quietly, see within Fine Gael the space for strands of old Southern Irish Unionism to engage in political life. Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that many who were opposed to home rule before 1922 regarded Fine Gael in the decades after independence as a somewhat less objectionable repository for their votes than the other nationalist alternatives on offer.

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From RTÉ Archives, excerpt from Nick Coffey's 2001 documentary Patriots to a Man, The Blueshirts and Their Times

Political movements, like people, seek heroes to emulate. It is understandable, therefore, that Fine Gael supporters wish to associate themselves with stalwarts of the independence struggle such as Collins and Griffith; with stabilisers of the state such as Cosgrave and Mulcahy; or with practitioners of pragmatic politics such as John Redmond or Charles Stewart Parnell.

But there is another reason for Fine Gaelers to focus on such men. It avoids the reality that a key figure in the party’s foundation and its first leader was the fascistic Eoin O'Duffy. Importantly, it also obviates the need to confront another uncomfortable truth: that there may have never been a Fine Gael at all without the party's arch political enemy, Éamon de Valera.

Turmoil in the 1930s

Fianna Fáil’s victories in the general elections of 1932 and 1933 had severely demoralised the Cumann na nGaedheal party. Prospects for a return to power looked bleak. More concerning, however, was the growing perception that pro-Treatyites could not organise freely under de Valera’s new regime.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Catriona Crowe talks about 1934 documents from the National Archives relating to tensions between the IRA and the Blueshirts.

Fianna Fáil's rise to power coincided with an increase in anti-Treaty IRA membership, and de Valeria legalised  the paramilitary group in 1932. The anti-Treaty IRA also enunciated a policy of 'No Free Speech for Traitors’, thus contributing to a tense, and sometimes violent, atmosphere at political gatherings.

Cumann na nGaedheal meetings were often attacked by anti-Treaty IRA members and militant Fianna Fáil supporters. Meetings by the National Centre Party (a ‘farmers’ party, but which contained strands of the old IPP support base) were also targeted. This led to claims that ‘free speech’ and the right to organise were threatened, fears made more acute by the perception that the police were hesitant to suppress violent anti-Treatyites due to pressure from de Valera’s government.

The arrival of the Blueshirts

Anti-Treatyite militancy prompted a reaction from the Army Comrades Association (ACA). Established in early 1932, its stated purpose was to ‘uphold the state’ and protect the interests of former IRA and Irish Army members. By 1933, the ACA had adopted a demonstrable paramilitary flavour, and began stewarding Cumann na nGaedheal and Centre Party meetings, leading to violent clashes between the ACA and anti-Treatyites eager to disrupt proceedings.

On occasion, ACA factions from different areas attacked each other, due to the mistaken belief they were targeting anti-Treaty IRA members. Such incidents contributed to the organisation’s adoption of a distinctive uniform, including the infamous ‘blue shirt’, in March 1933. ACA leaders denied that the development of shirted fascist movements in continental Europe also influenced this decision.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, historian Diarmuid Ferriter on the Blueshirts' leader Eoin O'Duffy

However, questions regarding the group’s fascistic intent were to become more prominent following the accession of O’Duffy. A former Chief of Staff of the IRA, Inspector-General of the Irish Army and Garda Commissioner, O’Duffy was dismissed from his latter role by de Valera in February 1933, making him a cause célèbre in pro-Treaty circles. By July, he had joined and become leader of the Blueshirts, an ironic turn of events, given that, as Garda Commissioner, he had described the movement as an "extreme danger" to the State.

O’Duffy was an energetic and efficient (if unpredictable) organiser, and his dynamism saw membership rise to a peak of roughly 40,000 within months. He renamed the ACA as the National Guard, introduced ideas such as a right arm ‘salute’ similar to those utilised by continental fascist organisations and quickly announced plans for a 20,000-strong Blueshirt March On Dublin. Ostensibly, the march was to commemorate the deaths of those such as Collins and Griffith, but parallels were also drawn with Mussolini's Fascist March on Rome in 1922.

Fearing a Blueshirt coup, de Valera acted swiftly. The March on Dublin and the National Guard were banned in quick succession. The armed Garda Special Branch was expanded and military tribunals were established to prosecute individual Blueshirts for membership of an illegal organisation.

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From RTÉ Archives, Éamon de Valera bans the Blueshirts

Fine Gael emerges

Though the Blueshirts largely circumvented the ban, many pro-Treatyites regarded the government’s approach as partisan. The attempted suppression of the Blueshirts at a time when the anti-Treaty IRA appeared to be left unmolested, led to charges that de Valera sought a de facto dictatorship of his own, by making it impossible for opposition parties to freely organise. This galvanised Cumann na nGaedheal and the Centre Party, who approached O’Duffy with an offer to merge all three organisations into a united anti-Fianna Fáil front under his leadership.

O’Duffy’s inclusion was key. Some in the Centre Party had previously resisted joining with Cumann na nGaedheal, but the dynamism of the Blueshirts proved attractive. For O’Duffy’s part, the merger allowed him to lead a larger body. Additionally, as a constituent part of the parliamentary Opposition, it would be more difficult for the government to suppress his Blueshirts.

In September 1933, the three groups joined to form a new organisation, the United Ireland Party – Fine Gael, though the Blueshirts would continue as a semi-autonomous section within the movement. O’Duffy became the first leader, with a number of elected politicians, such as Cosgrave and Dillon, holding vice-presidential positions.

Eoin O'Duffy speaking at a rally in Tullamore in April 1934. Photo: Imagno/Getty Images

However, the merger was not smooth. Continuing violence between Blueshirts and anti-Treatyites discomforted most of the Fine Gael leadership. As 1934 progressed, O'Duffy’s erratic behaviour, anti-democratic pronouncements, and ultra-nationalist rhetoric proved an embarrassment. Indeed, his implied threat to invade Northern Ireland appeared more redolent of the anti-Treaty IRA than of the leader of a democratic party.

In September 1934, O'Duffy was effectively forced out of both Fine Gael and the Blueshirts, thus beginning his move into political obscurity. He subsequently formed an avowedly fascist organisation, the National Corporate Party; led an Irish Brigade to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War; and later became an interlocutor between Nazi Germany and the anti-Treaty IRA during the Second World War. He had little success with any of these ventures.

From RTÉ's Your Politics podcast, Eoin O'Malley, Maggie Doyle, Mícheál Lehane and Sandra Hurley on how Fianna Fail and Fine Gael came together in 2020 to bury a century of civil war politics

Following O’Duffy’s departure, the overwhelmingly democratic leadership coterie within Fine Gael asserted their dominance, and the Blueshirts had been absorbed into the party proper by 1937. Aside from occasional stints in power, Fine Gael became the primary opposition to Fianna Fáil governments for the rest of the 20th century.

Self-perceived as paragons of law-and-order, Fine Gael members take pride in the party's contribution to protecting the state’s democratic structures in times of crisis. Thus, it is understandable that supporters may ignore the circumstances of the party’s foundation and focus instead on the legacies of those such as Collins and Cosgrave. Nevertheless, the uncomfortable reality remains: without the actions of two men, the fascist Eoin O’Duffy and Fianna Fáil’s Éamon de Valera, the Fine Gael organisation would not have been born in September 1933. Indeed, it may never have been born at all. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ