It all sounds pretty innocuous. I mean what harm would you expect from an organisation called the Army Comrades Association? Doesn’t it conjure up images of old codgers who served in uniform together meeting up for the odd drink, a game of darts or snooker maybe, then home to bed after a nice warm cup of cocoa.
That might well be the case today. But back in 1933 the Army Comrades Association had a nickname based on the colour of their apparel. They were better known as the Blueshirts, and they were led by a man who was lost in admiration for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. His name was Eoin O’Duffy, and his career was far more vivid than the colour of the chemise worn by his supporters.
In 1922 he had, briefly, been Chief of Staff of the IRA, and had then fought alongside Michael Collins as a general in the pro-treaty forces during the Civil War. He was the youngest general in Europe, at the tender age of twenty-eight, until an even younger Spanish chisler was promoted to that rank in 1926. You may have heard of him, his name was Francisco Franco.
In September 1922 O’Duffy became the second Commissioner of the Garda Siochana. Eleven years later he became the first Garda Commissioner to be dismissed. Newly elected Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, decided that O’Duffy’s Civil War loyalties would make it difficult for him to serve the new Fianna Fail administration. As O’Duffy had been advocating that W.T.Cosgrave’s defeated government should refuse to hand over power to Fianna Fail, you have to think that Dev might well have got that one right.
O’Duffy wasn’t idle for long. The soft and mushy sounding Army Comrades Association was formed in 1933, ostensibly to defend public meetings of the defeated Cumann no nGaedheal party. O’Duffy became its leader and changed the name to the far less fluffy National Guard. Neither name stuck, and they were rarely known as anything other than the Blueshirts, the colours brown and black having already been taken, by the Nazis in Germany and the Fascisti in Italy.
A month after the name change the Blueshirts announced plans for a huge demonstration to commemorate the all-important eleventh anniversary of the deaths of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. The whole scheme sounded just a little bit too much like Mussolini’s infamous 1922 March on Rome—albeit with a greater risk of squally showers. It was after the March on Rome that Il Duce had seized power in Italy. De Valera, not unreasonably, banned the demonstration, and then declared the National Guard an illegal organisation. O’Duffy cleverly got around the ban by changing the name of the Blueshirts to the League of Youth. The organisation then merged with Cumann na nGaedheal, to form Fine Gael—you may have heard of them too—and the Blueshirts underwent another name change, now becoming the Young Ireland Association. One can only imagine what Thomas Davis and John Mitchel would have made of thatact of plagiarism.
O’Duffy found Fine Gael just a bit too stuffy and left-wing for his liking and he lasted only a year in the new party. By then the Blueshirts were beginning to fall apart as well, and O’Duffy generously raised a brigade to go and fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, despite the fact that the generalissimo had taken away his heavyweight ‘youngest general in Europe’ title a decade before. The mythology surrounding the Irish Brigade in Spain is that seven hundred men travelled there, twiddled their thumbs for twelve months or so, and came home without having heard a shot fired in anger. It’s an unfair version of the actual facts, but not that unfair.
When World War Two broke out O’Duffy, who in the interim had founded the far from cuddly-sounding National Corporate Party, made overtures to Germany, and offered to organise a volunteer brigade to fight on the Russian front. The Germans didn’t take him seriously and, by then, no one in Ireland did either. He died in 1944, aged only fifty-two, and was given a state funeral. It certainly beat freezing to death somewhere near Stalingrad. I should also point out, that Micheal McLiammóir claimed to have had a brief affair with O’Duffy, which, if true, would not have gone down well in the pietistic Catholic circles in which he lived and moved. But then McLiammóir had a puckish sense of humour and might just have been spreading scandal about someone he had little cause to like.
Eoin O’Duffy, a serious fan of the colour blue, took command of the Army Comrades Association eighty-five years ago, on this day.