Eoin O’Duffy: a self-made hero

Fintan Lane reviews Eoin O'Duffy: a self-made hero by Fearghal McGarry, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0199276552, £27.50 hbk

O'Duffy: a self-made hero

THE CONSERVATIVE revolutionaries of the Irish war of independence - such as W.T. Cosgrave, Kevin O'Higgins and Eoin O'Duffy - have not been well served by Irish historiography. It is a remarkable neglect when one considers that until 1932 such men, and their political tradition, dominated Irish politics and effectively laid the foundations of the current southern state.

O'Duffy, the subject of this penetrating and perceptive study by Fearghal McGarry, has been viewed often as a marginal figure and seen largely through the prism of his later career. However, as this book lucidly argues, he was once an up-and-coming statebuilder and a powerful figure within the Irish establishment.

McGarry has written a full and convincing biography that traces O'Duffy's political trajectory from GAA organiser and Irish-Irelander in the early 1910s to the marginal Nazi collaborator he had become by the early 1940s.

The author, while conscious of the extent of his subject's vanity and bombast, nonetheless shows that O'Duffy was a man of significant ability, drive and ambition, who was handicapped by a neurotic personality and, later, by alcoholism.

A senior IRA activist during the war of independence (he was made deputy chief-of-staff in 1921), he briefly played a ruthless role on the pro-treaty side during the civil war, before being appointed commissioner of the newly formed Garda Síochána (Civic Guard) in 1922. He remained in this key post until dismissed by De Valera in early 1933, whereupon he quickly took over the leadership of the right-wing Blueshirt movement.

Clearly, it suits present-day Fine Gael members to speak of General Eoin O'Duffy as a crank and a political outsider, but this was not always the case. The closest thing Ireland had to a fascist general in 1933, when he became the first leader of the Fine Gael party, O'Duffy had the backing of significant elements in Irish society and, rather than being an isolated crank, he was for a period a genuinely dangerous individual with strong links to European fascism.

A supporter of Italian fascism by at least the mid-1930s, he had openly aligned himself with Nazism by the end of the decade. His virulent anti-communism and distrust of democracy were key components of his politics from a much earlier stage in his career.

O'Duffy's exertions on behalf of Franco and his active support for the overthrow of the democratically elected Spanish government are well described. McGarry argues that, while O'Duffy was clearly motivated by anti-communism and right-wing Catholicism, there was also an element of opportunism and egotism in his adoption of the Spanish nationalist cause. Once more, he was back in the public eye at the head of a popular movement. Arguably, his support for Franco had much to do with consolidating his political base in Ireland.

This book is a fine and long-overdue study of one of Ireland's most controversial historical figures and I highly recommend it.

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