The Irish leader who prayed for a Nazi invasion

The pro-Hitler General Eoin O'Duffy, who died 75 years ago, this week, is a reminder of the indifference to the fate of Europe's Jews in some parts of Ireland in the 1930s


In the summer of 1939, General Eoin O’Duffy received a message from Francisco Franco.

The Spanish dictator thanked the former head of the Irish army and police for his messages of support “on the victory of the Spanish Army in defence of Christianity, occidental civilisation and humanity, over the forces of destruction and disorder”.

Nor were these the only words of gratitude to O’Duffy from the ranks of the victorious Nationalist forces at the conclusion of Spain’s bloody three-year civil war.

The Archbishop of Toledo wrote to the general expressing his “admiration for noble and Catholic Ireland, from whom Spain received encouragement and sympathy during the hardest moments of her struggle for the faith”.

O’Duffy, who died 75 years ago this week, is one of the most controversial figures in interwar Irish history. Ireland’s answer to Oswald Mosley, he led the young state’s fascist Blueshirt movement and organised the Irish Brigade, which briefly fought for Franco in Spain. He is, moreover, a reminder of the dark undercurrent of antisemitism and indifference to the fate of Europe’s Jews which existed in some quarters in Ireland in the 1930s.

Like Mosley — a former Conservative and Labour MP before founding the British Union of Fascists — O’Duffy was no political outsider. He joined Sinn Fein and the IRA in the wake of the failed 1916 Easter Uprising, fought in the Irish War of Independence, and supported Michael Collins pro-Treaty forces in the ensuing civil war. In 1922, after a brief stint in the Dail, O’Duffy became police commissioner and was also briefly also in command of the army.

O’Duffy’s indifference to the rule of law was already apparent during his time as Garda commissioner. But it was when he was dismissed from his post by the newly elected government of Eamonn De Valera in 1933 — O’Duffy is believed to have advocated a coup to prevent it taking office — that his dalliance with fascism began.

Within months, O’Duffy had been elected head of the Army Comrades Association — a vigilante group of right-wing former officers — who had adopted the uniform of blue shirts.

Like Mosley, O’Duffy was drawn to, and impressed by, the growing strength of European fascist movements. He renamed the “Blueshirts” the National Guard and began to advocate sweeping political changes which would effectively gut Ireland’s young democracy. Recognising this, in August 1933, a planned, Mussolini-like “March on Dublin” by the Blueshirts was banned by the government, which deemed it “likely to interfere with law and order”.

O’Duffy’s movement posed a threat to Irish democracy and to the country’s small Jewish community. It was only open to Christians and its newspaper advocated that the “first act” of a Blueshirt government should be to “send all the foreign exploiters who have come in here during the past 12 or 13 years back to the land or lands of their birth”. Thus, as the historian Dermot Keogh, has argued, it was through the Blueshirts that “antisemitism was introduced more directly into Irish politics”. 

But, like Mosley, too, O’Duffy straddled the divide between a willingness to work within the political system and a desire to use extra-parliamentary activity to smash it and, like his British counterpart, too, he was also courted by some mainstream politicians who sought to capitalise on his supposed popularity.

When Ireland’s opposition parties formed Fine Gael in September 1933, O’Duffy was invited to become its president, with the former prime minister, William Cosgrave, leading it in the Dail. As Tony Gray writes in his account of 20th century Irish history, this meant that “the new party had an alternative para-military force with which to oppose the official army/police force — a potentially sinister situation”.

Like its counterpart in London, De Valera’s government moved to hinder the extreme right by banning political parties from wearing military-style uniforms.

O’Duffy’s threats that “our movement has long passed the stage when the government intimidation could put it down” ultimately proved idle. In the end, the alliance between Ireland’s aspiring fascist leader and some of its parliamentarians proved an uneasy and short-lived one, with O’Duffy resigning as Fine Gael president in late 1934.

O’Duffy’s explicitly fascist National Corporate party, formed the following year following a split within the Blueshirts, failed to catch light.
O’Duffy’s political marginalisation led him to attempt to exploit the strong popular support for Franco’s forces when civil war broke out in Spain in the summer of 1936. As the academic Fearghal McGarry has suggested, for many in Ireland, the war was viewed “as a religious rather than political conflict” with the undoubted acts of anti-clerical violence perpetrated by the Republican forces seen as posing an existential threat to their fellow Catholics in Spain. The battle for Spain, one Irish bishop declared, was “a war between Christ and anti-Christ” and between Catholicism and Communism.

In that war, many of Franco’s Irish supporters were convinced, Jews were the enemy. Patrick Belton, like O’Duffy a veteran of the war of independence, led the Irish Christian Front to support Franco and oppose Communism. In the Dail, Belton warned that “Jews have been the propagandists of Communism the world over” and demanded they be kept out of Ireland. 

Urged on by Cardinal Joseph MacRory, the primate of all Ireland, O’Duffy formed the Irish Brigade, which eventually dispatched 700 men to fight for the Nationalists in early 1937. The adventure did not prove a great success — after one dismal performance at the front Franco had O’Duffy’s men sent home.

While his supporters told the papers that O’Duffy was “not finished yet”, he effectively was. During the war years, the small antisemitic, pro-Nazi People’s National party of which he became a leader hatched schemes for a German invasion. But that invasion never came and O’Duffy died six months before the Allied victory. 

O’Duffy’s dream of a fascist Ireland may not have been realised, but he was not alone in his sympathy towards the Germans. Perhaps the most notorious example was Charles Bewley, Ireland’s ambassador to Berlin, who shamelessly flattered the Nazis, justified the Nuremberg Laws, and reported to Dublin that he had no knowledge of any “deliberately cruelty” towards the Jews on the part of the Nazis. While seeking to block any chance that Jews might escape to Ireland, he complained that the country’s refugee policy was “inordinately liberal”.

It was nothing of the sort. Only Jews who converted to Christianity had any chance of being allowed to settle in Ireland. As the Irish envoy to the 1938 Evian conference on Jewish refugees blandly stated: “We can make no real contribution to the settlement of refugees”. In private, some members of the Irish delegation were less discreet.

Referring to the persecution of the country’s Catholics during the days of British rule, one suggested: “Didn’t we suffer like this in the Penal days and nobody came to our help?”. “Irish policy,” the journalist Fintan O’Toole has suggested, “was infected with a toxic combination of antisemitism and self-pity”. 

Such sentiments were on occasion heard in the Irish parliament. In his maiden speech in July 1943, Oliver Flanagan, told the Dail: “There is one thing that Germany did and that was to rout the Jews out of their country.

“They crucified our saviour 1,900 years ago and they are crucifying us every day of the week,” he added. Flanagan appeared to pay no political price after the war: he served in the Dail for four decades, and, rising through the ranks of the Fine Gael party, would go on to serve in the government and enjoy a brief stint as Ireland’s Minister of Defence in the 1970s.

Flanagan’s flagrant antisemitism was not typical, but, as the country’s former justice minister, Michael McDowell, Ireland’s attitude towards Jewish refugees was “antipathetic, hostile and unfeeling”.

There were, though, honourable exceptions. Hubert Butler, the great Irish essayist and writer, for instance, travelled to Vienna shortly after the Anschluss. He volunteered with the Quakers to help rescue Jews, while his wife, Peggy Guthrie, met refugees in London and accompanied them to Ireland from where they travelled on to the US. 

Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was working in the Vatican when the war broke out and initially did not believe there was “anything to choose between Britain and Germany”. By 1943, however, he had set up an organisation which, with the help of the Irish minister to the Vatican, helped rescue Jews and Allied servicemen in Rome. The Gestapo put a price on his head and plotted to kidnap and murder him.

And then, of course, there were the thousands of Irish men who, in defiance of their country’s neutrality, volunteered to fight for the Allies.

These nameless men helped partly to salvage the reputation of the country, the likes of which O’Duffy, Bewley and Flanagan did so much to damage.

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