Fine Gael’s Uncomfortable History: The Legacy of Cumann na nGaedheal
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Fine Gael’s Uncomfortable History:
The Legacy of Cumann na nGaedheal

In 1931 The Star, a Dublin newspaper, claimed that “Cumann na nGaedheal must have a proud place in history.”1 “How much are they thought about these days by Fine Gael?” Alan Dukes mused in late April 2006. “I suppose not really a lot,” was the answer of the politician who led the Fine Gael party from 1987 to 1990. “A lot of people have realised that looking back is not a profitable exploit, except for the historians.”2 A round-table discussion in February 2008 considered seventy-five years of Fine Gael history.3 The historian Mike Cronin spoke of what he called the “elephant in the room,” that is, the Blueshirts and their problematic legacy. Certainly, this legacy cannot be ignored. As Fearghal McGarry explains, “The Blueshirts remain the skeleton in Fine Gael’s cupboard, as is demonstrated by the frequency with which the term is hurled across the floor of the Dáil.”4 But the Blueshirt movement is not the only aspect of the sometimes uncomfortable history of the party that has proved problematic; Fine Gael has also had to contend with the often difficult legacy bestowed on it by Cumann na nGaedheal. It is one that the party often chooses to overlook. In his study of Canadian party [End Page 253] names John Coakley noted that “if they are unsuccessful,” parties “may abandon the old name and adopt a new one, symbolically putting failure to death.”5 Has Fine Gael put that failure to death? How has the party dealt with and been affected by the memory of Cumann na nGaedheal? To what extent is Fine Gael a party of continuity? This article addresses these important questions.

Fine Gael, the United Ireland party, was officially created in September 1933 through a merger of Cumann na nGaedheal, the National Centre party, and the Army Comrades Association, more commonly known as the Blueshirts. At that critical juncture in the history of the party, it was Eoin O’Duffy and not W.T. Cosgrave, the Cumann na nGaedheal leader, who was appointed president of the new Fine Gael. His leadership was relatively short-lived, however, and he resigned on 21 September 1934. Not until March 1935 was his replacement selected, and Cosgrave returned to the helm.

Even before the reinstatement, however, Michael Tierney, the president of University College Dublin, had believed that “to all intents and purposes, it [Fine Gael] has become Cumann na nGaedheal all over again.”6 His observation was not unique, nor confined to the 1930s. The opposition tended to agree. In 1934 Seán Lemass, then serving as the Fianna Fáil Minister for Industry and Commerce, remarked, “Cumann na nGaedheal is dead, but the spirit lives on in the men of today,” while in 1959 Eamon de Valera explained that “as far as I am concerned, Fine Gael and Cumann na nGaedheal are the same.”7 Nor did the Fianna Fáil minister Neil Blaney differentiate between the two parties: “Despite the fact [that] the party changed its name . . . , it does not seem to have made much difference to the nature of the animal.”8 Donal O’Sullivan suggested in his study of the Seanád that “new Fine Gael was but old Cumann na nGaedheal writ small.”9 In contrast to these observations, [End Page 254] the Roscommon TD Frank MacDermot declared in 1935 that “the United Ireland party is a new party.”10 This pronouncement was to be expected, however, as MacDermot had been the leader of the short-lived National Centre party, and not a member of Cumann na nGaedheal.11

When did Fine Gael actually begin—in 1923, under the guise of Cumann na nGaedheal, or in 1933 as a new party distinct from the old pro-Treaty organization? Certainly, over the decades many members of the party have expressed the view that there is a line of continuity. For example, John A. Costello, the Fine Gael leader who had headed the interparty government of 1948–51, referred to “our predecessors in Cumann na nGaedheal” in 1957, and in 1964 the Cork city TD...