Formed in February 1932, the Army Comrades Association (ACA) was ostensibly designed to represent the interests of those who had served in the Free State National Army of 1922–24. From the outset, however, the ACA was known for its conservative political stance and opposition both to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and to the main republican party, Fianna Fáil. Eighteen months later, and now under the leadership of General Eoin O’Duffy, recently dismissed as Irish police commissioner by Eamon de Valera, the ACA was renamed the National Guard but better known as the “Blueshirts,” a corporatist movement partially modeled on the Italian Fascist party, or “Black-shirts.” Between 1932 and 1936 the Blueshirt movement constituted one of the most serious domestic threats to Irish democracy following the Civil War.
The threat posed by the Blueshirts was manifested both at local and at national level. Locally, Blueshirt public processions exacerbated post-Civil War tensions as opposing communities representing proand anti-Treaty political views competed for territorial and political supremacy. Simultaneously, however, the Blueshirt campaign against the payment of land annuities challenged state authority by disrupting the transport and communication networks. These activities threatened to destabilize the nascent state and forced the Fianna Fáil government, which viewed the Blueshirts first and foremost as a law-and-order rather than political issue, to mobilize the security apparatus. An Garda Síochána and the Irish judiciary, the latter consisting of [End Page 22] both the district courts and the military tribunal, worked effectively, if not harmoniously, in constraining and controlling the organization. The gardaí maintained regular surveillance of the Blueshirts, policed illegality connected to the anti-annuities campaign, and kept public peace during political rallies. They delegitimized Blueshirt activities by narrowly constructing them as criminal acts divorced from any political motive. By contrast, the Irish judiciary practiced a form of social justice through the application of specific forms of judicial punishment designed to reintegrate the individual back into the community. This meant focusing not on the individual propensity to commit crime but rather on the necessity for community peace. This conception of social justice brought the Irish judiciary into frequent conflict with the gardaí, who were focused on eliminating individual criminality in the communities they served. So, while the gardaí maintained a firm stance in the localities, the judiciary prevented the further radicalization of the movement through the limited use of punishment. Disconnected as these policies were, their convergence was remarkably effective in confronting the Blueshirt threat to the state.
The Blueshirts, 1932–36
Two weeks after the formation of the ACA, Eamon de Valera led Fianna Fáil, with the support of the Labour party, to electoral victory, thus bringing about the first peaceful transfer of government in modern Irish history and provoking a major change in direction for the ACA. Fianna Fáil was a republican party dedicated to eradicating any residual British political or cultural influences within Ireland. Immediately after coming to power, the government released numerous IRA prisoners. These men galvanized the republican section of the Irish population that had been opposed to the previous Cumann na nGaedheal government for its support of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was seen by many republicans as a betrayal of the Easter 1916 Proclamation. Anti-Treaty republicans considered former government ministers as traitors to the republican cause and began violently disrupting their public meetings. This in turn led to Cumann na nGaedheal party leaders inviting ACA members to protect these meetings, resulting in direct conflict between the ACA and anti- Treaty republicans. The ensuing street battles led to the blue shirt [End Page 23] being adopted in April 1933 as a specific identity marker, and from this point onward the group was commonly called the Blueshirts. The organization also sought to redefine itself as an explicitly political movement after Eoin O’Duffy assumed the leadership in July 1933. O’Duffy had recently been dismissed as garda commissioner because the Fianna Fáil government did not trust his loyalty. Under his leadership the Blueshirts adopted corporatism as their political philosophy and increased their membership...