History looks on the man from county Monaghan with a mix of amusement and embarrassment, and there is a sense he is best regarded as a bit of a crackpot or better still forgotten altogether.
O’Duffys legacy is defined by being the leading figure in the fascist movement in Ireland in the 1930s, and for bringing hundreds of his supporters to Spain in 1936 to fight on the side of General Franco as he sought to overthrow the Spanish republic and establish a dictatorship.
Even modern Irish musicians have weighed in on the topic with Christy Moore pouring scorn on this part of O’Duffys life in the song Viva la Qunita Brigada singing And the Bishops Blessed the Blueshirts Down in Galway as they Sailed Beneath the Swastika to Spain.
The Blueshirts here refers to the fascist group that O’Duffy was leader of. Modelled on other European fascist organisations they drew strongly from Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the armed wing of the Italian Fascist party.
O’Duffy was an admirer of the Italian dictator who took power in 1922 and lead the country until 1943, when World War two turned against the Nazis. He even offered 1000 Blueshirts to aid Italian forces in the Italo-Ethiopian war in 1935 as Italy sought to increase its influence in East Africa.
The Italian dictator did not take O’Duffy’s offer seriously, and it is unlikely that 1000 largely untrained Irishmen would have been much help in the conflict.
Because of his actions in his later years, O’Duffy’s early life is mostly overlooked. He played a prominent role in the struggle against British rule and in the early stages of the Free State.
Born into a small farming family near Castleblaney county Monaghan in 1890, he became a clerk in the county Monaghan surveyor’s office. In 1917, he joined the Irish Volunteers, the forerunners to the IRA who were established in 1919. He rose through the ranks and by 1919 he was a brigadier in the IRA.
So important was his role that the leading architect of the war against the British Michael Collins referred to him as the most important man in Ulster.
His work in the surveyor’s office gave him a detailed knowledge of the Monaghan countryside, which was very useful for the guerrilla warfare tactics employed by Collins in the war of independence.
The most famous engagement that O’Duffy took part in was the raiding of Ballytrain RIC (the RIC was the police force in Ireland under British rule) barracks on February 14, 1920.
The barracks were located in rural county Monaghan. O’Duffy and his men blocked off the approach roads, taking an adjoining storeroom and shop across the road before a gun battle ensued. The end came when a landmine was placed under one gable of the barracks blowing up that side and resulting in the surrender of the RIC men inside.
With no fatalities, O’Duffy allegedly expressed his happiness at this outcome, saying we did not come here to do injury, only for arms.
After the war of independence, he took the pro treaty side and became IRA Chief of Staff.
The war of independence brought about negotiations with Britain and a treaty which formed the 26 counties of the Irish Free State. The remaining 6 counties remained directly under British rule and formed Northern Ireland.
A civil war ensued with pro-treaty forces under the new Free State pitted against opponents to the treaty who believed the only outcome needed to be a politically independent island of Ireland, free of British rule.
In autumn 1922, he was appointed Garda Commissioner to bring order to the newly formed police force in Ireland, which had been experiencing some teething problems.
He served in this role until 1933, when incoming Taoiseach Éamon de Valera dismissed him.
Publicly De Valera said it was because O’Duffy could be biased due to their opposing sides in the civil war, but there were rumblings that he wanted to promote a coup and not hand over power to the incoming elected representative.
Regardless, O’Duffy left behind a well-organised non armed police force in Ireland, which has kept law and order in Ireland for a century.
In 1933, O’Duffy became leader of the Blueshirts, a group which embraced fascist ideology and modelled themselves on the larger fascist organisations in Europe. Notably they used the right arm salute, which has become symbolic of the Nazis during World War two.
In August 1933, O’Duffy planned a parade of Blueshirts in Dublin which set alarm bells ringing with De Valera who became worried a coup was imminent.
He quickly banned the Blueshirts and made them an illegal organisation. This ban was the catalyst for several small groups to come together and form what is the modern day Fine Gael, one of the most influential political parties in Ireland today.
O’Duffy was its first leader but only lasted over a year, his fascist ideology not being in line with where the party wanted to go.
Although the organisation had been banned by the government, the Blueshirts re-merged in the mid-1930s and voiced their intention to send men to Spain to support General Franco in his fight to overthrow the Spanish Republic.
O’Duffy was not alone in his views and many in Ireland, including the catholic church, saw it not as a conflict between political ideologies but as a battle between christ and anti-christ, supporting Franco’s push for power.
In December 1936, a volunteer force of well over 500 left Galway bay on the boat the Dun Aengus, to meet the German ship the SS Urundi.
This ship flew the Swastika as it sailed the Blueshirts to Ferrol in northeastern Spain before they joined O’Duffy in Cáceres 300 kilometres east of Madrid.
As the Galway volunteers left, they were blessed by Catholic clergy, who wholeheartedly supported Franco.
In military terms, O’Duffys campaign was an irrelevance as they played no significant part in the war.
By mid-1937, nearly all of O’Duffys men had returned home to be consigned to the annals of historic embarrassment. The number of casualties is unknown and there is little information about those who went, apart from O’Duffy.
Even considering his earlier contributions to the Irish state, the fact is O’Duffy supported political regimes amongst the most abhorrent in history.
However, he was only the loudest in a chorus of voices which supported Franco in his aim to turn Spain into a fascist state. The Church, politicians and various media outlets were vocal in their support of Franco and the rising wave of fascism that led to World War two.