It may be something of a pejorative term nowadays, but there was a time when being called a Blueshirt was, for many, a matter of pride.
Founded in 1932, the Blueshirts stated aim was to provide physical protection for political groups (primarily Cumann na nGaedheal) from intimidation and attacks from opponents. The background was that, after a decade of pro-Treaty government, Fianna Fáil won power in a general election for the first time. It had been a bitter ten years, and for many of de Valera’s supporters, it was payback time.
This was a time when mob violence and riotous behaviour were commonplace at political meetings, a situation best summed up by the Dáil contribution of the Balla TD Dick Walsh during a debate when the Fianna Fáil government sought to outlaw the wearing of the blue shirt.
“I had the doubtful privilege myself of being pulled off a platform and getting a damned good kicking,” he said, “but I took my medicine, and didn’t go around moaning about the terrible outrage on free speech. And any person who ever entered politics and is not prepared to take his dose of these things must be a very innocent person indeed.”
It was against this background that the Blueshirts were formed. Led by General Eoin O’Duffy (sacked by de Valera as the Garda Commissioner), branches were set up nationally, and nowhere more enthusiastically than in Mayo.
From Kilmovee to Louisburgh and Glencorrib to Ballina, branches recruited new members in their hundreds. Women branches in Ballinrobe and Kiltimagh led the way to female involvement in every part of the county.
Huge marches were led by bands and colour parties and mounted horsemen; mass meetings were addressed by O’Duffy and his colleagues in every town of Mayo; the straight-armed victory salute was adopted as a trademark. There were Blueshirt sports meetings, concerts, dances, feiseanna and outdoor promotions. For three years of civil turmoil in Ireland, the Blueshirts became a growing menace to the Fianna Fáil government and a rallying core for those in the opposite camp.
There were violent clashes where Blueshirt rallies were held. O’Duffy addressed a meeting of several thousand in the Market Square in Ballina where stones and missiles rained down on the attendance, launched from the yards of houses bordering the street. The victory dance at the Hibernian Hall had to be cancelled when it was found that opponents had entered the building, cut the electric wires, smashed the piano and drums, and poured tar over the dance floor. At Westport Court, a number of Blueshirts were charged with assaulting a group of men who, it was alleged, had disrupted a meeting in Fahy by throwing rocks and shouting ‘up Dev’.
There was national outrage when the Parish Priest of Claremorris, Canon McHugh – a man who made no secret of his allegiance to Cumann na nGaedheal – was assaulted when he intervened in a row between Blueshirts and IRA members outside the hotel in the town.
Whereas the local papers in general took a supportive view of the Blueshirts, such was not the case with The Mayo News.
Following a contentious meeting in Westport, the paper was moved to note that ‘it was only those who were always identified with the Rent office and the descendants of the bailiffs who support the Blueshirts’.
For good measure, the editor went on to say that Westport had some strange attraction as a venue for anti-Irish organisations – even the Freemasons of Connaught make it their meeting place for their annual deliberations, he said.