COMRADE PJ Ruttledge was the leading political figure in Mayo during the first 30 years of independence.
Remembering Ruttledge, de Valera’s righthand man
Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last Sunday, May 8, in Ballina a plaque was unveiled in honour of PJ Ruttledge. He was the leading political figure in Mayo during the first three decades of Irish independence. He was a TD for North Mayo for over three decades and served in a variety of ministries in the early Fianna Fáil cabinets. He was one of Eamon deValera’s closest confidents.
PJ was born in Ballina in 1892. Following on from his education in St Muredach’s College and Patrick Pearse’s St Enda’s School he studied law at Trinity College. He qualified as a solicitor in 1918 and returned to Ballina where he joined the legal practice of Ruttledge and Corr, which had its office in Pearse Street.
His time in St Enda’s introduced him to revolutionary Irish politics. He shared lodgings in Dublin with Seán MacDiarmada, one of signatories of the 1916 proclamation. Ruttledge joined the IRA and during the War of Independence served as intelligence officer of the North Mayo brigade. In 1920 he was elected for Sinn Féin as a minister of Ballina Urban Council and Mayo County Council. He served as chairman of both bodies.
Ruttledge was arrested in November 1920 for his IRA activities and imprisoned in Galway jail. He first stood for Sinn Féin in North Mayo in 1921 and was returned unopposed. After the truce of July 1921, he was released from jail and resumed his political involvement.
The Anglo-Irish treaty was signed in December of that year. Following a passionate and sometimes bitter debate the Dáil accepted the treaty by 64 votes to 57. Ruttledge voted against the treaty and was elected to the anti-treaty IRA executive in April 1922.
One hundred years ago this month, he was a member of a ten-person committee, equally composed of supporters of the treaty, which sought unsuccessfully to avert a civil war.
After he was elected to the Dáil in June 1922 on the Anti-Treaty ticket, de Valera chose him as minister in his unofficial cabinet. The appointment indicated their close political relationship.
He played a military role in the Civil War. He was involved in a significant anti treaty success in September 1922, when the Republican forces captured Ballina from the Free State Army. He was shot and badly wounded in the conflict which affected his health for the rest of his life.
It was a dark period in Irish history as men who had fought together for Irish independence turned their guns on each other. By early 1923, Ruttledge realised that the continuation of the civil war was futile. As adjutant general of the IRA he tried to persuade hardline colleagues to call a truce. In April 1923 his view prevailed.
Eamon de Valera had been arrested during the civil war and remained in prison until 1924. In his absence, Ruttledge acted as leader of Sinn Féin and was also editor of its newsletter, An Phoblacht.
After his release from jail de Valera concluded that the Sinn Féin policy of abstention from Dáil Éireann was a political dead end. When a majority of that party opposed his proposal to enter the parliament if the oath of allegiance to the British monarch was removed, de Valera resigned and founded Fianna Fáil. Ruttledge joined him in the new party and became its Vice President.
Fianna Fáil won the general election of 1932. Ruttledge became Minister for Lands and Fisheries. The following year he was promoted to the justice portfolio where he spent over six years. It was a febrile time in Irish politics and Ruttledge was at the centre of it. Old civil war resentments surfaced regularly inside and outside the Dáil.
He strongly opposed the Blueshirt movement which he believed was fascist in tendency and dress. He removed General Eoin O’Duffy as Garda Commissioner because the government had lost confidence in him. O’Duffy retaliated by taking over the leadership of the Blue Shirts. In 1934, Ruttledge introduced legislation to prohibit the Blue Shirts wearing their quasi military uniform.
In 1939 he transferred to the Department of Local Government and Health. Due to health reasons he resigned from the cabinet in 1941 but remained as a TD for North Mayo.
Outside politics, his main interest was horse racing. He was involved in the governance of the Turf Club during the 1940s. His horse Mondragon won the Irish Derby in 1939.
Ruttledge died on May 8, 1952, just 70 years ago. In a graveside oration de Valera paid him the following tribute:
“We honoured him for the part he played in the effort to win freedom for our country. We admired him as a brave soldier and counsellor. We loved him as a comrade whose intimate companionship in days of stress and danger made him more than a friend.”