Blythe, Ernest (de Blaghd, Earnán) (1889–1975), revolutionary, politician, government minister, managing director of the Abbey Theatre, and Irish-language revivalist, was born 13 April 1889 at Magheragall, Lisburn, Co. Antrim, eldest child among two sons and two daughters of James Blythe, farmer, and Agnes Blythe (née Thompson).
Upbringing and education
He was raised as a member of the Church of Ireland, following the religious affiliation of his father. His mother came from a presbyterian background. He received his formal education at the local national schools at Maghaberry and Ballycarrickmaddy. As he was the elder son, there would have been a conventional assumption that Ernest would succeed his father and spend his life working on their eighty-acre family farm. He failed to satisfy that and many other conventional assumptions during his long life. Blythe's passionate commitment to the promotion of the Irish language was central to the nationalism which he adopted as a young man and persevered with throughout his life. He claimed in his autobiography that his interest in the Irish language dated from his early childhood, sparked both by catholic servant girls employed on his father's farm and by stories from his mother of her Irish-speaking presbyterian kinsmen.
Language and early politics
He obtained employment in Dublin in 1905 with the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction and soon became acquainted with Sean O'Casey (qv), the future playwright and then a fellow member of the Church of Ireland. When the Rev. James Hannay (qv) (George A. Birmingham) made history by celebrating holy communion in Irish in St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin, on St Patrick's day 1906, he had the support of a small group of enthusiastic but unknown young men, including Blythe and O'Casey. Their position on that issue was socially isolating in that their fellow members of the Gaelic League did not approve of activities carried out on a sectarian basis. Perhaps even more so, the great majority of their fellow members of the Church of Ireland were opposed to the use of the Irish language in their church services. Blythe's interest in the revival of the Irish language as the vernacular became a lifelong passionate commitment. Not satisfied with the level of proficiency acquired through Gaelic League classes, Blythe went to live in the west Kerry Gaeltacht in April 1913. He worked there for several months as a labourer on the farm of the family of Thomas Ashe (qv).
His new cultural identity was complemented by clandestine political militancy when in 1906, at the instigation of Sean O'Casey, he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He recollected in later life that the only public activity in which he was involved as an IRB member was a fruitless attempt in 1907 to break up a meeting in Dublin's Mansion House on the Irish Council bill at which John Redmond (qv) and Joseph Devlin (qv) were the principal speakers.
Blythe moved in March 1909 to a milieu politically hostile to his nascent separatism when he took up employment as a journalist with the North Down Herald, a pro-unionist weekly newspaper published in Bangor, Co. Down. He spent four years writing for that paper, sometimes penning its leading article. At the same time, he was active in the clandestine promotion of the IRB in Ulster. In these years he had first-hand experience of the rise in militant unionist resistance to the 1912 home rule bill. It was an experience shared by very few of those who would come to political prominence in the Irish Free State, and one that shaped much of his political views over many decades, not only on the partition issue but also in relation to the revival of the Irish language.
While employed in Co. Down, Blythe remained in touch with Dublin-based separatists. In October 1910, at the instigation of Tom Clarke (qv), the IRB launched a new separatist monthly newspaper, Irish Freedom. Blythe, along with Seán Mac Diarmada (qv), Denis McCullough (qv), Bulmer Hobson (qv), and Dr Pat McCartan (qv), was invited by Clarke to take editorial charge.
IRB and Volunteers
As the political success of Sir Edward Carson (qv) in 1912–13 in leading unionist opposition to mooted home rule undermined public confidence in the effectiveness of John Redmond's parliamentary party, advanced nationalists increasingly viewed their counterweight to unionism to be the IRB-influenced Volunteers, not the Sinn Féin party of Arthur Griffith (qv). Blythe reflected that view when he wrote in Irish Freedom in December 1913, describing Sinn Féin in somewhat condescending terms as being ‘valueless’ except as the complement of military organisation. He then enthused also about ‘the red tillage of the battlefield’, concluding that none was ‘worthy of the name of nationalist or citizen or man but the soldier’ (Irish Freedom, Dec. 1913).
With the outbreak of the first world war and the subsequent split in the Volunteer movement between the larger, Redmondite National Volunteers and the smaller, more radical and IRB-influenced Irish Volunteers, Blythe became a full-time Irish Volunteer organiser, in 1915 working in counties as far apart as Clare and Londonderry. He ensured, as far as he could influence it, that Irish Volunteer officers were also IRB members. This was an important factor in planning the 1916 rising, when the IRB leadership had not yet ensured the agreement of Eoin MacNeill (qv) and others on the Irish Volunteers’ executive. Blythe's work as a revolutionary organiser was necessarily clandestine and so largely unrecorded. That he had a significant role can be inferred from the fact that he was jailed in autumn 1915 under the defence of the realm act, along with Seán Mac Diarmada and Liam Mellows (qv). A rally held in the Phoenix Park on 12 September 1915 to call for their release was addressed by James Connolly (qv) among others, and drew a crowd reportedly in excess of 10,000. Blythe's release from prison was short-lived: a Dublin Castle security meeting held on 17 March 1916 agreed that Blythe and Mellows posed sufficient danger to warrant deportation to England. The meeting at which that decision was taken was attended by senior members of the Dublin Castle administration, including the British under-secretary for Ireland, Matthew Nathan (qv), and the attorney general, John Gordon (qv). The relative importance ascribed by the Castle administration to Blythe may be gauged from the fact that the same meeting considered it unnecessary to reimprison Tom Clarke ‘unless some new offence could be proved’. Blythe spent the succeeding months, including the week of the 1916 Easter rising, in various prisons in Britain, including Oxford, Brixton, and Reading. On release, he spent Christmas 1916 in Limerick at the home of John Daly (qv) and in the company of Tom Clarke's widow, Kathleen (qv) (née Daly), and her children, though he did not confine himself to seasonal social activities: he also took the opportunity to reactivate Limerick's Volunteer cadre. When the Sinn Féin convention of October 1917 gave that party a new focus as well as a new leadership, reflecting its reinvigorated political status, over a hundred candidates competed for the twenty-four posts on the party's new executive. Blythe, Darrell Figgis (qv) and Dr Kathleen Lynn (qv) were the only three protestants to be elected.
Dáil Éireann 1919–21
Blythe's growing public profile was advanced further when he was elected for Monaghan North in the 1918 general election. (He also stood in Armagh North in the same election but lost overwhelmingly to the unionist candidate.) He was returned for Monaghan at successive general elections until 1933. When Éamon de Valera (qv) became president of the council of ministers in April 1919 he appointed three non-cabinet directors, with Blythe chosen as director of trade and commerce. Dáil Éireann was soon driven underground, and it met only eight times between September 1919 and July 1921. Blythe was arrested and jailed several times between those dates. Not surprisingly, his administrative achievements in that session were slight, limited largely to the establishment of an industrial resources commission, which carried out its research slowly, if methodically, eventually producing eight separate reports. Blythe's capacity to look at political problems and offer an independent-minded solution was reflected at this stage in his opposition, in Dáil Éireann, to a proposed general boycott of Belfast goods and services. The ‘Belfast boycott’ evolved in the south as a reaction to major incidents of sectarian attacks on catholic workers, especially in Belfast. Blythe argued in the dáil that a general economic boycott of Belfast goods would destroy forever the possibility of any north–south union. Instead, he proposed a boycott confined to specific northern individuals and firms who could be demonstrably linked to sectarian attacks on catholics. As the sole northern protestant member of Dáil Éireann, Blythe then, and many times later, articulated views sharply at variance with Irish nationalist opinion generally.
Blythe supported the Anglo–Irish treaty of 6 December 1921, arguing, in the course of the dáil debate on its approval, that by the use of ‘suitable propaganda’ protestant Ulstermen's latent nationalism could be resuscitated. Positing that Irish nationalists had a right to coerce Ulster unionists, he added that it was inappropriate to attempt to coerce and conciliate them at the same time. Blythe's views on the Ulster question were expressed in more specific terms in the second half of 1922. In the first half of that year the views of Michael Collins (qv) on the partition of Ulster had prevailed and his cabinet colleagues had not been fully briefed by him on developments in Ulster. When Collins became commander-in-chief of the national army and withdrew from his ministerial role, the ensuing political power vacuum allowed the direction of northern policy to be moulded by Collins's colleagues in the provisional government, who quickly decided on a substantially different approach. In early August 1922 the provisional government set up a five-man committee, including Blythe, to formulate a coherent northern policy. As an Ulster protestant, Blythe was probably the only member of the provisional government who had a realistic political insight into how the Ulster protestant mind worked. He circulated an influential memorandum to the committee, implicitly criticising the northern policy that Collins had pursued since January. He described that clandestine, belligerent policy as ‘useless for protecting the catholics or stopping the pogroms’ (quoted in Michael Hopkinson, Green against green (1988), 250). Likewise, he saw no prospect for bringing secessionist Ulster into a united Ireland by economic pressure. On 19 August 1922 the provisional government formally adopted a ‘peace policy . . . with north-east Ulster’ (ibid.). A week later, four days after the shooting of Collins, Blythe's memorandum was circulated to all members of the provisional government. In effect, Blythe's core recommendations were implicitly accepted by that government and, indeed, by successive Irish governments.
Blythe's formal ministerial role in the provisional government (from August 1922) and in the early Free State government was that of minister for local government, a position which he vacated in October 1923 on becoming minister for finance. He held that post until the advent in March 1932 of the first Fianna Fáil government. Following the assassination in July 1927 of Kevin O'Higgins (qv), Blythe also took on the office of vice-president of the executive council. After the second general election of 1927 he held both of these roles as well as that as minister for posts and telegraphs. It is, however, in his role as minister for finance that he is chiefly remembered. The nationalist rhetoric of pre-independent Ireland pointed to a prosperous future – once political independence had been achieved. The reality faced by Blythe as minister for finance was entirely different. The Irish Free State had a weak industrial sector, exacerbated by partition, which removed from its political control the most prosperous region and two-thirds of the industrial workforce. The economy of the new state remained closely integrated with that of Britain and Northern Ireland, which accounted for £50.5 m of total Free State exports of £51.58 m in 1924. Prices for Irish agricultural produce, which had risen during the first world war, fell significantly in the post-war era when Britain regained access to other suppliers of food. By 1927 the Free State agricultural price index had fallen below half of the 1920 level. The cost of maintaining the Free State army during the civil war at a strength of over 50,000 was a major burden on the national finances. Over 25 per cent of the total estimates for 1922–3 was allocated to meeting army costs. The top echelons of the Irish banks were dominated largely by men of a pro-unionist background who had little faith in the abilities of the Free State's politicians. As early as 1923 the government was obliged to seek credit facilities from the Irish banks, which responded only when the British treasury exercised pressure on the Irish banks. Most of the Free State's senior civil servants had spent the formative years of their careers working in the British civil service and continued to value financial probity, treasury control, and a distaste for economic intervention. In summary, Blythe's time at Finance allowed little scope for radical, developmental innovation in fiscal or economic policies, nor indeed did Blythe seek to promote policies on those lines.
Blythe made little pretence of adhering to either the vague social aspirations of the first dáil's democratic programme, or to the policies of economic self-sufficiency advocated by Sinn Féin's founder, Arthur Griffith. On the contrary, he implemented enthusiastically the then economic orthodoxy of cutting public expenditure and underpinning laissez-faire free trade. Government expenditure fell from £28.7 m in 1923/4 to £18.9 m in 1927/8. Within a month of his appointment in September 1923 as minister for finance, Blythe endorsed the recommendations of his department to cut government spending by measures that would prove to be highly unpopular politically. The measures included salary cuts for national schoolteachers and the army, as well as a cut of one shilling in the ten-shilling weekly pension of old-age pensioners. Blythe's public defence of the pension cut was that the cost of living had fallen significantly since the rate of weekly pension payment had been fixed at ten shillings. Some later comparative research indicates that the Irish old-age pension was, at that time, one of the more generous in Europe as a proportion of average industrial earnings. This arose because the pension rate was set at the UK rate before the Free State's inception, despite the generally lower standard of living in Ireland. Furthermore, in Ireland older age groups formed a greater proportion of the overall population than in the UK. The resulting burden of old age pensions was a major expenditure item in the early Free State, amounting to £3.3 m. of a total public expenditure in 1922/3 of £20 m. Experiencing little assistance from the Irish banks, Blythe accepted his department's strong recommendation to raise a national loan. The expenditure cuts announced by Blythe in November 1923 could be seen as a public commitment to financial orthodoxy, a commitment necessary for the success of the forthcoming national loan. The loan issue was a success. In contrast, the expenditure cuts, especially those applicable to pensioners, remained an outstanding political liability for Blythe and his party for many years.
Blythe was not an innovative minister for finance. The initiative in 1924 to have the first major hydroelectric generation capacity built by the state came from the Department of Industry and Commerce. The decision to implement that proposal was a landmark in the economic history of the Free State. In assenting to the ‘Shannon scheme’, as the state electricity generation capacity came to be called, Blythe bypassed his departmental secretary, Joseph Brennan (qv), who had a deeply rooted objection to public expenditure on the scale required. Personal relations between Blythe and Brennan deteriorated sharply when Brennan realised that Blythe had not kept him informed of a decision with such major implications for public expenditure. Their relationship never recovered and to a considerable extent led to Brennan's decision in 1927, then aged 39 years, to resign as secretary of the Department of Finance.
Scarcity of economic resources, compounded by the expense of the civil war, undoubtedly greatly circumscribed Blythe's scope for freedom of action as minister for finance. In any case, Blythe was not temperamentally disposed to exercise what scope he had. The parameters of economic policy during Blythe's terms of office were devised and determined by commissions of experts, most notably the fiscal inquiry committee (1923) and the commission on agriculture (1924). Both groups strongly favoured a free-trade economic policy, a policy very much at variance with the economic protectionist policies advocated by Arthur Griffith and pre-treaty Sinn Féin. Blythe's fiscal policy rested on the core assumption that the well-being of the Irish economy was predominantly dependent on agriculture, and that the optimum prospects for agriculture were through increased agricultural exports to Britain. The means to achieve that goal included minimising tariff duties on manufactured goods so as to curtail cost increases for farmers. Blythe imposed tariffs in three successive budgets, 1924–6, but his measures had marginal impact and did little to satisfy the demands of Irish manufacturers for the application of a more rigorous tariff regime.
The enactment of the Tariff Commission Act, 1926, may have been perceived by some as holding out a promise of a significant policy shift on the tariff protection issue. It was not to be. Under the act, three commissioners were appointed (2 December 1926) for a two-year period, appointed respectively by the ministers for finance, agriculture (Patrick Hogan (qv)) and industry and commerce (Patrick McGilligan (qv)). Accepting the commissioners’ recommendations in full did not greatly burden Blythe: during their term of office the commissioners’ sole recommendations were the imposition of a 33.3 per cent tariff on rosary beads and a 3d. tariff on each pound of margarine.
Blythe changed the minimalist tariff policy pursued from 1923 to 1929 in his two final years as minister for finance. The change was reactive, driven in large measure in response to the sharp deterioration in the world economy from 1929. Growing internal pressures from the increasingly assertive Fianna Fáil party, and from Irish manufacturers urging the imposition of tariffs on imported goods, also impelled Blythe to amend his fiscal policies. The political convulsion in Britain in August 1931 led to the formation there of a ‘national government’ committed to protecting British agriculture, most especially those products in which Irish farmers then specialised, such as livestock and dairy products. This move undercut Blythe's tariff policy even further. Against a backdrop of an international economic recession and a virtual halt to emigration from the Free State, Blythe's tariff policies became politically unsustainable. By November 1931, only three months before a general election, Blythe and his cabinet colleagues introduced legislation which gave them power for a nine-month period to impose such import duties as were deemed ‘immediately necessary to prevent an expected dumping of goods or other threatened industrial injury’ (quoted in Daly, Industrial development, 47). In so far as it had any political effect, that action probably confirmed the perception of many voters that Blythe and his colleagues had belatedly come to accept the validity of Fianna Fáil's strongly pro-tariff protectionist policies.
Blythe lost ministerial office following the general election in February 1932. He never served in government again. He lost his dáil seat in the 1933 election: the first two seats in his Monaghan constituency were taken by Fianna Fáil candidates; the third and final seat was taken by an ex-unionist candidate, elected with the help of Fianna Fáil transfers. Blythe resumed his parliamentary career when he won a by-election to the senate, and he was reelected in November 1934 in the senate's fourth triennial election. He was placed nineteenth of the twenty-three senators elected. In theory, the first twenty senators then elected were due to hold office for nine years. In reality, the abolition of the senate was impending and Blythe's political focus had already moved to extra-parliamentary activities centred on the Army Comrades Association (ACA, later the Blueshirts).
Blythe's association with the ACA dated from the summer of 1932. His enthusiasm for the new group found expression in different ways. It was on Blythe's recommendation that the colour blue was chosen for the distinctive shirt to be worn by Blueshirts. His belief that the colour of St Patrick's blue would link its wearers to a quasi-nationalist past was more than a little fanciful. He wrote several position papers for the Blueshirt movement on economic and social issues. His papers digressed into details of minutiae and were of no practical political relevance then or later. He wrote and spoke at this stage of his career as an enthusiastic supporter of the corporate and vocational political system. Perhaps disingenuously, and certainly somewhat incongruously for a Co. Antrim-born protestant, he stressed the importance of Pope Pius XI as the inspiration of that ideology. Blythe urged that the Blueshirt movement should take the leading, overarching role in advancing the corporate system in Ireland, definitely a difference of kind rather than degree with the papal encyclical on vocationalism, Quadragesimo anno. The merger of Cumann na nGaedheal, the Centre Party, and the Blueshirt movement in September 1933 was short-lived, not least because of the irascible, exuberant behaviour of the Blueshirt leader, Eoin O'Duffy (qv). By early October 1934 O'Duffy was describing Blythe publicly as a ‘damnable traitor’ and ‘a scandal-monger’ (quoted in Manning, Blueshirts, 167) who sought to undermine O'Duffy's authority as Blueshirt leader. Blythe certainly played a significant role in the removal of O'Duffy from leadership of Fine Gael, a move that brought that party back unequivocally to exclusively constitutional politics.
In common with several other former leading figures in Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael, Blythe had drifted out of mainstream political activism by the late 1930s. He found employment as secretary of Clondalkin Paper Mills from 1937 to 1941. In 1941 he commenced what would be his longest period of continuous employment with a single employer, becoming managing director of the Abbey Theatre, a position he held until 1967.
The Abbey Theatre
As minister for finance Blythe had ensured in 1925 that an annual grant of £850 would be paid to the Abbey, and had been feted from the Abbey stage on 8 August 1925 by W. B. Yeats (qv) for his enlightened act of patronage, which had returned the theatre to financial solvency. He was again on stage at the Abbey with Yeats and Lady Gregory (qv) on 27 December 1925, at a gala celebration marking the theatre's twenty-first anniversary. But the public identification of the Abbey with Blythe, a leading member of the Free State government, was not without its disadvantages for the Abbey. The riot that occurred on 11 February 1926 during the production of O'Casey's ‘The plough and the stars’ was not spontaneous but instigated by well-known anti-treatyites, including Mrs Kathleen Clarke and Maude Gonne MacBride (qv). Anti-treatyite publicists welcomed the riot as a high-profile means of embarrassing the Cumann na nGaedheal government, and Blythe especially, in that it portrayed them as subventing a quasi-sacrilegious attack on the sacred icons and ideals of Irish republicanism.
Blythe became a director of the Abbey Theatre in 1935, at the instigation of Yeats. His appointment, and subsequent rise to being the de facto sole authority figure within the Abbey for virtually three decades, has been portrayed as the culmination of a cunning game plan by Blythe. The reality was more complex. He was one of three new appointees to the expanded Abbey board in 1935. One of the two others, John Weldon (Brinsley McNamara (qv)), was a devoutly catholic playwright who resigned within the year, having denounced his fellow directors for authorising the staging of O'Casey's ‘Silver tassie’, a play perceived by Weldon as being highly offensive to catholics. The other appointee, F. R. Higgins (qv), was a neo-romantic poet and on Yeats's recommendation was appointed managing director of the Abbey Theatre in November 1938. Higgins died of a heart attack in January 1941. Blythe succeeded him later that month as managing director, a position that he held from then until 1967. Blythe's appointment filled a power vacuum at the Abbey. Yeats had died in January 1939 and the author Michael O'Donovan (Frank O'Connor (qv)) had been ousted as an Abbey director in August 1939. O'Connor's tenure as a director had lasted less than four years and was ended on the ostensible grounds that he supported divorce, a somewhat ironic basis in view of Yeats's very public defence of divorce in the senate debates of 1925. By September 1943 Walter Starkie (qv) was removed from the Abbey's board of directors as he had not complied with the new, more rigorous attendance required of directors. (As director of the British Institute in wartime Madrid, Starkie was scarcely in a position to comply.) By then Blythe's position within the Abbey board had been greatly strengthened as its membership consisted of Blythe, the now ineffectual Lennox Robinson (qv), Richard Hayes (qv), and Roibeárd Ó Faracháin (qv), a close ally of Blythe and then an employee of Radio Éireann. Blythe, Hayes, and Ó Faracháin shared an enthusiasm for the revival of the Irish language as the everyday medium of conversation, a factor that would influence the artistic direction of the Abbey Theatre for many years.
The balance of retrospective comment on Blythe's managerial role in the Abbey Theatre has been very largely negative. He has been criticised in particular for his zealous promotion of Irish-language plays and pantomimes at the Abbey to the detriment of its artistic standards. He was undoubtedly a cultural and linguistic nationalist, with the greater emphasis on nationalism rather than culture. In that he was very much a man of his time, attempting to implement the re-gaelicisation policy of the government in which he had participated and of its successor in office. Ireland had become increasingly introspective in the 1930s, and the isolationism brought on by the second world war and Ireland's continuing economic malaise had exacerbated that trend. Against that backdrop, Irish theatre audiences preferred pot-boiler farces by George Shiels (qv) rather than Yeat's obscure poetry. Existing on a meagre state subsidy, the Abbey was not in any position to offend church or state. The annual grant of £850, approved by Blythe as minister for finance in 1925 and which he increased to £1,000 for the financial year 1926–7, was not increased again until the financial year 1947–8. The Abbey's recurrent offering of forgettable and now forgotten farce, melodrama, and Irish-language pantomimes reflected as much on the preferences of contemporary theatregoers as it did on Blythe and his continuing attempts to balance the Abbey's budget.
The destruction by fire in July 1951 of the Abbey Theatre's premises obliged Blythe to find an alternative venue, the Queen's Theatre, Pearse St., in autumn 1951. Abbey Theatre programmes laboured the point that the productions were those of ‘The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, playing at the Queen's, pending the rebuilding and enlargement of the Abbey’. The envisaged temporary arrangement lasted until July 1966, when the rebuilt Abbey premises reopened at its original site. The larger capacity of the Queen's if anything increased pressure on Blythe to find even more popular box-office successes. The interregnum years at the Queen's worsened already poor staff relations between Blythe and the Abbey's actors, who sought better pay and conditions. When strike notice was served to expire in April 1964, Blythe agreed reluctantly to have the dispute examined by an independent arbitrator, and both sides accepted that the arbitrator's findings would be binding on them. Blythe's reluctance was in part due to his resentment at the actors’ challenge to his authority and also to the mutual, long-standing antagonism between him and the arbitrator, C. S. (‘Todd’) Andrews (qv). Andrews produced an arbitration report within a month which recommended much improved pay and conditions of service and urged the government to increase the subsidy to meet current losses, eliminate accumulated losses, and put in place adequate working capital for the continuance of the theatre.
In accepting part of the Andrews 1964 arbitration recommendations, the minister for finance, James Ryan (qv), decided to increase the number of government nominees on the Abbey board and to widen the base of its shareholders’ structure. The net effect was the gradual dilution of Blythe's authority within the Abbey. The enlarged and renewed Abbey shareholders’ group sought to circumscribe Blythe's role as managing director by the creation of a new post of artistic director. Blythe was predictably hostile to the proposal and defended his authority tenaciously. The internal debate continued intermittently throughout 1965. The eventual compromise was a face-saving victory for Blythe: Walter Macken (qv) was appointed near the end of 1965 as artistic adviser with a consultative remit only. Macken choose to resign from that role by June 1966. The role of artistic adviser was then assumed by Tomás Mac Anna, who had been largely responsible for directing most Irish-language plays produced from 1947 onwards and had considerable experience as a set designer of high repute. Not unimportantly, he had a good working relationship with Blythe. That consideration was seen by some as a ploy by Blythe to retain his influence. Nonetheless, Blythe retired as the Abbey's managing director on 31 August 1967 but retained an office in the theatre and remained on the Abbey's board for five more years.
Blythe played several very separate roles in the course of his adult life. The one continuous link over those years was his total commitment to promoting the revival of the Irish language as the language of everyday life. Writing a half-century after Blythe had lost ministerial office, his former private secretary at the Department of Finance, León Ó Broin (qv), described Blythe as being ‘less inclined to accept criticisms of [Irish] language projects which, for the most part, he had himself generated, than of the multitude of proposals and expenditure that were submitted for finance consideration’ (Ó Broin, No man's man: a biographical memoir of Joseph Brennan (1982), 128). Measures initiated during Blythe's term of office as minister for finance included the provision of a subsidised Irish-language theatre at Galway (Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe); the creation of An Gúm, a state publishing company which made available inexpensive copies of Irish-language textbooks, some new works by writers in Irish, but mostly translations into Irish of well-known novels and histories; the provision of financial assistance to schools teaching through the medium of Irish; and housing grants for Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas. In an era of radical cutbacks on state expenditure, none of these measures could have been introduced without Blythe's full support.
He reaped little or no political dividend from his efforts to advance the everyday use of the Irish language: civil service candidates resented the introduction of compulsory Irish examinations; members of Irish-language revivalist movements mirrored the political split on the treaty issue; would-be Gaelic authors resented the emphasis by An Gúm on translating published works rather than their own creations; Blythe's support for standardised spelling and use of the ‘Roman’ font in Irish-language print was contested fiercely by dogmatic supporters of the traditional ‘Gaelic’ font. Blythe's personal preference for speaking Munster Irish engendered paranoia on the part of many supporters of the other Irish-language dialects, who believed that the few opportunities for career advancement on the basis of Irish-language proficiency were being monopolised by those speaking the Munster dialect.
Neither his loss of political office nor the continuing factionalism of other Irish-language revivalists abated Blythe's enthusiasm for Irish. He continued to publish articles in the Leader during the late 1930s, urging the introduction of further supportive measures to bolster the position of the Irish language and its speakers. The election in 1941 of an IRA internee as president of Conradh na Gaeilge, then the main Irish-language revivalist body, worsened relations between Éamon de Valera, head of government, and Conradh. That situation in turn contributed to the establishment in 1943 by de Valera of An Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, an overarching coordination body, with state subvention, for the various voluntary Irish-language bodies. Blythe was chosen in 1947 as Comhdháil's president. He owed his new position largely to de Valera and Fianna Fáil, his former bitter civil-war enemies, a reflection of the cross-party respect for his unswerving Irish-language revivalist beliefs. Many of the language promotional measures then advocated by Blythe as Comhdháil president were implemented by Fianna Fáil governments. These included state subsidies for Irish-language magazines and newspapers, as well as the creation of a separate department of state with responsibility for the Gaeltacht. Blythe was a Fianna Fáil government appointee to the commission on the revival of the Irish language, as well as to the first Radio Éireann authority, appointed in 1960. His advocacy of the use of film, and even television, as a medium to promote wider use of Irish had been a matter of public record as early as the late 1930s.
Blythe's arguments in favour of greater use of Irish were stated not only on linguistic and nostalgic bases but also on quasi-political grounds. In particular, Blythe in his later life argued vehemently that the abandonment of the Irish language by the majority of Irish nationalists left them without a defining characteristic other than the religious belief of Roman catholicism, something abhorrent to protestant Ulster. His corollary was that the Irish language could and should become a badge of nationality shared in common by Irish catholics and protestants.
Later attitude to partition
When a major anti-partition propaganda campaign was launched in Ireland, Britain, and the USA in 1949, Blythe was virtually a lone, publicly dissenting voice amongst Irish nationalists in querying the assumptions that then formed the basis for a nationalist consensus ‘against partition’. Thus in the early 1950s Blythe wrote, first by a series of letters to newspapers and subsequently in his book Briseadh na teorann (Smashing the border), on the partition issue from a perspective greatly at variance with his fellow Irish nationalists. While senior Irish establishment figures – even a pragmatist like Seán Lemass (qv) – still argued that partition had arisen out of British trickery and that no state could allow a disgruntled minority to opt out of the nation, Blythe in contrast argued that the strident nationalist anti-partition rhetoric over the preceding thirty years had been counter-productive. His basic thesis was that ‘the linguistic and cultural apostasy’ of Irish catholics from the nineteenth century onwards made it too difficult for Ulster protestants to see a national as distinct from a sectarian motive behind the nationalist demand for self-government (Blythe, A new departure in northern policy: an appeal to the leaders of nationalist opinion (c.1957), 18). With characteristic pugnacity, Briseadh na teorann did not confine itself to philosophical generalities but gave advice on such questions as ‘The proper attitude for northern nationalists to toasting Queen Elizabeth; resolutions congratulating the royal family; the display of the tricolour and union jack’ (ibid., 31). From the 1950s until his death in 1975, Blythe argued in favour of the deletion from the Irish constitution of articles 2 and 3, which claimed de jure jurisdiction over Northern Ireland for the Dublin-based government.
Reputation and assessment
Blythe was an outsider by temperament. As an Irish nationalist, he stood apart politically from the great majority of his fellow protestant Ulstermen. As an Ulster protestant he encountered recurrent explicit sectarian opposition from nationalist Irishmen. In the aftermath of the 1916 rising, Blythe was categorised editorially in a Kerry Redmondite paper as ‘an Orangeman from Belfast’. A successful Fianna Fáil candidate for Blythe's Monaghan constituency argued publicly during the September 1927 general election campaign that Monaghan was a (Roman) catholic county, which should be represented by catholics. Blythe contested Monaghan for the last time in 1933. Hostile hyperbole against Blythe then reached new depths, with one Co. Monaghan catholic parish priest, Fr Michael McCarville of Scotstown, telling the Monaghan voters that Blythe and his party ‘were far worse on the Irish people than Cromwell’ (quoted in Irish Press, 14 January 1933).
Blythe had a bleak view of his fellow Irishmen. As early as 1922 he had described them as an untrained and undisciplined people with practically everything to learn of the difficult business of organising a national life on a stable basis. He departed little from that view during his career as a party politician and scarcely bothered to conceal it from the electorate. His retrenchment policies as minister for finance were not politically opportune. His hopes for a revival in the everyday use of the Irish language were unrealistic. He was described by a former editor of the Irish Times as ‘the most reasonable unreasonable man in Ireland’ (Douglas Gageby, appreciation of Blythe in Irish Times, 1 Mar. 1975). It was a fair summation of a man who held strong if sometimes inconsistent views on many issues and personalities and expressed them trenchantly in public.
Blythe married (13 November 1919) Annie McHugh (d. 25 September 1957), daughter of Patrick McHugh, a catholic RIC district inspector. She was born in Dunlavin, Co Wicklow. A mathematics and science student at UCD, along with Louise Gavan Duffy (qv), she founded Scoil Bhríde. She played an active role in the Irish Country Womens’ Association at a time when that body provided one of the very few outlets for Irish women to associate together outside their home or church.
Blythe died on 23 February 1975 in Mt Carmel Hospital, Dublin, survived by his only child, Earnán. He lived at 50 Kenilworth Square, Rathmines, and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery. His portrait, by Seán O'Sullivan (qv), RHA, is held by the Abbey Theatre. Sources for his life include three autobiographical volumes published successively in 1957, 1970, and 1973. His views on politics and public affairs over his lifetime are to be found in various journals, including The Peasant; Irish Freedom; An tÓglach; The Leader; Inniú; and the Sunday Independent. While there are some Blythe papers in NLI, the bulk of his correspondence and other papers is held in UCD archives; TCD Library has his correspondence with Thomas Bodkin (qv).