O'Duffy, Eoin (1890–1944), soldier, policeman, and politician, was born 28 January 1890 on the family farm at Carrickaduff (Cargaghdoo), near Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, youngest among five sons and two daughters of Eugene (‘Owen’) Duffy and Brigid Duffy (née Fealy) of the nearby parish of Donoghmoyne. A frugal and melancholy childhood, marked by successive sibling emigration, was compounded by the death in 1902 of his mother, and in 1903 of his eldest brother, Peter, in America. Raised by his father, he balanced a basic education at Laragh national school with labour on the farm. At school he became influenced by the Irish language movement and the ‘Irish Ireland’ campaign of the Gaelic League. He took an early and lifelong interest in the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), serving as secretary of its Ulster council 1912–22, subsequently as a national council member until 1934.
Forsaking the option of a teaching career, he became a clerk in Monaghan county council in 1910, held a short apprenticeship in Co. Wexford c.1913, and served in Monaghan as surveyor, engineer, and architect, mainly for the Clones district. As he was left without property at his father's death (1915), when the farm passed to his brother Patrick, and deprived of both remaining brothers, who had migrated to Scotland, Duffy's aloofness and self-reliance became more pronounced. Deeply impressed by the 1916 rising, he joined the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féin (1917) and campaigned for that party's general election victory of December 1918, leading to the formation of Dáil Éireann 21 January 1919. A member of the IRB supreme council, he also held command of Monaghan Brigade IRA in the war of independence (1919–21). Nationalist sympathies in the local authority facilitated his general absence from official duty. He adapted his name to O'Duffy, sometimes opting for the Gaelic form ‘Ó Dubhthaigh’. He led the first IRA raid on an Ulster RIC barracks 15 February 1920, at Ballytrain, Shantonagh, near his family home. One policeman was fatally wounded but O'Duffy prevented further loss of life by successfully forcing surrender of the barracks. Shortly afterwards he was arrested and imprisoned briefly in Crumlin Road gaol, Belfast. Released when he and others went on hunger strike, he continued raiding for arms, keeping casualties low by contemporary standards. Presenting an heroic image of himself, O'Duffy was one of three Monaghan candidates elected to the second dáil in May 1921.
Supporting the Anglo–Irish truce in July, at which time he was IRA director of organisation, O'Duffy became deputy chief of staff to Richard Mulcahy (qv) and Michael Collins (qv) at GHQ in Dublin, as Brigadier Dan Hogan became commandant of the Monaghan IRA's new 5th Northern Division. GHQ sent O'Duffy to liaise with the Ulster IRA, influencing the northern divisions to accept the Anglo–Irish treaty (6 December 1921).
In February 1922 he became chief of staff of the National Army, forerunner of the Free State army, containing pro-treaty IRA and new members, many of whom had formerly been in the British army. O'Duffy attempted to reconcile the anti-treaty IRA through frantic diplomacy and strategic meetings with the mainly southern dissidents led by Liam Lynch (qv) and Rory O'Connor (qv). His efforts only postponed civil war. In the general election of 16 June 1922 he was reelected for Co. Monaghan on the ‘coalition treaty’ ticket, representing a desire to heal the republican split.
O'Duffy was appointed with Collins and Mulcahy in July 1922 to a war council in which he was named GOC South Western Command, a ‘poisoned chalice’ jurisdiction in the Kerry area where some of the hardest fighting took place, the worst of it after O'Duffy's further relocation in September 1922. In that month he became commissioner of the Civic Guard (An Garda S´ochána), an unarmed police force that he intended would conform to his own national ideals in contrast to the semi-military RIC which it replaced. Shortly after the civil war, his military authority was temporarily restored as both inspector general and general officer commanding the forces, conferring him with near-dictatorial powers to restore army discipline in the ‘mutiny’ crisis of March 1924. He undermined the seniority of the defence minister, Mulcahy, by insisting on absolute command, and redrew the army's organisational structure, established by Mulcahy under defence legislation. Reverting exclusively to his police role in 1925, he was an able commander who expected unfailing obedience.
O'Duffy imbued the force with his conservative catholic standards and a Gaelic identity, promoting the Irish language, making moral pronouncements, and writing didactic articles in Iris an Gharda (Garda Review). He was popular though feared, enjoying the high visibility his position afforded, and loyally serving the Free State government against all opponents; his Special Branch counter-insurgency made him the special enemy of republicans, whom he viewed as subversive and possibly communist. He was hardly less suspicious of Fianna Fáil, the leading opposition party in the dáil from 1927. He clashed with government over the increasing vigour of Garda methods (especially against political crime) but was deemed irreplaceable, particularly after the assassination (10 July 1927) of Kevin O'Higgins (qv).
He travelled widely and led Garda pilgrimages to religious shrines in Europe, exposing him to the spectacular propaganda of fascist Italy and the turbulence of France and Germany. The experience reinforced his conservatism at home. Reputedly intent on usurping Fianna Fáil's election victory in 1932, he demurred and enjoyed some late glory as ceremonial commander at the eucharistic congress in Dublin and as president of the Olympic Council of Ireland for the successful California games of that year. Indeed, leadership in sport might be seen as his most positive legacy outside of policing, ranging from presidency of the Irish Amateur Handball Association to patronage of the Irish Native Breeds Society (founded to promote native strains of Irish dogs).
O'Duffy was mesmerised by the glamour of fascism and its seeming compatibility with Christianity. He veered towards its disciplined, ‘corporatist’ ideals of vocationalism and the radical right. For him, opposition to godless communism was its greatest credential. In 1932, confusing semblance with substance, he became involved with the Army Comrades Association (ACA) led by Col. Edmund Cronin (qv). Standing for ‘free speech’ in politics, its members were pro-treaty army veterans who had served the late Cumann na nGaedheal administration. Fianna Fáil, lacking ‘full confidence’ in O'Duffy as commissioner, replaced him with Éamonn Broy (qv) in February 1933. Turning down a sinecure as controller of prices, O'Duffy was pensioned out of office. Without delay, he rose quickly within the ACA to become leader in July 1933. Sharing conservative, catholic views with most fellow ‘Blueshirts’ (so-called from a distinctive uniform adopted in the previous March), O'Duffy and his followers bore the appearance of continental fascist movements and held some similar though less extreme aspirations, chiefly to thwart communism and the IRA and to oppose Fianna Fáil. They upheld the interests of those (largely farmers) affected by the ‘economic war’ and protected Cumann na nGaedheal politicians from attack at public meetings. Blueshirt social and athletic clubs were formed in clear opposition to jazz culture.
Under O'Duffy the ACA confusingly changed its official title several times in less than six months: National Guard (July 1933), Young Ireland Association (November 1933), and League of Youth (December 1933). The last was technically a new organisation, responding to government prohibition (the first in August 1933, to offset a ‘march on Dublin’) under the previous titles. Meanwhile, in September 1933 O'Duffy became president of a new United Ireland Party or Fine Gael, a tripartite merger of Cumann na nGaedheal, the Centre Party, and National Guard. His presidency of Fine Gael exposed his political naivety, punctuated by extreme language, with bellicose references to Northern Ireland and encouraging Blueshirts to defy the authorities. Forced to resign (September 1934), he presided over a confused and declining Blueshirt movement. He became more admiring of European fascism, apparently ignorant or in denial of its record on civil rights. His loss of direction and the growth of dissatisfaction with his leadership caused a split in 1935 into two Blueshirt movements. O'Duffy led a breakaway faction while the main body, under Cronin, remained within Fine Gael until dropped from the party in October 1936. O'Duffy's short-lived National Corporate Party (NCP), founded in June 1935, opposed communism, capitalism, and dictatorship, anticipated an all-Ireland corporate state, and retained a variation of the Blueshirt uniform, changing it to green in 1936.
The NCP was practically moribund as the Spanish civil war began in June 1936. O'Duffy identified the conflict as a simple battle between Christian virtue and communist evil. He supported the nationalist rebellion of Gen. Francisco Franco against the left-wing coalition of the Spanish republic. The Dublin government declared Ireland to be neutral over Spain, but both sides attracted ideological volunteers. Requested by the rebels to form a brigade, O'Duffy claimed thousands of responses but recruited only about 700 volunteers, including Blueshirt veterans. He took them to Spain in the winter of 1936–7 to fight for ‘Christian civilisation’. In six dismal months the bandera irlandesa lost enough men in sickness and battle to demoralise the rest, who endured climatic and other physical hardships until a majority voted to go home in June 1937. O'Duffy published an account of his adventure as Crusade in Spain (1938). His NCP faded away and he retired from political life. Briefly, in 1939, the Germans courted him as a possible link to the IRA but this came to nothing. He instead offered his services to the state for the duration of the Emergency but was not called. He maintained a pro-German viewpoint but concentrated his failing energy on sport, renewing in 1942 his previously held presidency of the National Athletic and Cycling Association. The name of his last home, ‘Farney’, at Merrion Park, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, recalled his rural Monaghan origins. He died 30 November 1944 in a Dublin nursing home at 4 Pembroke St., and received a state funeral to Glasnevin cemetery with full military honours. Monaghan County Museum has an oil portrait by Gillian Bourke, and photographic portraits are held by the Garda Museum and Archive, Dublin.