Sunday, 11 September 2011

Architects of the Resurrection, R.M.Douglas

When scholars are looking for an Irish example of fascism, they generally light on a group called the National Guard, better known as the Blueshirts.  This was a short-lived organisation led by a complete idiot which failed to get close to the levers of power and ended up being subsumed into the mainstream conservative Fine Gael party in 1933.  In fact, most historians have come to the conclusion that the Blueshirts weren't really proper fascists, not least because most of them didn't have any very coherent political beliefs beyond a dislike of the IRA and Eamon de Valera's economic policies.

In this book, the historian Ray Douglas seeks to identify an alternative Irish manifestation of fascism: a charming little organisation called Ailtirí na hAiséirghe, or 'Architects of the Resurrection' (Labour supporters dubbed it Áilteoirí na hAiséirghe, 'Clowns of the Resurrection').  This group was active during and after the Second World War, though it lingered on in some form until the 1970s.  More contentiously, Douglas argues that Irish society in general was a great deal more receptive to extreme right-wing ideas than is generally admitted today.


I

Mid-century Ireland is generally seen by historians as a staid, even dull sort of place.  Its leaders had served their political apprenticeship in the conservative constitutional institutions of the United Kingdom, and, once the Civil War and the Blueshirt episode were out of the way, they proceeded to govern their country in a fairly competent but unimaginative way, taking care to insulate her from the shocks and hazards that participation in World War II would have entailed.  Only (it is said) with the coming of Séan Lemass and T.K.Whitaker at the end of the 1950s did Ireland start to move into the modern western European mainstream.

Douglas is having none of this.  For him, Ireland, from before independence to the postwar period, was anything but staid and sleepy.  In fact, it was an unstable polity afflicted by widespread anti-democratic, antisemitic and pro-fascist prejudice.  The dastardly Brits had ruled the place with an iron fist, and this legacy of authoritarianism survived for years afterwards.  As the Free Staters and republicans alternated in government in the years after the Civil War, each side refused to recognise the legitimacy of the other.  There was a red scare in the 30s, coupled with widespread support for Franco, Mussolini, Salazar, and, to a lesser extent, Hitler.  There was much antisemitic feeling at both popular and élite levels.  During the War, lots of people cheered for the Germans, and, when wartime censorship was lifted in 1945, reports of the Nazi death camps were largely ignored or dismissed as Allied propaganda.

This view of things is open to serious question.  Douglas in fact concedes that "it was improbable that [far-right] doctrines... could have thrown down a successful challenge to the parliamentary regime", and limits himself to suggesting that a "substantial constituency" for such ideas existed.  But if this was so, it is surprising that no such constituency shows up in the election results of the time.  It is an inescapable fact that the Irish electorate repeatedly returned democratic, left-leaning, anti-fascist Fianna Fáil governments to power between 1932 and 1948, giving many votes in addition to the socialist Labour Party.  The main opposition was formed by the establishment conservatives of Fine Gael.  By contrast, the performance of Aiséirghe and other far-right cliques was dismal: Aiséirghe itself never managed more than a smattering of local council seats.  As for popular allegiances in World War II, it is no secret (despite what Douglas claims) that plenty of Irish people were sympathetic to the Germans, just as others were sympathetic to the Allies, but for the most part this was nothing more or less than a reflex of tribal anti-Britishness.  It was enemy-of-my-enemy stuff rather than proof of any real commitment to the principles of Nazism.

The evidence for Irish extreme right-wingery is questionable for other reasons too.  Even if you're Irish, the chances are that you've never heard of Aiséirghe - or Aontas Gaedheal, the People's National Party, the Irish Unity Association, an Córas Gaedhealach, St Patrick's Anti-Communist League, the Irish Social Credit Party, the Irish Christian Front or the various other hard-right groupuscles of the time - and the reason for this is that they were small, short-lived organisations with overlapping memberships and little lasting political influence.  Moreover, while admiring fascist dictators may seem rather obscene in hindsight, praise for the likes of Mussolini and even Hitler was not an Irish speciality and did not necessarily mean that the praiser wanted to create a totalitarian state at home.  There were enough people in democratic Britain and America, including some left-wingers, who were prepared to give kudos to the Duce and the Führer as strong leaders who had put their nations to work, made the trains run on time and stood up against Bolshevism.  Something similar might be said of the prevalence of antisemitism.  To the extent that some Irishmen did gravitate to the far right, their ideas often seem to have owed less to the new, radical doctrines of fascism and Nazism than they did to the much older traditions of Catholic reactionary conservatism and militant Irish nationalism.  This was true even of Aiséirghe.

One suspects that Douglas is advancing his fascists-under-the-bed thesis largely because he wants to put forward a new and provocative argument.  His own undisguised political commitments may also have something to do with it.  Perhaps his thesis will prove to be a useful stimulus to future research.


II

The would-be Gaelic Führer - or, rather, the Cennaire Stáit - was the somewhat unlikely figure of Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin, a tax consultant who had been born plain old Gerard Cunningham in pre-partition Belfast in 1910.  Following a certain amount of political experimentation, Ó Cuinneagáin had by 1940 come to embrace pro-fascist views.  After a couple of years of hanging around Dublin with various other extreme-rightists and building up a successful cultural nationalist organisation called Craobh na hAiséirghe, he struck out in 1942 and founded his own far-right political party, Ailtirí na hAiséirghe (or Ailtirí na hAiséirí, as it would be written in modern Irish).

Aiséirghe did not slavishly model itself on its overseas cousins, and its members sometimes exhibited a reluctance to accept the "fascist" label, particularly after it became clear that the Axis powers were going to lose the Second World War.  Nonetheless, its ideology was quite close to that of continental fascism.  The group's pronouncements echoed the quintessentially fascist discourse of revolutionary national rebirth from present-day democratic decadence.  It praised youth, looked forward to a "new Ireland", and, demographically speaking, consisted largely of teenagers and twentysomethings.  It didn't like Jews or Freemasons.  It sought to achieve its desired transformation of Irish society through the medium of a militaristic totalitarian state ruled by a single dominant leader and organised on a corporatist basis.  The new régime would build an autarchic economy, undertake massive public works projects (including, for some reason, electrifying the canals) and thereby solve the problems of emigration and unemployment.  Northern Ireland would be invaded and forcibly reunited with the rest of the Irish nation.

Most fascist parties had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with traditional organised religion, but this was Ireland, and Aiséirghe had a militantly, if not apocalyptically, Catholic outlook.  It prophesied that Ireland would become the spiritual epicentre of the world - a kind of new, supercharged Vatican - with no shortage of temporal power to go with its religious influence.  Ó Cuinneagáin appears to have been somewhat preoccupied with this rather bizarre vision: his enthusiasm was not shared by all of Aiséirghe's supporters (or, indeed, by the conservative Irish church).  The Cennaire even thought that shared Christian faith would help to win over the northern Prods to the new totalitarian regime once the Aiséirghe divisions had marched into Belfast and Londonderry.

Another Irish speciality was Aiséirghe's militant support for the Irish language, not only as an integral part of Irish nationhood but also as a means of insulating the population against foreign-imported cultural decadence and liberalism.  The shift from English to Gaeilge was to be accomplished by a mixture of sackings, taxes and criminal penalties.  Aiséirghe generously proposed to allow a transitional period of 5 years.

A tough, autocratic and prickly man who lacked charisma and political talent, Ó Cuinneagáin never got close to realising his dreams.  Douglas estimates that, even it its height, the party never had more than a couple of thousand members.  It was humiliated in the 1943 and 1944 general elections, despite receiving a veiled endorsement from the Nazis.  In 1943, three out of its four candidates lost their deposits, and this figure increased to seven out of seven in 1944.  Within the Dáil, its most enthusiastic supporter was the somewhat eccentric and marginal figure of Oliver J. Flanagan, who was then in his mid-20s.  The party had some very modest success in the 1945 local elections - 9 out of 31 of their candidates were elected - and this may have been due in part to Aiséirghe's part in some anti-British riots following VE Day.  Douglas reads a bit more into this essentially unimpressive result than seems warranted.

It appears from Douglas's account that quite a few of Aiséirghe's supporters didn't actually agree with its specific policies.  Many simply seem to have admired the party's diehard nationalist ethos and its promises of national rebirth and an end to partition.  This is underlined by the fact that the second preferences of most of the party's voters in the 1944 elections went to democratic establishment parties (mainly Fianna Fáil and Labour).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the party's combination of ultra-nationalism and militarism also appears to have attracted quite a few IRA men.

If Aiséirghe ever had got within striking distance of power, it is very unlikely that the de Valera government would have sat idly by and let the Cennaire and his friends goosestep into Leinster House.  As it was, they were treated unfavourably by the wartime censors, and the police developed a habit of banning their demonstrations.  Meanwhile, spies and diplomats from Britain, the US and Germany kept an eye on them.  The American minister in Dublin, David Gray, reported attending a séance in which the ghost of the former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour had expressly warned him about the activities of a fifth-columnist group called "Ashereee".

In fact, Aiséirghe ended up doing the authorities' job for them by helpfully having a major internal argument in 1945.  This led to a split from which the movement never recovered.  They stood only one candidate in the 1948 general election, and he lost his deposit.  By then, the party had been overshadowed by Clann na Poblachta, a newly formed republican outfit which entered government as part of a rainbow coalition after the 1948 elections.  It may be noted that CnaP, which was considerably more successful than Aiséirghe, was a democratic populist party with a leaning to the left.  Its rapid success provides further confirmation that the Irish voters had no very deep commitment to fascist ideas.

Aiséirghe was forced to give up the lease on its Harcourt Street office in 1949.  Its party newspaper lingered on for some years after that, with its last edition appearing in 1975.  Ó Cuinneagáin died in 1990, having never quite reconciled himself to the direction that Irish and world history had taken.

*

This is a book strictly for aficionados of Irish history and extreme right-wing politics.  Anyone else is likely to find it rather specialised and perhaps rather dull.  Douglas deserves credit for his extensive research, but his work seems unlikely to lead to any radical change in historians' views of the period which it covers.  To put it bluntly, Aiséirghe didn't matter that much then and doesn't matter that much now.  It was never more than a minor movement in a society which broadly accepted the democratic settlement enshrined in the 1922 and 1937 constitutions.  Fascism didn't have much more success in Ireland than it did in Britain.  The Blueshirts remain the only major exemplar of an Irish quasi-fascist movement, and they are not a particularly convincing one at that.