The Army Comrades Association (ACA), later the National Guard, then Young Ireland and finally League of Youth, but better known by the nickname The Blueshirts (Irish: Na Léinte Gorma), was a far-right organisation in the Irish Free State in the early 1930s. The organisation provided physical protection for political groups such as Cumann na nGaedheal from intimidation and attack by the anti-Treaty IRA. Some of its members went on to fight for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War.
Most of the political parties whose meetings the Blueshirts protected would merge to become Fine Gael, and members of that party are still sometimes nicknamed "Blueshirts".
In February 1932, the Fianna Fáil party was elected to lead the Irish Free State government. On 18 March 1932, the new government suspended the Public Safety Act, lifting the ban on a number of organisations including the Irish Republican Army. Some IRA political prisoners were also released around the same time. The IRA and many released prisoners began a "campaign of unrelenting hostility" against those associated with the former Cumann na nGaedheal government. There were many cases of intimidation, attacks on persons, and the breaking-up of Cumann na nGaedheal political meetings in the coming months. In view of the increased activities of the IRA, National Army Commandant Ned Cronin founded the Army Comrades Association in early 1932. As its name suggested, it was designed for Irish Army veterans, a society for former members of the Free State army. The Blueshirts felt that freedom of speech was being repressed, and began to provide security at Cumann na nGaedheal events. This led to several serious clashes between the IRA and the ACA. In August 1932, Dr. Thomas F. O'Higgins, a Cumann na nGaedheal TD, became the leader of the ACA. By September 1932 it had over 30,000 members.
In January 1933, the Fianna Fáil government called a surprise election, which the government won comfortably. The election campaign saw a serious escalation of rioting between IRA and ACA supporters. In April 1933, the ACA began wearing the distinctive blueshirt uniform. Eoin O'Duffy was a guerrilla leader in the IRA in the Irish War of Independence, a National Army general in the Irish Civil War, and the Garda Síochána police commissioner in the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1933. After Fianna Fáil's re-election in February 1933, President of the Executive Council Éamon de Valera dismissed O'Duffy as commissioner; that July, O'Duffy was offered and accepted leadership of the ACA and renamed it the National Guard. He re-modelled the organisation, adopting elements of European fascism, such as the Roman straight-arm salute, uniforms and huge rallies. Membership of the new organisation became limited to people who were Irish or whose parents "profess the Christian faith". O'Duffy was an admirer of Benito Mussolini, and the Blueshirts adopted corporatism as their chief political aim. According to the constitution he adopted, the organisation was to have the following objectives:To promote the reunification of Ireland.
To oppose Communism and alien control and influence in national affairs and to uphold Christian principles in every sphere of public activity.
To promote and maintain social order.
To make organised and disciplined voluntary public service a permanent and accepted feature of our political life and to lead the youth of Ireland in a movement of constructive national action.
To promote of co-ordinated national organisations of employers and employed, which with the aid of judicial tribunals, will effectively prevent strikes and lock-outs and harmoniously compose industrial influences.
To cooperate with the official agencies of the state for the solution of such pressing social problems as the provision of useful and economic public employment for those whom private enterprise cannot absorb.
To secure the creation of a representative national statutory organisation of farmers, with rights and status sufficient to secure the safeguarding of agricultural interests, in all revisions of agricultural and political policy.
To expose and prevent corruption and victimisation in national and local administration.
To awaken throughout the country a spirit of combination, discipline, zeal and patriotic realism which will put the state in a position to serve the people efficiently in the economic and social spheres.
Because of the attraction of Eoin O'Duffy and his inner circle to authoritarian nationalist movements on the European Continent, the Blueshirts can justifiably be described as 'covert fascists'. Historians are, however, divided on the extent to which the Blueshirts took a lead from Mussolini and his many imitators at that time. Some of the Blueshirts later went to fight for Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and were anti-communist in nature, however historian R. M. Douglas has stated that it is incorrect to portray them as an "Irish manifestation of fascism".
The National Guard planned to hold a parade in Dublin in August 1933. It was to proceed to Glasnevin Cemetery, stopping briefly on Leinster lawn in front of the Irish parliament, where speeches were to be held. The goal of the parade was to commemorate past leaders of Ireland, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Kevin O'Higgins. It is clear that the IRA and other fringe groups representing various socialists intended to confront the Blueshirts if they marched in Dublin.
The government banned the parade, remembering Mussolini's March on Rome, and fearing a coup d'état. Decades later, de Valera told Fianna Fáil politicians that in late summer 1933 he was unsure whether the Irish Army would obey his orders to suppress the perceived threat, or whether the soldiers would support the Blueshirts (who included many ex-soldiers). O'Duffy accepted the ban and insisted that he was committed to upholding the law. Instead, several provincial parades took place to commemorate the deaths of Griffith, O'Higgins and Collins. De Valera saw this move as defying his ban, and the Blueshirts were declared an illegal organisation.
In response to the banning of the National Guard, Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party merged to form a new party, Fine Gael, on 3 September 1933. O'Duffy became its first president, with W. T. Cosgrave and James Dillon acting as vice-presidents. The National Guard changed into the Young Ireland Association, and became part of a youth wing of the party. The party's aim was to create a corporatist United Ireland within the British Commonwealth. The 1934 local elections were a trial of strength for the new Fine Gael and the Fianna Fáil government. When Fine Gael won only six out of 23 local elections, O’Duffy lost much of his authority and prestige. The Blueshirts began to disintegrate by mid-1934. The Blueshirts floundered also on the plight of farmers in the Economic War, as the Blueshirts failed to provide a solution. Following disagreements with his Fine Gael colleagues, O'Duffy left the party, although most of the Blueshirts stayed in Fine Gael. In December 1934, O'Duffy attended the Montreux Fascist conference in Switzerland. He then founded the National Corporate Party, and later raised an Irish Brigade that took General Francisco Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War.