Ernest Blythe was born to a Church of Ireland and unionist family in the townland of Magheraliskmisk, Maghaberry, County Antrim, in 1889, the son of James Blythe, a farmer, and Agnes Thompson. He was educated locally, at Maghaberry Cross Roads primary school. At the age of fifteen he started working as a clerk in the Department of Agriculture in Dublin.
Seán O'Casey invited Blythe to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which Blythe accepted. He also joined Conradh na Gaeilge, where his Irish teacher was Sinéad Flanagan, the future wife of Éamon de Valera.
In 1909 Blythe became a junior news reporter with the North Down Herald. To improve his knowledge of the Irish language, he went to the Kerry Gaeltacht where he worked as an agricultural labourer to earn his keep.
During this time, he was the organizer for the Irish Volunteers in Clare before 1916. His activity spread all over the south-west region to counties Kerry, Cork, Limerick and Clare. He became Captain of the Lipsole Company (of actors) and toured the region with a list of names of people to recruit. Blythe was one of the few organisers sent out into the country (others were Liam Mellows and Ernie O'Malley) and with little qualification was largely self-taught. Supplies were few and far between, as well as spasmodic. IRA GHQ were loth to commit scant resources. But Blythe was expected to drill, and train his men, as well avoid conscription.
Blythe was regularly arrested 1913-15 under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, when he was finally ordered to be deported from Ireland in July 1915: some of the others on the writ were Liam Mellows, Herbert Pim, and Denis McCullough. Blythe's place was taken by Desmond Fitzgerald. He refused to transport to Britain so was sent to spend three months in Crumlin Road prison, Belfast. On 30 March 1916, a large crowd assembled outside the Mansion House in Dublin to protest against Blythe's and Mellows's deportation. Two policemen were shot at.
Thus, the authorities sent him to a town in Berkshire. He then failed to report to police and was sent to Oxford Prison, Blythe was unable to participate in the Easter Rising due to his imprisonment there. From Oxford, he was sent to Brixton Prison then transferred to Reading Prison. He was released at Christmas 1916, and was ordered never to return to Ireland. However, he returned to Belfast where he was later detained. He was later released and went to Skibbereen to edit the Southern Star which had been purchased by Sinn Féin. He ignored a (British Army) court martial to leave Munster, which resulted in a 12 months imprisonment in Dundalk and Belfast. During his time in Dundalk, he went on hunger strike for several days.
He married Anne McHugh in 1919.
Blythe first became involved in electoral politics in 1918 when he won the general election of 1918 and became a Teachta Dála (TD) for North Monaghan. He also served as the minister of Trade and Commerce until 1922.
Blythe was implacably opposed to conscription. In an article entitled 'Ruthless Warfare' he described conscription as an "atrocity".
We must decide that in our resistance we shall acknowledge no limit and no scruple...[man who] assists directly or by connivance in this crime against us should be killed without mercy or hesitation....The man who serves on an exemption tribunal, the doctor who examines conscripts, the man who voluntarily surrenders when called for, the man who applies exemption, the man who drives a police car or assists in the transport of army supplies, must be shot or otherwise destroyed with the least possible delay.
The possibility of enforcing conscription alienated people across the island of Ireland from British policy in general. Instead a war of words emerged in which single issues, like conscription, would serve cohere to a general desire for Irish cultural identity and separation.
Awareness of religious differences was acute: for his part Blythe noticed that there was a Catholic priest in the IRB. Being a moderate, Blythe was a strong supporter of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Consequently, he became Minister for Finance in W. T. Cosgrave's first government in 1923. Until 2014, he was the "only Ulster Protestant to have served at cabinet level in the 26 County state." He was also Minister for Posts and Telegraphs from 1922 to 1932 and Vice-President of the Executive Council.
Blythe was committed to keeping a balanced budget at all costs, which was not at all easy. The Irish Civil War had placed an enormous strain on the nascent Irish Free State, with public spending almost doubling during its course. As a result, Blythe was confronted with a projected budget of more than £8 million for the following year when the national debt already stood at £6 million. There was widespread criticism when he reduced old-age pensions from 10 shillings (50p) to 9 shillings (45p) a week in the June 1924 Old Age Pensions Act. This has long been popularly credited for the fall of the Cumann na nGaedheal government, although this would not occur for another nine years.
In 1926, as Minister for Finance, he introduced the Coinage Bill so that Ireland had "a coinage distinctively our own, bearing the devices of this country." It was not until December 12, 1928, that the newly designed coins by Percy Metcalfe were put into circulation. The delay was due to controversy over the animal designs chosen by the government-appointed committee, chaired by W.B. Yeats, set up to advise on the design of the coins. He funded the Shannon hydroelectric scheme during the late 1920s. Despite his austerity policies in relation to the old and poor, Blythe readily funded pet projects; in just one year, 1929, his Department of Finance allocated £6,400 – a huge sum at the time – for translation into Irish of novels including Dracula by Bram Stoker. In 1930 he wondered aloud whether "the gods of democracy have not feet of clay...the franchise in the hands of an ignorant and foolish populace is a menace to the country".
Cumann na nGaedheal had a very conservative policy at the start of the 1930s, seeing their role as running a tight financial ship, facilitating trade, and not intervening in the economy. Between 1929 and 1935, the last three years of his time as Finance Minister and the first three years of a Fianna Fáil government, Free State agricultural exports fell in value by almost 63% from 35 million pounds to 13.5 million pounds annually, and the state's total export value to Britain fell from 43.5 million to 18 million pounds, another drop of over 50%.
At the 1933 general election, Blythe lost his seat. Shortly afterwards he participated in the formation of the Blueshirts. At an Army Comrades Association executive meeting in February 1933 he proposed that the colour blue be the colour of the uniform of the new organization. In April 1933, the ACA began wearing the distinctive blue shirt uniform. Blythe prepared the speeches of Blueshirt leader Eoin O'Duffy and participated in Blueshirt (now officially called the National Guard) meetings all over the country. He also cultivated fascist ideology within the Blueshirts, and envisaged the movement as an all-powerful 'state within the state'. However, following an aborted attempt at a political parade in Dublin, the National Guard was banned. Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party merged to form a new party, Fine Gael, on 3 September 1933.
In January 1934, Blythe was elected to fill a vacancy in the Senate created by the death of Ellen Cuffe, Countess of Desart. He served in the Senate until the institution was abolished in 1936. He then retired from active political life. In the 1940s he supported the fascist party Ailtirí na hAiséirghe, led by Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin.
While Minister of Finance, Ernest Blythe granted a small annual subsidy to the Abbey Theatre. This made the Abbey Theatre the first state subsidised theatre in the English-speaking world. In 1935, from an invitation from W.B. Yeats, he became a director of the Abbey Theatre. Between 1941 and 1967 he served as managing director of the Abbey Theatre. He remained a director until 1972.
Blythe was highly criticised during his time as Managing Director. It was said that he rejected many good plays in favour of those which were more financially rewarding and ran the theatre into the ground as a creative force.
Upon criticism of Blythe only performing comedies, he replied: "There is no reason, snobbery apart. Why, in their plays, dramatists should boycott ordinary dwellings. Most people in Ireland are the habituees of farmhouse kitchens, city tenements or middle-class sitting-rooms and their loves and hates, disappointments and triumphs, grief’s and joys, are just as interesting and amusing, or as touching, as those of, shall we say alliteratively, denizens of ducal drawing-rooms, or boozers in denizened brothels".
Blythe brought to prominence several Irish dramatists. These included Brian Friel, Seamus Byrne, Micheal J. Mollow, Hugh Leonard and many more.
It was through Blythe's efforts that the new Abbey Theatre was built. He was responsible for raising £750,000 to rebuild the theatre which had been destroyed by fire on 18 July 1951. In August 1967, Blythe resigned as Managing Director of the Abbey Theatre. He remained as a member of the theatre board until 1972. He was also an active member of the Television Authority.
Throughout his life he was committed to the revival of the Irish language. He encouraged Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards to found an Irish language theatre in Galway.
Blythe wrote a book Briseadh na Teorann (The smashing of the border) which was published in 1955. It was a revised account of the partition question regarding the divide of the North and South of Ireland. Although his book didn't get the recognition it deserved as it was written in Irish, Blythe's contribution to the partition question is regarded as both pioneering and influential.
He published three volumes of autobiography: Trasna na Bóinne (1957), Slán le hUltaibh (1969) and Gaeil á Múscailt (1973).
Ernest Blythe died on the 23 February 1975. His funeral service was held in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.
Blythe saw his role in politics, as previously stated in this article, as having to keep the economy balanced at all times, this is why his name has 'established a public notoriety far beyond' political circles. During his tenure, 'taxation remained low as did spending'. Blythe's subsidy to The Abbey Theatre influenced the performing arts in Irish society.