Blueshirts march on Cooneal

At the January 1933 general election Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil retained power by increasing its seat count to 77. Since its first general election in 1927, the party had increased its Dáil representation at every subsequent contest. In order to halt Fianna Fáil’s march, opponents of de Valera formed a new party in September 1933 by merging the bulk of the membership of the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal with two smaller conservative groupings, the National Centre Party and the National Guard (a fascist group known as the Blueshirts ). Fine Gael — The United Ireland Party was formed and immediately began the process of holding Cumann na nGaedheal’s core support and growing its membership base.

In early February 1934, a UIP (as the party was often referred to ) rally took place in Cooneal in north Mayo. The main speakers were Patrick Belton, TD for Dublin North, and Michael Davis, TD for Mayo North. Belton had a personal hatred of de Valera ever since his own expulsion from Fianna Fáil for breaking party policy and taking the Oath of Allegiance in order to enter the Dáil in 1927. At the Cooneal rally, Belton did not hide his loathing of de Valera. Flanked by Blueshirts in berets from Ardagh, Lahardane, and Knockmore, Belton took to the stage wearing a Blueshirt uniform under his coat. It was an act of defiance and a show of support for General Eoin O’Duffy, who as leader of the Blueshirts, had been arrested in Westport a few weeks previously for wearing the group’s uniform. Listing his own nationalist credentials, among them the swearing of Michael Collins into the IRB, Belton commended O’Duffy’s actions in Westport when he insisted the general “was fighting for the expression of the will of the majority of the Irish people against a dictatorship of the people led by de Valera”.

Patrick Ruttledge, TD for Mayo North, received stern condemnation from his fellow constituency deputy, Michael Davis a founding member of Fianna Fáil, Ruttledge was then minister for justice in de Valera’s government. Davis rounded on the 82 people who voted in the parish for Fianna Fáil at the last election; “It was a great pity they could not be singled out and the injury visited on their own shoulders”. Davis proudly proclaimed his admiration for O’Duffy, a man he claimed was sent to rescue the country, and he called on the young men of the parish to join the League of Youth, the official name of the Blueshirts. Davis warned the parents of any potential young recruits that while their children would not be joining a secret society they could be driven to use “other methods”. 

The rally was not all political posturing. Conscious of his rural surroundings and with years of personal farming experience, Belton struck a chord with the farmers of Mayo who were affected by the ongoing economic war with England. Davis went further and made it clear that, if elected, Fine Gael would advance £2 million to farmers to enable them to re-stock their farms. The choice before the people was, according to Davis, potential civil war and dictatorship on the one hand and a future for farmers and better relations with England on the other. At the next general election in 1937, Fianna Fáil retained power but failed to achieve an outright majority.

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