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Title: Gender, ritual and power : the Blueshirts and Irish political culture, 1932-1936
Author: Montgomery, Dale Robert
ISNI:       0000 0004 2721 8544
Awarding Body: Queen's University Belfast
Current Institution: Queen's University Belfast
Date of Award: 2011
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In the 1932 general election, fewer than ten years after independence, Ireland underwent a peaceful and democratic transfer of power, a process that has occurred all too infrequently in post-colonial societies. Within a year, though, the Irish state faced a serious and violent extra-parliamentary threat to its authority by the fascistic group the Blueshirts. This group was more than just a political association; it constituted a distinct community within Irish society that was disputing the evolving nature of the Irish national collective. The Blueshirt movement represented the last populist opposition to the presumed naturalness of republicanism as synonymous with Irish nationalism. Through its construction of gender relations and ritualistic use of symbols and public spectacle, the Blueshirt organisation unsuccessfully challenged the state’s discursive and material power in fashioning a cohesive yet restrictive Irish national identity. Understanding the group’s failure illustrates the processes of nation building at an important moment in Ireland’s post-colonial history. Prevailing histories of the organisation, most of which have focused on Blueshirt politics, have provided an insufficient examination of this process. Neither structural explanations for the rise of the organisation nor assessments of individual motivations for joining address the reasons why this movement took the form it did. Why did Irish men and women feel the need to express their political discontent through such a mass movement? Why did women in such large numbers join such an expressly masculine organisation? What were the reasons for adopting the blue shirt? Beyond corporatism, what were Blueshirt politics, and how did they relate to a constructed Irish historical tradition? And, ultimately, what were the implications of the organisation’s demise? These questions revolve around issues of gender, ritual and power that are best analysed by conceptualising the movement as representing a distinct Irish community. In the last chapter of his book, Irish Freedom: the history of nationalism in Ireland, Richard English discusses various elements that constitute communally based identities. He contends that, usually, identities form around notions of territory, people, descent, culture, history, ethics and/or the exclusion of another group. Communities can also form due to materialist reasons, such as economic deprivation or competition over resources.' For instance, shifts in economic forces can lead to the marginalisation of formerly preeminent classes resulting in communally based resistance. In general, however, English’s analysis downplays the impact social relations have on the composition of group dynamics, especially as they relate to power and authority, in favour of emphasising the imagined component. His discussion of power primarily concerns relations between the community and the state; he argues that communities often struggle against governmental authority because they seek to legitimate their cultural and ethnic bonds through the institutional power of the state.' He also does not discuss in detail the material processes of community formation, only mentioning how a struggle against authority can help bind community members together. John C. Walsh and Steven High have proposed a more effective analytical paradigm. They use a tripartite understanding of communities based on their social relations, formative processes and imagined reality. This paradigm historicises community by reflecting the historical specificity of the cultural meanings given to these three components. Culture, as used here, does not just refer to artistic creation or legacy but rather as a means of interpreting and reacting to events and identities within and without the community. Historians need to unravel the cultural meanings members ascribe to communal relationships and processes by analysing how communities are discursively represented. This often involves socially constructed notions of inclusion and exclusion that can form part of larger processes within the nation-state. At the same time, though, this paradigm transcends purely discursive considerations by incorporating into its analysis the material reality in which communities are formed and interact with each other. Communities, culturally and materially, engage with each other and the state through the use of public and social spaces, the ascription of identities, and the formation of community boundaries, which involves the exercise of power. My application of this tripartite analysis to the Blueshirts focuses on the intersections of gender, ritual and power as representative of its social relations, formative processes and imagined reality. Although the Blueshirts’ social relationships were based on both the members’ class and gender-based identities, I have chosen to focus principally on Blueshirt constructions of gender because several historians have already examined Blueshirt social class in detail. Paul Bew, Ellen Hazelkom and Henry Patterson have made the strongest argument that the Blueshirts were composed primarily of cattle farmers who constituted the agricultural bourgeoisie in inter-war Ireland. Mike Cronin, who has argued that agricultural workers with small plots of land also joined the movement, has partially disputed this contention. Consequently, Cronin believes that class-based alliances were not as important to Blueshirt politics as was their opposition to Fianna Fail, and Eamon de Valera in particular." Yet, despite this class variation in Blueshirt membership, Cronin still believes that in many ways the cattle ranchers and their interests dominated the organisation’s policies. John Regan agrees with Cronin that class was subordinated to Treatyite politics within the Blueshirts, but has argued that there was an element of class-based identity that extended past materialist considerations. Blueshirts were also responding to attacks on political morality evinced by the increasing lack of deference shown to the respectable classes. According to this line of reasoning, members associated their communal identity with the agricultural bourgeoisie not just because the economic war threatened their material situation but also because the war, along with other Fianna Fail policies, threatened their position within Irish society. Fianna Fail was simultaneously attempting to create an indigenous class of industrial bourgeoisie, through its autarkic policies, and an expanded peasant proprietor class through its emphasis on tillage agriculture. As much as it remains debatable whether these policies were successful, they did represent an assault on the agricultural bourgeoisie’s social status. Thus, joining the Blueshirts was a means of communally resisting this alteration of the social reality. As these historians have shown, therefore, within the Blueshirts, class operated as a determinant of material interests as well as a means of maintaining social and cultural hierarchies within Ireland. Whereas there remains little new to add to this analysis of the Blueshirts' class identity, the group’s construction of gender relationships remains a fruitful topic for historical inquiry. Blueshiit social relationships constructed collective identities that simultaneously maintained and subverted inter-war Irish gender stereotypes, especially after the formation of the women’s auxiliary, colloquially known as the Blue Blouses. The historical experience and significance of the Blue Blouses remains neglected within the historiography of the movement, despite the fact that, at its peak, the Blue Blouses was the largest women’s political organisation in Ireland. These women were directly involved in every aspect of Blueshirt activity and assumed roles critical to the functioning of the organisation. It was the women who were the Blueshirt movement’s public face to the uninitiated and who brought in badly needed funds. They dressed in military uniforms, marched alongside men at parades and during mass meetings, and, occasionally, joined the men in violent altercations with opponents. It is necessary, therefore, to include these women’s activities in any history of the movement. My tripartite analytical paradigm allows me to examine the complicated relationships between competing communities and dominant power structures that resulted in a totalising cultural homogeneity of republicanism. The ineffectiveness of the Blueshirts in using their popular mobilisation to successfully challenge republican nationalism has left an enduring-legacy for the country’s national identity. By being theoretically informed, my dissertation will, therefore, challenge the parochialism of Irish historiography while also presenting a new case study to test prevailing theories of female political participation, ritualised public events and the assertion of state power.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available