Ernest Blythe (1889-1975)


Life
[Earnán de Blaghd; de Blagh: BML]; b. Magheragall, nr. Lisburn, Co. Antrim, son of Protestant farmer; joined Gaelic League, taught by Sinéad Flanagan [who taught and married Eamon de Valera]; recruited to Irish Volunteers by Sean O’Casey; IRB organiser; junior reporter on North Down Herald, Bangor, then Newtownards; worked as farm labourer in Kerry Gaeltacht, 1913, spending two years there learning Irish; clerk in the Department of Agriculture in Dublin; Irish Volunteers organiser, 1914;
 
in prison during 1916 Rising; participated in hunger-strikes; elected to Sinn Féin executive, 25 Oct. 1917; eleted TD for N. Monaghan, 1918; appt. Minister of Trade and Commerce, 1918-21; unsympathetic to John Chartres in his conflicts with Charles Bewley, the Irish representative in Berlin; appt. Minister of Finance, 1921-23; app0t. Minister of Post & Telegraphs, 1922-32;
 
elected Vice-Pres. of Executive Council of Free State, July 1927-Mar 1932; reduced old age pension from 10 to 9 shillings [but see Lee, infra]; defeated gen. election 1933; senator till 1936, and retired; encouraged Mac Liammoir-Edwards theatre Taibhdhearc (Galway); fnd. An Gúm; granted £1,000 to Abbey making it the first state-subsidised theatre in the world; Abbey Mg-Dir., 1941-67 [var. Director, 1939], awarding first govt. grant during his Finance ministry;
 
his favouring kitchen comedies and ‘peasant quality’ drew sustained criticism; encouraged MacLiammóir-Edwards’ An Taibhdhearc, Irish-language theatre, Galway; launched Irish-drama policy with four productions in 1943; founded An Gúm; published poems, Fraoch agus Fothannáin (1938); The State and the Language (1949); also Briseadh na Teorann [The Smashing of the Border] (1955), a study of partition, urging reconciliation; issued A New Departure in Northern Policy (1949);
 
issued 2 vols. of autobiography as Trasna na Bóinne (1957) and Slán le hUltaibh (1969), dealing with his development, as an Ulster Protestant towards radical nationalism and later events; latterly he was the object of an actors’ strike led by Vincent Dowling and others, resulting in the co-option of Walter Macken to the Board, 1966 and his own replacement by Tómas Mac Anna at the Abbey with the opening of the new theatre, 1967; d. 23 Feb. 1975, Dublin; predominantly pragmatic as well as nationalist, he has left the reputation of an apparatnik of Irish revolution and culture. DIW DIH DIB OCIL

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Works
Poetry, Fraoch agus Fothannain [verse] (Oifig an tSoláthair 1938), vi, 55pp. Prose, Briseadh na Teorann (Dublin: Sáirséal agus Dill 1955), plates, 195pp.; A New Departure in Northern Policy, appeal to the leaders of National Opinion (Dublin: Basil Clancy [1957]); Trasna na Bóinne (Baile Átha Cliath: Sáirséal agus Dill 1957) ; Slán le hUltaibh ([Dublin: Sáirséal agus Dill] 1969) [var. 1970].

Miscellaneous, ‘Birth Pangs of a Nation’, The Irish Times (Nov. 19 & 20 1968), pp.1, 7; [Earnan P. Blythe,] ‘The Welsh Chapel in Dublin’ [July 1957], in Dublin Historical Record, 14, 3 (Dec. 1995), pp.74-79.

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Criticism
Oliver Snoddy, ‘Notes on Literature in Irish Dealing with the Fight for Freedom’, Éire-Ireland, 3, 2 (Summer 1968), pp. 138-48; Nollaig Ó Gadhra, ‘Earnán de Blaghd 1880-1975’ [appreciation], in Éire-Ireland, 21, 3 (Autumn 1986), pp.93-105.

See also Peadar Ó hAnnracháin, Fé bhrat an Chonnartha (Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig an tSolathair 1944) [extract], and comments in Lennox Robinson, Ireland’s Abbey Theatre: A History 1899-1951 (London: Sidgwick & Jackson 1951), pp.125-26.

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Commentary

Léon Ó Bróin
Joseph Lee
John Whyte
Robert Welch
Peadar Ó hAnnracháin

Léon Ó Bróin, Protestant Nationalists in Revolutionary Ireland, The Stopford Connection (Gill & Macmillan 1985), p39ff, he joined the Central Branch of the Gaelic League and through its classes, outings and hurling clubs, he met John Casey, otherwise Sean O’Casey (the future playwright) , and was drawn to him. They talked of the Irish language, Irish literature, and Irish politics, and before long O’Casey invited him to join the IRB. After some months routine observation of him, Blythe was sworn in (Earnan de Blaghd, Treasa na Bóinne, 109). See also Ó Bróin’s remarks on Blythe’s resignation from the IRB; directorate of Trade and Commerce; work for Irish language revival; Abbey Theatre.

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Joseph Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, Politics and Society (1989), O’Higgins, supported by Patrick Hogan, Min. for Agric., and Ernest Blythe, represented vigorous social reaction; Blythe launched an attack on the old and blind in his 1924 budget [quotation from state papers, E. B. Carey to Shanagher, indicating that the pre-1924 scheme gave the pensioner 20s. p.w., and that after 1924 16s. p.w.] This economy drive reduced the total cost of old and blind pensions from 3.18 to 2.54 millions between 1924 and 1927, and total costs in 1932 still remained below the 1924 level; the political consequences of the campaign against the aged are difficult to quantify [...] [125] In the Mutiny affair, O’Higgins emerged as the real winner, with Ernest Blythe ‘brutally behind [him] on this occasion’; It was in the 1920s that Ulster welfare services began to draw ahead of those in the South, where they were sacrificed on the altar of fiscal responsibility by the Ulster Protestant, Ernest Blythe [140]. The Provisional Govt appointed Ernest Blythe, an Ulster Protestant, as ‘the most suitable person [...] to take charge of all correspondence etc. relative to the North East’ in April; Blythe’s advocacy of a [141] consistent policy of conciliation logically implied the abandonment of territorial claims on the North. Cosgrave [...] appointed Blythe Min. for Local Govt. in the new cabinet and replaced him on the North East Border Bureau with Kevin O’Sheil [...] The rationale for the shift [...] remains unclear [142]; Blythe’s proposal to de-rate agricultural land by £750,000 was a direct electoral sop to bigger farmers. [157]

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John Whyte, Interpreting Northern Ireland (OUP 1990) notes: in Briseadh na Teorann [The Smashing of the Border] (1955], Blythe argues with a new realism that Partition exists not because of the British but because of the Ulster Protestants and that the only way to bring about a united Ireland was by enticing sufficient northern Protestants to vote for it; twice imprisoned by the British; Govt. Min., and Northern Stock (p.119; bibl., Nollaig Ó Gadhra, 1976.)

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Robert Welch, The Abbey Theatre, 1899-1999: Form and Pressure (OUP 1999), discussing Holloway’s remarks on the ‘Gaelic three Directors’ of the Abbey [Blythe, Farren, and Hayes]: ‘Curiously enough, the language mirrors the satire on the Irish-language movement fiercely expressed in Flann 0’Brien’s mockery of the idealisation of Gaels and Gaeldom in An Béal Bocht (1941) [...] Clearly, a neutral Ireland bred a renewed enthusiasm for concepts of identity based on Gaelicisation, which in turn spaned its own reaction. The difficulty Blythe was contending with was that while there was a good deal of lip-service being paid to the special place of the Irish language and Irish culture, very little real commitment to it was evident in the values and attiudes of ordinary people so [145] that, while many would applaud the idea of the National Theatre becoming a Gaelic one, very few actually went to see the plays.’ (pp.145-46.)

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Peadar Ó hAnnracháin, (Fé bhrat an Chonnartha, Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig an tSolathair 1944), recounts that as a Volunteer organiser and a North of Ireland Protestant IRB man, Blythe was always followed by a policeman on bicycle. (Cited in Oliver Snoddy, ‘Notes on Literature in Irish Dealing with the Fight for Freedom’, Éire-Ireland, 3, 2, Summer 1968, p. 144.)

Brian P. Kennedy, ‘The Irish Free State, 1922-49: A Visual Perspective’, in Ireland: Art into History, ed. Kennedy & Raymond Gillespie (1994): ‘While Minister for Finance, 1923-32, Blythe demonstrated his commitment to the Irish language by having a map of the Irish speaking Gaeltacht areas adorn his office.’ (Cites Leon Ó Bróin, Just Like Yesterday, 1986, p.93.)

Paterick Lonergan, ‘Queering Shakespeare at the Abbey: Wayne Jordan’s Twelfth Night, Scenes from the Bigger Picture [Wordpress blog] (3 May 2014) incls. remark - ‘[...] from 1936 to 1971 Shakespeare went unproduced at that theatre: when asked why, Ernest Blythe explained that the Abbey “does not do foreign playwrights”’. (Available online; accessed 07.07.2014.)

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Quotations
Abbey houses: ‘It all depends whether the best plays, as you call them, played to decent audiences. As far as I’m [500] concerned, a play’s a failure if it doesn’t ultimately draw an audience. It’s a miserable failure in fact. I don’t think anything’s so discouraging for either the actors or the playgoers as a house that’s more than three-quarters empty. It doesn’t do anybody any good - not even the author.’ (Quoted in Frank O’Connor, ‘The Future of Irish Literature’, Horizon, Jan. 1942, making unflattering comparison with Lady Gregory’s more self-sacrificial attitude towards the deficit of audiences; rep. in David Pierce, ed., Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader, Cork UP 2000, pp.500-03; here pp.500-501.)

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The Welsh Chapel in Dublin’, in Dublin Historical Record, 14, 3 (Dec. 1995 [July 1957], pp.74-79, concerns Welsh Methodist Church in Poolbeg St., Dublin, which was the object of religious riots in Dublin in 1837, ‘to some extent the by-product of the agitation for Repeal’. Further: ‘in the church the congregation worshipped in the Welsh language, led by their preachers John Williams and Robert Williams; a later church was opened in Mabbot St., and after that used by Griffith’s boots’ [and now destroyed in the clearances of that district].

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Tribute to Kevin O’Higgins: 'Other countries have had statesmen whose names were more widely known throughout the world, but I do not believe that any nation had a servant who, in purity of purpose or powers of mind, excelled this man who is now dead in his thirty-fifth year. He was struck down by assassins, not because of anything he had done in the past, but because of the work they knew him to be capable of doing in the future, because he was the strongest pillar of the State. The best tribute we can pay to his memory is, solemnly to resolve that we shall preserve and strengthen the fabric of this State, which [211] he laboured to build up and for which he died, and that we shall guard it against all enemies within and without.’ (Quoted in Donal O’Sullivan, in The Irish Free State and Its Senate (London: Faber & Faber 1940, pp.211-11.) In an ensuing tribute by Senator Jameson, it is asserted that 'My Blythe said quite truly that they knew the man they had to deal with, and that they knew how he meant to carry on the country. The forces of disruption and disorder feared him, and with good reason [...]’ (Ibid., p.212.)

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References
Phyllis Hartnoll, ed., Oxford Companion to Theatre (1988 ed.), ‘Blythe [...] saw it as the function of the Abbey “to preserve and strengthen Ireland’s national individuality”. The cultivation of Gaelic Drama became a priority and actors were required to be bilingual, and new plays were allowed to run on.’

British Library holds Earnán de Blagh, Briseadh na Teorann (Sáirséal agus Dill 1955), plates, 195pp.; Fraoch agus Fothannain [verse] (Oifig an tSoláthair 1938), vi, 55pp. [Unlisted, Trásna na Boinne ([Dublin: Sáirséal agus Dill] 1957); Slán le hUltaibh ([Dublin: Sáirséal agus Dill] 1969).

Books in Print (1994), A New Departure in Northern Policy, appeal to the leaders ofNational opinion (Dublin: Basil Clancy [1957]) [n.pp.]

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Notes
Seán Mac Mathuna, author of Gadaí Géar na Geamh-Oíche/The Winter Thief (Peacock 1992), owns that much of the inspiration for the play came from Ernest Blythe’s Slán le hUltaibh, which recounts his experience as an IRB organiser. (Irish Times, Weekend, during March/April 1992.)

PQ: ‘Peasant Quality’, often associated with Blythe’s administration at the Abbey was actually coined by Hugh Hunt, as related in Frank O’Connor, My Father’s Son (1964): ‘[...] he had invented something called “Peasant Quality” – which the actors had turned into PQ and used the slogan “Mind your PQ”.’ (p.202).

Women’s issues: For account of Blythe’s refusal of plays dealing with women’s issues, and his denial that prostitution and adultery existed in Ireland, see Attic Guide to Irish Women Writers (1993) under Lilian Roberts Finlay (p.123).

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