Oliver J. Flanagan by Michael Loughman

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Oliver J. Flanagan was for many years a divisive, controversial and at times eccentric figure in Irish politics. He was amongst the longest-serving T.D.s in the history of the state serving continuously from 1943 until 1987 for the Laois-Offaly constituency and for most of this period he was a member of Fine Gael. During his tenure in Dáil Éireann, he was a champion of social conservatism and was well known for his disputable remarks. This was perhaps best reflected in his infamous assertion in 1967 that ‘there was no sex in Ireland before television’. But although comments such as this were the subject of ridicule, Flanagan’s comments in his maiden Dáil speech in 1943 took a far more malicious tone. He stood before the chamber and decried the supposed evil influence that ‘the Jews, who crucified our saviour’, had in Ireland and declared: ‘There is one thing that Germany did, and that was to rout the Jews out of their country’, and he called for Ireland to do likewise. This outburst of vitriolic anti-Semitism was exceptional in light of the fact that Jews were being slaughtered across Europe at this time. These comments were made by Flanagan not as a member of Fine Gael, as he had yet not joined that party. Instead in 1943, Flanagan was elected to the Dáil as a member for a small, quite radical, and highly unusual party that believed it had all the cures to Ireland’s many plights. This party was the Irish Monetary Reform Association (I.M.R.A.). 

       In recent years there has been a notable rise in ring-wing populist movements across America and Europe. This has been a trend that Ireland has largely ignored and any thorough analysis of Irish political histography will show that radical right movements have in the past received little electoral support, especially if one were to judge it simply by Dáil elections. However, the I.M.R.A. did, for a time, have Dáil representation in the form of Flanagan. Yet, the I.M.R.A. and Flanagan himself have received very little scholarly attention. But as Flanagan’s aforementioned comments relating to the Jews highlight and as this article will show, he was, in his time as a self-described monetary reformer, the foremost embodiment of right-wing populist, anti-establishment politics during these early years in his career. Indeed, he is the most notable exponent on that axis of the political spectrum to have ever been elected to the Dáil. As such, this article will examine Flanagan’s political development up to his embrace of Fine Gael in 1952. In doing so, this article will analyse the political evolution of Flanagan throughout this period and the reasons for his electoral success. 

      The I.M.R.A. has its beginnings in 1938 in the form of the County Carlow Monetary and National Dividend Association. Its central figures were Michael Doorley, Liam Bolton and Seamus Lennon, all of whom had strong republican backgrounds, with Lennon having the distinction of being a member of the First Dáil. This group was part of a large number of movements that emerged in Ireland and across many other countries in the inter-war period that sought to change the monetary system as it then operated as they saw its failure especially in light of the onset of the Great Depression and the rise of communism. The type of monetary reform that was advocated by the I.M.R.A. was the issuance of a national dividend i.e. money, to ‘distribute God’s super-abundance’. This was inspired by the social credit ideas of the British engineer Major C. H. Douglas. By studying production and costs in factories, Douglas came to the conclusion that ‘the total amount distributed in wages, salaries and profit or dividends, would be less by a considerable sum than the total price of the product’.  Thus, to make up for this shortfall of money, Douglas suggested that a national dividend be issued to people ‘so that while there is real wealth to be distributed, nobody shall lack for want of money with which to buy.’ This ‘social credit’ idea gained Douglas a number of followers, most notably in Canada, but also clearly in Carlow.

      In late 1940, the County Carlow Monetary and National Dividend Association wished to look for expansion outside the county and thus became the I.M.R.A. and they decided to send organisers to surrounding counties in order to spread their message. It became clear in January 1941 that Oliver J. Flanagan was one of their early converts. This was indicated by a letter Flanagan wrote to a local newspaper in which he painted a very bleak picture of the country. He referred to Ireland as a country where ‘life is hardly worth living’, where ‘hunger stalks the land’, unemployment is rampant, debt is widespread and claimed (erroneously) that a million people had left the country since independence. All of which led him to worry that he is witnessing the ‘approaching death of the Irish nation’. The cause of all these miseries, according to Flanagan, was simply the ‘shortage of money’ and he publicly endorsed the I.M.R.A. as he concluded that they would deal with this shortage. 

      For Flanagan to write such as striking letter was perhaps unexpected. For at this time Flanagan was a member of Fianna Fáil, the governing party in the state. Flanagan, who was born in Mountmellick County Laois in 1920, took an interest in politics from an early age, despite coming from a firmly apolitical family. This led him to become secretary of his local Mountmellick Fianna Fáil Cumann in 1938. In this position, he was well regarded within the party and was extremely proactive in local affairs.  These were often trivial matters concerning local amenities, but in doing so, he was very attentive to all minute details of the topic at hand. Given the precarious economic situation at the time, particularly in Mountmellick, he also became more vocal on economic matters.  This was reflected in his numerous representations to have the tax on alcohol reduced due to the fact that the malting industry provided much employment in the town. Despite proposing alternative sources of revenue, Flanagan’s efforts to reduce the alcohol tax gained no traction. 

      As already shown his concern for the economic state of Mountmellick and the country as a whole led him to go much further than a simple reduction in alcohol tax. After his endorsement of the I.M.R.A., he immediately became a committed member of the organisation. He soon became secretary of the Laois Executive of the I.M.R.A. and began establishing branches across the county and was also vocal in defending the group against its critics.  This growing commitment was again reflected in May 1941 as he among the members that signed the manifesto and constitution of the I.M.R.A. In this document, the I.M.R.A. set out its priorities and principles. This document was presented along strong nationalist and religious lines. Their clear religious motivations were perhaps best reflected in their often expressed statement: ‘God created the world for man’s use and benefit’, thus if there was to be any restriction on man’s use of God’s creation, it was fundamentally unchristian. Their nationalism was expressed in their repeated desire to make Ireland a truly free nation as they saw it. In the view of the I.M.R.A., the political freedom that the state possessed was a sham that was completely meaningless to the vast majority of people. This was because the state did not have monetary control, for the control of money was in the hands of that most nefarious of creatures – the bankers, or as they often termed them, the ‘Jewish-Masonic bankers’. Because they controlled the money, these bankers were true government of the country. Because of their governance, all these terrible conditions of poverty were wrought upon the Irish people and this was all part of the banker’s plan to bring about World Communism. In order to remove the power of the banks, they had to have control over their own monetary affairs so that they could produce all the money that was needed as money, as they claimed, was merely ink and paper that could be produced in abundance. 

      As indicated by their constant use of the term ‘Jewish-Masonic bankers’, it is clear that anti-Semitism was at the heart of the I.M.R.A.’s ideology. This was an anti-Semitism that may seem out of place given the small Jewish population in Ireland, which numbered just less than 4,000 at this time. When one takes account of the fact that the Jewish population in the counties where the I.M.R.A. was most active was minuscule, it is clear that their anti-Semitism did not arise from any actual contact with Jews. This was an anti-Semitism that played on the usual stereotype of Jewish people having a major hand in the banking system. No doubt, the rise of anti-Semitism internationally at this time fed the I.M.R.A.’s views. In an Irish context, this worldwide Jewish conspiracy was most prominently expressed by the controversial priest Fr Denis Fahey, who claimed in his pamphlet The Rulers of Russia, that ‘the real forces behind Bolshevism in Russia are Jewish forces’ and that Bolshevism is being used by the Jews in order to establish ‘their future Messanic Kingdom’. Seamus Lennon himself had been complaining of the financial control of the banks by Jews and Masons as early as 1933. His own anti-Semitism had even led him to express support for Hitler, who, according to him, was ‘definitely’ telling the world how the Jews were responsible for all unrest and poverty in all countries. The anti-Freemason views of the I.M.R.A. also largely stemmed from the supposed conspiratorial nature of that group and deep suspicion that the Catholic Church held them. It is noteworthy that the I.M.R.A.’s anti-Semitism and their questioning of the legitimacy of Irish democracy, or as Lennon called it: ‘the greatest fraud that exists’, caught the attention of the overtly pro-Nazi, People’s National Party. According to Garda reports, the People’s National Party wished to use the I.M.R.A. as a springboard to launch their Nazi movement, but this ultimately came to nothing.

      Flanagan’s increasing prominence within the I.M.R.A. had the effect of making his membership of Fianna Fáil unsustainable, given their vicious condemnation of the governance of the country.  As such by late July 1941, the party took the decision to expel him, despite his protests. Yet in an extraordinary testament to his character, he did not leave the party by himself. The entire membership of the Mountmellick Cumann withdrew their support of the party, dissolved the Cumann and rebranded it as the Mountmellick Land Division and General Agricultural Association, in protest at the expulsion. As soon as his membership of Fianna Fáil was extinguished, his long life antagonism towards that party began. He soon criticised Fianna Fáil’s national collection as taking money from the ‘worse off’ and stated that the party was friendly to the British Jewish politician Hore Belisha. His denunciations, however, were not limited to Fianna Fáil and even declared that ninety per cent of the members of the Oireachtas ‘have not one drop of Irish blood in their veins’. But this language proved to be doing no harm for Flanagan as he substantially grew the I.M.R.A. in Laois with the setting up of a large number of branches and also began to expand the organisation in Offaly as well. In addition to this, the I.M.R.A. was clearly spreading in a number of other counties, as evidenced by a number of delegates from Clare, Dublin, Kilkenny and Tipperary at their ard fheis in November 1941. Also at this ard fheis, there were representatives from the newly founded agrarian political party Clann na Talmhan, whose own agrarian anti-establishment populism could find common cause with the I.M.R.A. Indeed, Flanagan himself wished to form an alliance with Clann na Talmhan, although this did not come to pass. The expansion of the group was again shown by what they called an ‘All-Ireland Conference’ in May 1942. Among those present was the Independent TD and representative from the Irish Farmer Federation, Patrick Coogan who called for the ‘money lords’ to go the same way as the landlords of the past. Maud Gonne McBride also sent a letter to the conference in support. Another particularly noteworthy letter was received by the conference from James Hickey, a Labour T.D. from Cork, who wrote that there was no point worrying about anything else until the money and credit issue had been dealt with. This letter from a Labour T.D. being noteworthy as it highlights the left-wing tinge of the otherwise right-wing populist I.M.R.A. Indeed, if one was to look beyond the whole rantings and ravings about Jewish-Masonic bankers, the rhetoric of the I.M.R.A. could be seen as quite egalitarian with their emphasis on the unequal nature of society. One supporter even wrote that if people cannot vote for Monetary Reform candidates at the next election then they should vote for the Labour Party instead. 

      However, the people would have an opportunity to vote for Monetary Reform candidates at the Local Elections of 1942, where they would contest the councils in Laois, Offaly and Carlow. But there was one problem which several I.M.R.A. members acknowledged: many people simply did not understand what they were talking about.  Perhaps, because of this, the party drew up a list of proposals at their ‘All-Ireland Conference’ that they hoped would appeal to the people. The proposals agreed upon were not a complicated explanation of the problems surrounding banking and the solution to stop the banker’s worldwide quest for power. Instead, they laid out a number of simple populist proposals such as raising wages and lowering taxes.  Flanagan seemed especially adept at putting forward the monetary reform message in a simplified way that would stir the people with his calls for higher wages and more jobs. Their message certainly seemed to be having an impact on the people as they had a number of, what were described as, ‘monster meetings’ and a public meeting they had in Portarlington was even described as one of the largest to ever happen in the town.

      Their support at these meetings was seemingly reflected at the ballot box as five I.M.R.A. candidates were elected: two to Laois County Council, two to Carlow, and one to Offaly.  When looking at the results for each of the individual figures, it is clear that the star of the party was Flanagan. In his Tinnahinch electoral area, he secured an enormous 1,284 votes, just over twice the necessary quota and he was also elected to Mountmellick Town Commission. They were, of course, exuberant in victory with Lennon, now a Carlow councillor, even declaring that the people of Tinnahinch, in giving Flanagan such a large mandate, had made ‘world history’. But others were not as enamoured with the election of the young maverick, such as the Labour Councillor Edward J. Breen who condemned Flanagan for running a ‘campaign of misrepresentation, utopian promises and personal promises’, suggesting that his programme was completely impossible to fulfil. Councillor Breen was no doubt correct as the I.M.R.A. proposals were fantastical and unrealistic, but at this election, there was a significant amount of discontent with the two largest parties and the likes of Labour and Clann na Talmhan made large gains. Thus, the I.M.R.A. simply represented another outlet at which the people could express their displeasure with the current system. 

      Just because now they were elected officials, didn’t mean that they calmed down on their rhetoric. In their first few months on the council, Flanagan, with Bolton by his side, consistently called for an increase in council workers’ wages, protested against rates, were opposed to travelling expenses for members, called for the termination of all farm debts, frequently vented their disapproval of the banks and their methods, wanted the office of the President abolished and demanded the ending of censorship. His rumbustious nature in the council continued to draw the ire of the chairman, Councillor Breen, who also happened to have been Flanagan’s teacher at school. He denounced Flanagan as being one of the most unruly people to ever be in the council, to which Flanagan replied that if that was so, then it was Breen’s fault, because he was his teacher.

      But it was not just his antics in the Council that were gaining him notice as was the case when he gave a speech in Mountrath in December of 1942. In this speech, he instructed the crowd that they should be ready to fight the bank managers if they tried to evict them and if the guards and bailiffs, who he claimed were in the pay of the Jews and Masons, arrived at their door, they should be met with the ‘iron sprong’. He then went on to declare that he agreed with ninety-nine and a half per cent of Hitler’s policy and expressed the hope that he would ‘knock the stuffing out of the Jews, the Americans and John Bull’.  He then went on to return to the banks and declared that if he was in power he would give every man who robbed a bank a medal and a pension.  These comments which gave the impression of encouraging violence and general criminality got Flanagan dragged to court as the Gardaí deemed them to be in breach of the peace. But Flanagan was in no way fazed by this. He saw it as an honour to be able to defend a ‘great Christian programme’ in a court of law and his defence largely consisted of him trying to explain monetary reform and to hand their Constitution to a very disinterested judge. But eventually after much comical toing and froing where Flanagan even claimed he would be ready to die for the Constitution of the I.M.R.A., Flanagan agreed not to repeat the comments which had landed him in court and he was let go. 

      Another consequence of Flanagan’s speech was that the Gardaí paid much greater attention to him which was confirmed later by the Minister for Justice Gerald Boland who justified this surveillance of Flanagan by citing his Mountrath speech. But nevertheless, any pestering by the authorities would not stop the I.M.R.A. from advancing to their next goal in the 1943 general election. In this election, Flanagan stood as the I.M.R.A.’s only candidate as they intended to approach this election as a test run. Flanagan was fully prepared to take on this responsibility, writing to Fr Denis Fahey before the vote to tell him of his intention of contesting the election against the ‘Jew-Masonic system’ for ‘God & Ireland’. The Irish Times even took notice of Flanagan’s campaign with their correspondent seeing how Flanagan was clearly very popular, noting that his meetings were very well attended, mainly due his reputation as a lively speaker who combined his populist rhetoric with a strong sense of comedy. The correspondent also noted that not all of Flanagan’s eggs were in one basket, emphasising that while his monetary ideas appealed to some, many others were perplexed by them. These people, however, could still find reason to vote for Flanagan due to his involvement in and support for other local issues. This is an important point because it would be hard to find a local group or campaign that Flanagan was not involved with and so he built up a massive amount of support in his area. Partly because of this, Oliver J. Flanagan was elected to Dáil Éireann for the Laois-Offaly constituency securing 4,379 first preference votes and gaining the final seat. Again just like in the local elections before, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made significant losses while there was success for Labour and Clann na Talmhan. So again it is clear there was much disillusionment and the I.M.R.A. benefitted as a result. 

       Flanagan was now a Dáil deputy and as soon he entered the house he set out on putting forward the ideas of the I.M.R.A. He called for the creation of an Irish Republic that was not only free politically but financially and economically as well. Thus, he refused to vote for any candidate for Taoiseach, seeing it and the formation of a government in general as a pointless exercise so long as the control of money was out of the state’s hands.  He tried in vain to put forward his monetary reform ideas before the Dáil. These efforts were, however repulsed by other Dáil deputies who had a noticeable degree of contempt for Flanagan with Seán Lemass telling him he was ‘not entitled to a fool’s licence here’, after he made several attempts to call for the printing of money. 

      Another topic that Flanagan took great interest in was the issue of republican prisoners and indeed the republican cause more generally. From the outset, he condemned the government for imprisoning republicans and called for their release. It was in the context of defending republicans that Flanagan made his most infamous and controversial statements regarding the Jews. In a debate concerning the Emergency Powers Act, which were measures implemented to combat the I.R.A., Flanagan spoke strongly against. He protested that such measures were only used against republicans. He saw it as a great injustice that such measures were not being used against the real enemy, who were, of course, the Masons and Jews ‘who crucified Our Saviour nineteen hundred years ago, and who are crucifying us every day in the week.’  He then went on to praise Germany’s handling of the Jews, declaring that:

There is one thing that Germany did, and that was to rout the Jews out of their country. Until we rout the Jews out of this country it does not matter a hair’s breadth what orders you make. Where the bees are there is the honey, and where the Jews are there is the money.

 

It was one thing to make such statements in some out of the way place in County Laois, it was another to proclaim it so openly before the national parliament at a time when the Jews were being slaughtered across Europe. As such one would expect some sort of reaction, but this was not the case and he received no rebuttal in the Dáil, with the only noticeable reaction from another politician being James Larkin Junior, who condemned the ‘anti-Jewish dope’ at a local Labour party meeting soon afterwards. The reaction (or lack thereof) is an indication that anti-Semitism was not seen as especially unusual in society and shows the degree to which it was tolerated. Flanagan’s speech was certainly not the first occasion on which anti-Semitism was openly expressed in the Dáil.

      Meanwhile, as Flanagan was getting adjusted to life in Dáil Éireann, the I.M.R.A. continued to make progress. Flanagan’s election and his conduct in the Dáil gave the I.M.R.A. invaluable exposure and they alluded to getting involved in more counties and contesting more seats come the next election. But just as the I.M.R.A. looked like an organisation with a bright future, it fell victim to that most gruelling rite of passage of Irish political parties – the split.

      The immediate reason for the split in the I.M.R.A. was Flanagan’s decision to support a Clann na Talmhan candidate for the Seanad. This ran contrary to the National Executive of the I.M.R.A.’s original decision not to support any candidates for the Seanad. Flanagan originally intended to stand by this decision, but as he came to realise the difficulties of being a solitary T.D., he changed his mind. As a lone deputy, any resolution he proposed could not make any progress in the Dáil without someone to second it. So when Clann na Talmhan looked for his support, the prospect of having his resolutions seconded by members of Clann na Talmhan convinced him to support them. But to Lennon, this was utter betrayal and he immediately made a statement to the Irish Press announcing that Flanagan, by his actions, had ceased to be a representative of their association.  This set off a bitter feud between Flanagan and Lennon, with Flanagan calling Lennon a one-man dictatorship who had an ‘axe to grind’, while Lennon and his supporters in the National Executive alleged that Flanagan was bribed and that he was even involved with their sworn enemies, the Freemasons.  

      But although the National Executive did expel Flanagan, this did not mean that all his support in the organisation was gone. This was due to the fact that the term ‘National Executive’ was one that greatly exaggerated its own importance and hid the reality that the vast majority of the members and branches of the I.M.R.A., literally around ninety per cent, were based in Flanagan’s constituency of Laois-Offaly. Therefore, the decision of the Laois-Offaly Executive of the I.M.R.A. would determine the position of the vast majority of the I.M.R.A. membership in this feud. As Flanagan was so influential in growing the I.M.R.A. in Laois and Offaly it was perhaps no surprise that the Constituency Executive overwhelmingly supported him and called for his suspension to be rescinded, with Bolton, his county council colleague, being the only dissenter.

      What is also noteworthy about the split is how similar it was to traditional splits in the republican movement because the issue of Dáil representation appeared as a major area of division between both sides. Bolton suggested that the I.M.R.A.’s decision to contest the general election was a major mistake, insisting that ‘we are not one bit interested in Leinster House’. Flanagan also alleged that Lennon asked him to stand up in the Dáil and state that ‘This is not the Dáil of 1918’, the implication of this statement being that the existing Dáil was illegitimate. Flanagan, however, obviously saw an opportunity in using the power of the Dáil to further his aims, especially when it came to local matters. For Lennon this did not matter, he would stick by his principles and not compromise, but because of his intransigence, so much of the organisation was now out of his hands and Lennon’s faction of the I.M.R.A., which although continuing to exist, fell into a state of permanent decline until disbanding after the 1948 election. It is without question a great testament to Flanagan’s own political acumen and popularity that the majority of I.M.R.A. members stuck with the boisterous 23-year-old novice over the veteran republicans of the independence struggle. 

      Despite the split in the movement, Flanagan’s own electoral appeal did not diminish. This was seen in the 1944 general election where Flanagan topped the poll. This was despite Lennon’s repudiation of him and Fianna Fáil’s concentrated efforts to unseat him. These efforts included having a meeting in Portlaoise, with de Valera in attendance, where Flanagan was effectively condemned as useless and unintelligent and also using a local priest to tell parishioners not to vote for him.  Flanagan’s success is an even more significant achievement given the fact that nationally in this election, the pendulum had swung back in Fianna Fáil’s favour, securing that party an overall majority. But in Laois-Offaly Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour’s vote share were all down with Flanagan reaping all the rewards.  Any meticulous analysis of his Dáil contribution up to this point can clearly show why the people endorsed him so emphatically as he made a countless amount of contributions relating to local matters and amenities that helped secure his support.

       In the aftermath of his re-election to the Dáil with his greatly increased number of votes, Flanagan and his I.M.R.A. group, or as it would become known, the Monetary Reform Party, were exultant. One supporter even penned a song in praise of Flanagan, entitled ‘The Head of the Poll’, which along with the massive crowds he could attract indicate the almost cult status that he had in the constituency. But it also clear that with the commencement of the new Dáil term, monetary reform was not a major priority of Flanagan’s, with very little of his time ever spent on advocating the creation of money, although he still regularly criticised the banks and the politicians who he saw as subservient to them. 

      An issue that he did, however, pay great attention to was the war and how Ireland was reacting to it. Flanagan, like most members of the Oireachtas, claimed to support neutrality, but he clearly felt that the government was not being neutral enough. He protested against Irish men joining the British forces. He referenced rumours of British internees being released and asserted that if the state wanted to be truly neutral, it should also release German internees. Efforts to bring a number of Jewish refugee children to the country also drew his ire.  But as his Mountrath speech proved before, he himself did not take a very neutral view on the war. He clearly had a preference for Germany, which was shown in his appeals for help for the German people when the war was over. This by itself is not very telling as many wished to help the impoverished Germans, but when one takes into account his previous denunciations of aid being sent famine-hit India or war-weary Italy, it is apparent that he had a soft spot for Germany. Such sentiment was also expressed upon the death of Hitler when he sniped in the Dáil: ‘I hope he is alive’.

      His sympathies with fascists were not limited to those in Germany either for he expressed support for Ailtirí na hAiséirghe, a group that can be seen as the main embodiment of fascism in Ireland during this period. This was led by the aspiring Irish Führer Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin, and there were regular contacts between him and Flanagan from late 1943. Aiséirghe had no representatives in the Dáil, but Flanagan proved willing to act as their unofficial representative, informing the party that if it wished for ‘any matter [to be] raise[d] in the Dáil – I’ll do so with the greatest of pleasure’. This he did, raising the issues relating to censorship of Ó Cuinneagáin’s speeches or protesting Aiséirghe being refused permission to publish their newspaper. Flanagan also volunteered to campaign for an Aiséirghe candidate in a by-election in Tipperary. Notwithstanding this, he never became officially affiliated with the group and there is no record of him ever mentioning Aiséirghe at his public meetings or speeches in his constituency. Over time he clearly became less committed to raising Ó Cuinneagáin’s concerns. This was evidenced by his last Dáil statement relating to either Ó Cuinneagáin or Aiséirghe being in May 1945, whereas there is a letter from Ó Cuinneagáin to Flanagan dated as late as January 1947, where he asked him to raise a certain matter, but Flanagan never did so. 

      But Flanagan’s connections to the far-right were not limited to Ó Cuinneagáin either, as indicated by a news article in February 1945 relating to an allegation of slander made by a Frederick Carr against a Kevin Cahill. The circumstances in which this alleged slander occurred is noteworthy as the incident occurred on a car journey to Dublin after a victory meeting in Mountmellick in the aftermath of Flanagan’s election success. Also in the car was Flanagan himself, as well as Maurice O’Connor, Rev. Alexander Carey and Dermot Brennan. When looking at the background of each of these individuals, there is a conspicuous relationship between Flanagan and the Irish pro-Axis far-right. For O’Connor was a member of Irish Friends of Germany, Carr was affiliated with Aiséirghe, Carey founded the anti-Jewish and pro-Axis An Córas Gaedhealach and Brennan was previously an assistant editor of the subtly anti-Semitic Catholic newspaper, Standard, and he was also a member of the fascistic Celtic Cooperation of Occupational Guilds. Kevin Cahill is particularly notable as he was connected with General O’Duffy’s Irish brigade in Spain, and also aided German intelligence agents in Ireland. Cahill evidently saw in Flanagan his next venture into the far-right as he became involved with the M.R.P. for several years after.

      Flanagan’s flirtations with Aiséirghe did not mean that he ignored his own organisation and the party went forward in the 1945 local elections and gained seats on Laois County Council and Mountmellick town Commission. Flanagan’s political reach also extended beyond the county with the elevation of a Monetary Reformer to Ballinasloe town council, albeit an election without a contest. Taking this into account along with the large number of branches that the M.R.P. claimed to have, which numbered fifty-six: forty-nine of which were in Laois-Offaly, with the rest scattered across Galway, Roscommon, Kildare, Tipperary and Westmeath, it is clear that the M.R.P. was not an insignificant force. Flanagan did claim that he intended to expand the party even more and make it a truly national movement.  To test this national support, Flanagan was determined to contest a by-election in Dublin that was created by Seán T. O’Kelly’s elevation to the presidency. The candidate that he wished to put forward in the by-election was none other than O’Kelly’s defeated opponent, the independent republican Patrick McCartan. Flanagan may have hoped that because he campaigned with McCartan during the election that McCartan would return the favour. However, McCartan did not run and there was not to be any more efforts to make the M.R.P. a national movement. 

      How concerned Flanagan was of creating a truly national movement is debatable. When looking through the reports of their meetings, it is easy to see that the primary purpose of the M.R.P. was now one that focused on the needs and problems of the constituents of Laois-Offaly, with Flanagan appealing to the branches that they should always ‘keep alive to the needs’ of their respective areas. The branches thus served as an organisation by which Flanagan could keep himself involved in a wide variety of matters that were of concern to his constituents, which he could then raise in the Dáil if necessary, which meant, of course, that he could easily maintain his support in the constituency. Monetary reform had clearly become a less important matter for the members, although it was still given sporadic utterances, but support for Flanagan was the primary function of the M.R.P. As the Leinster Express acknowledged at the time: ‘Monetary Reform candidates know little of Monetary Reform and, indeed, care less: the only plank in their platform is the engaging personality of Mr. O.J. Flanagan, TD’.  

      But although all the talk of monetary reform died down, it is clear that his anti-Semitic views didn’t change even with the end of the Second World War when the full extent of the Holocaust was brought to the eyes of the world. This continued anti-Semitism was shown in 1947 when Flanagan still decried the alleged power the Jews had over finance and called on the Minister for Justice to protect the country ‘from the influence and destruction of aliens and Jews’. He also took exception to Robert Briscoe’s Zionist activities. But admittedly, the anti-Semitic rhetoric was not as common as it was during the war and it eventually died off. 

      While no longer as committed a monetary reformer as he once was, Flanagan still was very much concerned with the plight of those at the bottom of society. He often spoke with great passion when he dealt such issues and as far as he was concerned there had to be dramatic change. The only way to bring about any change was to remove Fianna Fáil from office as he claimed ‘The death of this nation is very fast approaching and that death is being expedited every day that Fianna Fáil remains in office.’ To remove Fianna Fáil from office was no small task given their dominant political strength when compared to a fractured opposition. Because of this reality, Flanagan was among those who started to make calls for the opposition to unite together in one grand National party, even indicating that such an entity should be a ‘sound Nationalist and Socialist’ party.

      Flanagan’s willingness to work with all the other parties in order to oust Fianna Fáil is obviously an indication of his frustration with Fianna Fáil’s seemingly never-ending reign, but it also shows how he himself had developed as a politician. In his earlier years, he demonised Fine Gael just as much as Fianna Fáil and seemed happy to complain on the side-lines. Now, he was willing to work with them and anyone else in order to be rid of de Valera, or as he increasingly saw him: the greatest traitor Ireland ever had. There can also be no doubt that his friendship with James Dillon played a major part in his political development. The friendship that developed between the two was a rather unlikely one. Whereas Flanagan was at times an extreme republican who expressed support for Germany during the war; Dillon came from the constitutional nationalist tradition and his calls for Ireland to join the Allies led to him being forced out of Fine Gael.  Flanagan even branded Dillon the greatest hypocrite in the Dáil at one point.  Over time, however, the two became quite close, to the extent that Seán McEntee would label Flanagan as Dillon’s ‘political love child’. 

      Flanagan did ultimately play a major role in removing Fianna Fail from office due to allegations of corruption he made against the government in October 1947. The allegations related to the sale of Locke’s Distillery in Kilbeggen County Westmeath to a Swiss syndicate. He claimed that Lemass’s Department of Industry and Commerce favoured the selling of the distillery to the syndicate over any Irish bids; that Gerald Boland, the Minister for Justice, had turned a blind eye to this syndicate’s involvement in black market whiskey and most scandalously; he claimed that a member of the syndicate gave de Valera’s son a gold watch ‘in order to soften things.’ Flanagan’s allegations immediately set off a political storm and the Fianna Fáil government were incensed by the allegations with de Valera subtly comparing Flanagan at one point to a beetle that ignores any flowers in the garden and prefers to roll around in the dung. However with wild rumours spiralling around the country, the government had no option but to establish a tribunal to investigate the matter.

      As the allegations originated from Flanagan, he was a central witness in the tribunal and was thoroughly interrogated with his reliability consistently called into question.  Ultimately, when the tribunal concluded, the judges were left in no doubt about the credibility of the star witness: ‘We found it necessary to exercise extreme caution in dealing with the evidence of Deputy Flanagan. We found him very uncandid and much disposed to answer questions unthinkingly and as if he were directing his replies elsewhere than to the Tribunal.’ But from a political point of view, it did not matter if the allegations were true or not, as they raised questions about the government only a week before three by-elections. Of these three, Fianna Fáil lost two to the new party, Clann na Poblachta. In an effort to stifle the growth of this new party, de Valera called an election. This gave Flanagan an opportunity to test the assertion that he made in a telegram sent to de Valera in the wake of the tribunal’s findings: ‘Right will win over might. The people are the best judges.’

      Flanagan went into the 1948 election continuing as a member of the M.R.P. He continued to be the party’s only candidate for the election, although they did for a time consider putting forward another candidate in Laois-Offaly along with him. Real monetary reform certainly was not on top of Flanagan’s agenda. As one person observed after the election, he was ‘a Monetary Reformer who never mentions monetary reform’. Instead, he and his party ran on simple populist proposals to provide better housing, reduce taxation, extend land division and end unemployment and emigration.  But it is clear that his primary goal was to bring an end de Valera’s rule, a rule that he claimed was like Stalin’s in Russia, in that it was sustained by fear.  In this campaign, he was aided by Harry Diamond, a Socialist Republican M.P. in the Northern Parliament. This closeness with Diamond is in itself significant as Diamond was very much a leftist figure. Thus, this relationship, along with his contacts with the far-right, show that Flanagan’s populist appeal was one that could transcend the politics of left and right. When the votes were counted, Flanagan received an immense 14,369 votes, the highest received by any candidate during the election and so he could assure himself that his prophetic telegram had come to pass. It certainly seemed that a large number of his constituents still felt that he was their authentic champion against the establishment, which was enough for Flanagan to feel vindicated.  

       It wasn’t just here that voters went against Fianna Fáil as they lost their majority which gave the disparate opposition the chance to finally bring an end to Fianna Fáil government. In order to bring about this, Flanagan helped Dillon in bringing a number of Independents together for the purpose of supporting a non-Fianna Fáil government. This group put their support behind John A. Costello’s nomination as Taoiseach, which, with the support of almost all non-Fianna Fáil elements in the Dáil, succeeded in bringing about the first change of government in sixteen years with the formation of the First Inter-Party government. Flanagan was thrilled to see such a change, declaring in the Dáil: ‘Thanks be to God that I have lived to see this day.’ 

      He maintained his support for this government throughout its existence, which was a very new position for him, given his years of protest against government policies. During this time he continued to raise numerous local issues, speak for the rights of workers and small farmers and spoke on many other matters, notably including calling for the abolition of capital punishment. He did not lose his contempt for the banking system either and called for the government to establish a committee of experts to find alternative ways of raising capital rather than borrowing with large interest from the banks.  The members of the M.R.P. also maintained their support of Flanagan as he supported the government.

      The Inter-Party Government collapsed due to the controversy over the Mother and Child scheme as the radical Clann na Polblachta Minister for Health Noël Browne’s efforts to socialise healthcare met strident opposition from the Church and doctor’s groups. Infamously Browne resigned as the Government would not support the scheme given the opposition of the Church. Ironically, in this major clash of church and state, Flanagan, a man who was lampooned in later life for his devotion to the Church, was amongst the few who leapt to Browne’s defence. In an eloquent speech before the Dáil, Flanagan heaped praise on Browne for his work in helping the poor and sick and labelled him as not just the best Minister for Health that the country ever had, but ‘the best Minister for Health in any Government in Europe’ and that he could never be replaced. Flanagan’s contribution no doubt came from his own genuine concern for the disadvantaged in society and he also cited his own treatment during the Locke Tribunal, when he like Browne was now, was ridiculed.  But there was also a surprisingly close friendship between Flanagan and Browne, which developed as Flanagan himself had contracted TB sometime previously and Browne often visited him in hospital. 

      With the collapse of the government, there was another election in 1951 and this would be the last time Flanagan went forward as a Monetary Reform candidate. During the campaign, he still advocated some reform of the monetary system as he hoped for the day when Ireland would have control of its own currency. His main hope was, however, that some sort of inter-party arrangement could continue to exist after the election.  This would not be the case however and Fianna Fáil was able to return to power. Thus, Flanagan returned to his usual job of criticising Fianna Fáil government, but he was not to do it as an Independent deputy for much longer. On 11 May 1952, it was announced that Dillon had returned to Fine Gael and this led Flanagan to also join the party a week later. This decision was subsequently unanimously endorsed by the members of the M.R.P. and thus brought an end to the M.R.P. 

      Although Oliver J. was now part of conventional politics, he never really became a fully conventional politician. He was still prone to make controversial comments, such as when he declared ‘we have no room in this country for Nazis’, this being in the context of his protests against Germans buying up Irish land. Albeit, it was still better than his previous expressions of support for Nazis. His anti-Semitic and hard-line republican views were also very much a thing of the past for the Flanagan of the sixties, seventies and eighties. He had by this stage attended celebrations commemorating the establishment of the State of Israel and was threatened with assassination by the Provisional I.R.A. His populist economic rhetoric did, however, remain with him for many years after the dissolution of the M.R.P. This included such rhetoric that was more akin to a communist ideologue, such as his condemnation of the E.E.C. as a ‘rich man’s set up’ and a ‘capitalistic and monopolistic society’ and his welcoming of the opening of the Soviet embassy in Dublin in the hope that they could teach the government of the adverse effects that capitalism had on the poor. Indeed, for all his faults, there is no denying that Flanagan did have a genuine concern for those in the lower echelons of society. Unfortunately, this concern led him to find the source of their problems in anti-Semitic conspiracies. This is certainly not unique, as sections of numerous societies, particularly in this period, used Jewish people as an excuse for the failings of their own countries. It is perhaps noteworthy that the founders of the I.M.R.A. were heavily involved in the independence struggle, as they clearly were aggrieved by the state that came about from their struggle and so the Jewish-Masonic bankers provided the reasoning for their failures. 

      The fact that the I.M.R.A. had some electoral success may indicate that sections of the Irish electorate in the Midlands were susceptible to anti-Semitic rhetoric, notwithstanding the almost non-existent Jewish population here. It is perhaps more likely that the I.M.R.A. simply offered an anti-establishment voice to a despondent public in this period of harsh economic conditions. Flanagan, more than anyone else in the movement was able to rally large crowds with his radical economic message. This coupled with his consistent condemnation of the political establishment, oftentimes to the point of hysteria, made him a quintessential populist, in many ways similar to populist leaders and movements that have gained traction across Europe and America in modern times. However, Flanagan was not a man who simply relied on his anti-establishment rhetoric to maintain his support in this period. Meeting the needs of his constituents was always of paramount importance to Flanagan and this made him Ireland’s foremost ‘parish pump’ politician. His control of the M.R.P. allowed him to always be aware and to address the needs of his constituents across Laois-Offaly. It also provided him with an organisation that would aid in his election efforts, which Flanagan excelled at. Despite its name, the membership of the M.R.P. had no qualms in joining Flanagan’s embrace of Fine Gael. Ideology was simply not important to them, as was no doubt the case with those who followed Flanagan out of Fianna Fáil and those who took his side in the I.M.R.A. split. Flanagan’s powerful personality and his strong work ethic drew these people to support him throughout his extraordinary political journey. As such. he was consistently re-elected until his retirement in 1987, at which point Monetary Reform was a mere footnote in the long, colourful and controversial career of Oliver J. Flanagan.

This article has been sent to us by Michael Loughman. Michael is from Clonaslee and has recently completed a Masters in History at NUIG, where he received a First Class Honours.
For his thesis, he wrote about the early controversial political career of Oliver J. Flanagan and his Monetary Reform movement. This work showed a unique insight into Laois politics at the time. For further details or to contact Michael please email him at michael25396@gmail.com.
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