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Duffy, Sir Charles Gavanlocked

  • R. B. O'Brien
  • , revised by Brigitte Anton

Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (1816–1903)

by J. C. McRae

Duffy, Sir Charles Gavan (1816–1903), journalist and politician, was born in the town of Monaghan on 12 April 1816, the youngest child of John Duffy (d. 1826/7), a shopkeeper, and his wife, Anne (Annie) Gavan (d. c.1837), the daughter of Patrick Gavan of Aughabog, co. Monaghan, gentleman farmer, and his wife, Judith McMahon of Oriel.

Early years

Duffy was mainly self-educated, since co. Monaghan had insufficient schooling for Catholics. In Monaghan town he spent some time at a poor school run by Neil Quinn, and five years at the Revd John Bleckley's classical academy, where he was the only Catholic. When he was eighteen, Duffy became a contributor to Charles Hamilton Teeling's nationalist paper, the Northern Herald. In 1836 he moved to Dublin, where he joined the staff of the Liberal paper the Dublin Morning Register as an unpaid trainee, and worked his way up to become its sub-editor. In 1839 he left Dublin to edit (and soon own) The Vindicator, organ of Belfast's Catholics. At the end of the year he entered as a law student at the King's Inns, Dublin.

In 1842 Duffy married Emily McLaughlin (1819/20–1845), daughter of Francis McLaughlin of Belfast. Their only surviving son, John Gavan Duffy, succeeded his father as a member of the legislative assembly of Victoria. The same year saw Duffy in the court of the queen's bench, Dublin, accused of false and seditious libel. He was found guilty but was not sentenced, since he retracted his views.

Young Ireland

In the autumn of 1841 Duffy met John Blake Dillon and Thomas Davis, both writers on the Morning Register. He suggested to his friends a new weekly journal, which should support the policies of Daniel O'Connell's Loyal National Repeal Association and impart to the people the ideas of Irish cultural nationalism. The resultant paper was called The Nation, of which Duffy was proprietor and editor. The first number, of 15 October 1842, sold out immediately. By 1843 the paper had an average circulation of 10,730. W. E. H. Lecky wrote later:

What The Nation was when Gavan Duffy edited it, when Davis, [Denis Florence] McCarthy, and their brilliant associates contributed to it, and when its columns maintained with unqualified zeal the cause of liberty and nationality in every land, Irishmen can never forget. Seldom has any journal of the kind exhibited a more splendid combination of eloquence, of poetry and of reasoning.

Duffy wrote under the pseudonyms the Black Northern, Ben Heder, the O'Donnell, and C.G.D. In 1843 the Nation writers (later known as Young Ireland) published a collection of nationalist ballads, entitled The Spirit of the Nation, which contained two of Duffy's most famous songs, 'Fag an Bealach' and 'The muster of the north, A.D. 1641'. The Young Irelanders also began to publish the Library of Ireland, a series of shilling volumes of historical and literary works, which included Duffy's Ballad Poetry of Ireland (1845; fifty editions).

In January 1844 O'Connell, Duffy, and other ‘traversers’ were indicted for seditious conspiracy. On 30 May 1844 Duffy was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment, was fined £50, and was compelled to provide a security of £1000 for his good behaviour. While in Richmond prison he was nominated for the Dublin corporation. The packed jury's verdict against all ‘traversers’ was quashed by the House of Lords on 7 September 1844. Relations between O'Connell and the Young Irelanders became strained when Duffy criticized O'Connell's rapprochement with federalists in an open letter to The Nation of 7 October 1844. In 1845 more serious differences arose over Peel's proposed scheme of new non-denominational universities, which the Young Irelanders supported and O'Connell opposed.

In Michaelmas term 1845 Duffy was called to the Irish bar, but he never practised. Within less than two weeks in September he lost both his friend Thomas Davis and his wife. When John Blake Dillon and Thomas McNevin also fell ill, the existence of The Nation was threatened. However, Duffy managed to continue the paper, and persuaded John Mitchel to become sub-editor. He also attracted new writers such as Thomas D'Arcy McGee, who later described Duffy as follows:

He struck me as of a dyspeptic constitution … His manner was frank, short and decided, like that of a General after a campaign has begun. He was always in action, planning, suggesting and negotiating. … He was brave, yet gentle, firm though full of feeling, a soldier in resolve, a woman in affection.

O'Sullivan, 13

As editor of The Nation, Duffy stood trial in June 1846 for seditious libel for John Mitchel's article, 'Irish railways', of 22 November 1845, which had suggested sabotaging the railways as an act of self-defence. Since the jury disagreed, Duffy was discharged.

Together with the other Young Irelanders present, Duffy walked out of the special meeting of the Repeal Association on 27–8 June 1846, which passed an O'Connell-backed resolution against the use of physical force. When the split became permanent, he was one of the founders of the Irish Confederation, which disclaimed alliances with English parties and repelled O'Connell's moral force doctrine. Its first public meeting took place on 13 January 1847. On 8 February 1847 Duffy married his cousin (and sister of fellow Young Irelander Margaret Callan) Susan Hughes (1826–1878), a teacher and the daughter of Philip Hughes and Susanna Gavan. Their six surviving children included Sir Frank Gavan Duffy, chief justice of Australia, and Susan Duffy, a well-known writer.

By December 1847 John Mitchel, who had adopted the radical views of James Fintan Lalor, could no longer agree with Duffy on a common policy and left The Nation to start the United Irishman. Although they parted as friends, the two were soon engaged in a bitter personal battle. Duffy, as an alternative to Mitchel's radical ideas, suggested in a report to the council of the Irish Confederation that an independent Irish party should be sent to the House of Commons, pledged not to accept office from any government until repeal was conceded. The report was adopted by 317 votes to 188.

The revolutions in Europe of 1848 inspired the Confederate leaders to organize an Irish rising, to which Duffy gave support in The Nation. However, he was arrested on 8 July, and The Nation was closed down on 28 July. Whereas the leaders of the failed insurrection and Confederate editors of radical newspapers were quickly sentenced, it proved difficult to get a verdict against Duffy. Between July 1848 and April 1849 he was arraigned five times, his trial was postponed three times, and on two occasions the juries disagreed. Eventually, in April 1849, he was discharged. This outcome was surprising, for he was one of the most prominent Young Ireland leaders. No evidence of secret deals between Duffy and the government has come to light, and the conclusion may be drawn that he was just unusually lucky. However, Mitchel accused him of cowardice and betraying his principles, nicknaming him ‘Give-in-Duffy’.

Tenant right

On regaining freedom Duffy revived The Nation, but the paper never again expressed the same optimism and vigour. Focusing on the urgent question of tenant right, with Frederick Lucas he formed the Irish Tenant League, which campaigned for legislation granting the ‘three Fs’: fixity of tenure, fair rents, and free sale. At the general election of 1852 Duffy was elected MP for New Ross and founded the party of independent opposition (which he had proposed in 1847), pledged to oppose any government which would not support the demands of the Tenant League. The party had around fifty adherents. In November 1852 Lord Derby's government introduced a land bill to secure compensation for evicted Irish tenants for any improvements made by them on the property. The bill passed the House of Commons in 1853 and 1854, but failed to pass the House of Lords. The unity of the independent parliamentary party had already begun to crumble when two members took junior government posts in 1852. The party was also weakened by frequent attacks from Dr Cullen, archbishop of Dublin, who regarded Duffy as an 'Irish Mazzini'.


By 1855 Duffy believed that his parliamentary work had failed, and that 'there was no more hope for the Irish cause then for a corpse on the dissecting table' (The Nation, 15 Aug 1855). He also had financial worries. On 8 October 1855 he sailed with his family to Australia, where he was welcomed with enthusiasm by his émigré fellow countrymen, and began a new life as a barrister in Melbourne. But after supporters raised £5000 to give him the property qualification necessary for membership of the legislative assembly of Victoria, he entered politics again. In 1856 he became a member of the house of assembly for Villiers and Hytesbury, and acted as ‘parliamentary schoolmaster’ to secure close adherence to British procedure, which sat somewhat at odds with his reputation as an ‘Irish rebel’. However, Duffy wanted to prove that one who had been indicted for treason in Ireland could have a successful political career in a self-governing colony of Britain. He was in charge of the lands department in the O'Shanassy ministry in 1858–9, but resigned office in 1859 after differences with the premier over land policy. After some years in opposition, he again became minister of land and works in 1861. He carried ‘Duffy's Land Act’, the main object of which was to facilitate land purchase by industrious inhabitants of Victoria and deserving immigrants. However, the act did not meet its aim of preventing speculators from buying most of the land. When the O'Shanassy ministry resigned in 1863, Duffy had been in office long enough to qualify for a life pension of £1000, which enabled him to live as a gentleman. In 1865 he visited his friends in England and Ireland, and spent some months on the continent. The constituency of Dalhousie in north-western Victoria elected him as its legislative representative in 1867. The following year he launched The Advocate, a Catholic lay journal which encouraged Catholics to make use of their electoral power.

In June 1871 Duffy became prime minister of Victoria, uniting the free-traders with the increasingly influential protectionists, who were led by Sir Graham Berry. Duffy was not a very popular prime minister: his free-trade principles clashed with the views of Berry's progressive party, and his Catholicism and support for Catholic emancipation marked him out from the majority of liberals. Thus he suffered from anti-Catholic prejudices, but did not benefit from well-organized Catholic support. In 1872 his government was defeated by five votes in a no-confidence motion over political jobbery.

Duffy had also been prominent in the discussions about the federation of the Australian states, chairing several select committees on the issue between 1857 and 1862. In 1870 he chaired the royal commission on federation, when the withdrawal of British troops was proposed. When it recommended that the colonies had the right to remain neutral if Britain was at war, Duffy was accused of wanting to sever the connection with Britain. Hosting the intercolonial conference in Melbourne in September 1871, Duffy, the premier of a protectionist state, did little to reduce the rivalry between Victoria and New South Wales, and did not involve himself in the federation debate again until he wrote 'The road to Australian federation' for the Contemporary Review in 1890. Duffy's contribution to Australian federalism has been neglected in historical writing.

In 1873 Duffy was knighted in recognition of his services to Victoria. While visiting England, Ireland, and the continent in 1874–6, he was asked to stand for election to parliament but could not accept Isaac Butt's home rule policy. He was unanimously elected speaker of the legislative assembly of Victoria in 1877, and was made KCMG. During his early days as speaker he was an interested but independent observer of the struggle between the legislature's two branches in 1877–8 over payment of members.

Retirement and historical significance

In 1880 Duffy resigned as speaker and left Victoria for good. He spent the remainder of his life mainly in southern Europe, where he was always looking for suitable pieces to send to the Melbourne Public Library and National Gallery, of both of which he was a trustee. A widower since the death of Susan Duffy from tuberculosis on 21 September 1878, he married Louise Hall (d. 1889), a young woman in her twenties and eldest daughter of George Hall of Rock Ferry, Cheshire, on 16 November 1881. The couple had four children, including George Gavan Duffy, president of the Irish high court, and Louise Gavan Duffy [see under Duffy, George Gavan], an Irish nationalist and Gaelic scholar. When his third wife died, on 17 February 1889, Duffy brought his daughters over from Australia to look after the household.

Having always considered himself a ‘poet–statesman’, Duffy devoted himself to literary work, and published valuable accounts of his own experiences in Young Ireland: a Fragment of Irish History, 1840–45 (2 vols., 1880–83; rev. edn, 1896); Four Years of Irish History, 1845–1849 (1883); The League of North and South: an Episode in Irish History, 1850–4 (1886); Thomas Davis: the Memoirs of an Irish Patriot, 1840–1846 (1890); Conversations with Thomas Carlyle (1892; new edn, 1896); and My Life in Two Hemispheres (1898). These works were highly contentious, insisting that Young Ireland had been not a revolutionary but a constitutional movement. However, they contributed to the revival of interest in Young Ireland and cultural nationalism at the turn of the century. Duffy also projected and edited a New Irish Library, based on the principles of the old, but his choice of books was considered too old-fashioned by the younger generation in the Irish Literary Society, of which he was president in 1892. He died at his home, 12 boulevard Victor Hugo, Nice, on 9 February 1903, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin, on 8 March 1903.

Duffy was one of the most important and long-lived figures of nineteenth-century Irish nationalism, but was not a charismatic leader. A talented writer, good networker, and excellent organizer, he often worked behind the scenes and promoted the prominence of others, for example Thomas Davis. A moderate constitutional Irish nationalist at heart, his willingness to embrace insurrection in 1848 gave the impression that he was a revolutionary, and when he reverted to moderate policies, he was vulnerable to attack for being insincere. His acceptance of a knighthood from a British queen was open to similar criticism. In essence Duffy was a political survivor, ambitious, shrewd, and practical. Emphasizing proper procedures, propriety, and middle-class respectability in all his affairs, he was criticized as being vain, formal, meticulous, and fastidious. In Australian politics his European liberalism was often perceived as outdated. The relative lack of recent historical research on Duffy, especially in Ireland, belies his significance.


  • C. Pearl, The three lives of Gavan Duffy (1979)
  • C. G. Duffy, Young Ireland: a fragment of Irish history, 1840–1845, rev. edn, 2 vols. (1896)
  • C. G. Duffy, Four years of Irish history, 1845–1849: a sequel to ‘Young Ireland’ (1883)
  • L. O'Bróin, Charles Gavan Duffy: patriot and statesman (1967)
  • T. F. O'Sullivan, The Young Irelanders, 2nd edn (1945)
  • R. J. Hayes, ed., Manuscript sources for the history of Irish civilisation, 1 (1965)
  • R. J. Hayes, ed., Manuscript sources for the history of Irish civilisation: first supplement, 1965–1975, 1 (1979)
  • S. R. Knowlton, ‘The enigma of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy: looking for clues in Australia’, Éire–Ireland, 31/3–4 (1996), 189–208
  • B. Anton, ‘Northern voices: Ulsterwomen in the Young Ireland movement’, Coming into the light: the work, politics and religion of women in Ulster, ed. J. Holmes and D. Urquhart (1994), 60–92
  • ‘The women of Young Ireland’, anonymous MS, 1920×29, NL Ire., MS 10906
  • Irish Press (12 Sept 1945), suppl.
  • Newry Catholic Church records, PRONI, MIC ID 26
  • ‘Death of Mrs C. G. Duffy’, The Nation (27 Sept 1845), 832
  • The Nation (13 Feb 1847), 302 [marriage announcement]
  • ‘State prisoner Charles Gavan Duffy to be nominated for Dublin corporation’, The Nation [Dublin] (24 Aug 1844), 721


  • Monaghan County Museum, Monaghan, papers
  • NL Ire., commonplace book, MS 1627
  • NL Ire., corresp.
  • NL Ire., corresp. and papers, MSS 340; 3040–3042; 4193–4198; 4760; 5756–5758; 7404; 8005–8006; 8098; 15744–15745
  • NL Ire., scrapbook, MS 3739
  • NL Ire., scrapbook, MS 4722
  • PRONI, letters, T1143 [repr.]
  • Royal Irish Acad., corresp. and papers
  • Royal Irish Acad., list of collection, MS 67E4
  • Royal Irish Acad., MSS, MS 12
  • Royal Irish Acad., scrapbook, MS 23047
  • State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, La Trobe manuscript collection, MSS
  • State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, corresp.
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Carnarvon, Add. MS 60821
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Ripon, Add. MS 43545
  • Mitchell L., NSW, Long MSS
  • Mitchell L., NSW, Parks MSS
  • NL Ire., Hickey collection, MS 3227
  • NL Ire., Michael MacDonagh MSS, MS 11444
  • NL Ire., corresp. with James Clarence Mangan, MS 138
  • NL Ire., Monsell MSS, MS 8319
  • NL Ire., J. F. X. O'Brien MSS, MSS 13418–13477
  • NL Ire., corresp. with Smith O'Brien, MSS 434; 441; 445–446; 2642; 8660; 15742
  • NL Ire., Léon O'Bróin MSS, MSS 24893–24895
  • NL Ire., journals, William J. O'Neill, MSS 3040–3042
  • NL Ire., Redmond MSS, MS 15186
  • NL Ire., Sigerson MSS, MSS 8100; 10904–10905
  • NL Ire., Sullivan MSS, MS 8237
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Thomas Carlyle and family
  • PRONI, corresp. with Sharman Crawford, MS 856
  • PRONI, letters to Lord Goderich
  • PRONI, John Kells Ingram MSS, D2808
  • State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, corresp. relating to Australian federation


  • M. H. Gill & Son, photograph, 1846, repro. in Mitchel, Jail journal, 336
  • drawing, 1880, repro. in Pearl, Three lives, 223
  • print, 1880, repro. in Duffy, My life, vol. 2, frontispiece
  • M. de Carnawsky, terracotta plaque, 1891, NG Ire.
  • Beard, photograph, repro. in ILN (7 May 1853)
  • J. P. Haverty, group portrait, lithograph (after his drawing; The monster meeting of the 20th September 1843, at Clifden in the Irish Highlands), NG Ire.
  • J. C. MacRae, line engraving (after daguerreotype), NG Ire.
  • J. C. McRae, stipple, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. O'Neill, lithograph (after daguerreotype by L. Gluckman), BM, NG Ire.
  • oils (after daguerreotype), NG Ire.

Wealth at Death

£137 10s. 0d.: probate, 6 May 1903, CGPLA Ire.

£3121: resworn probate, Aug 1903, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast
D. Pike & others, eds., , 16 vols. (1966–2002)
National Library of Ireland, Dublin