The George Gavan Duffy Papers

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2000), Volume 8

Family background

George Gavan Duffy, the eldest of the four children of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy’s third marriage was born in October 1882 at his mother’s home in Cheshire. His father had left Australia and settled in Nice. Louise Hall, whom he married in 1881, was his second wife’s niece and forty years his junior; she died when George was only eight. Sir Charles sent to Australia for the three unmarried daughters of his second marriage and they brought up their half-brothers and sister (who were also their cousins). Apparently they adored their father and were happy to fall in with the unilateral plans he had made for them. As well as the gift of inspiring loyal affection, the patriot-patriarch was also given that of an unexpected longevity. After all he had departed Ireland in 1855 due to ill-health but lived almost another fifty years to become Prime Minister of Victoria, to father progeny distinguished in Ireland and in Australia and to write his memoirs and a history of Ireland. George was sent to school with the Jesuits in Stonyhurst where his brothers followed him: Louise, their only sister was raised at home. She was to achieve fame as an educationalist in Dublin.
On the face of it, there was nothing to suggest that George Gavan Duffy saw his family and professional life as being other than in England. He had spent eight years at a English Catholic public school, had become apprenticed to a London firm of solicitors and qualified in 1907: he was then twenty-five. The following year he married Margaret Sullivan, the secretary to the Irish Literary Society founded in London by Yeats and his father, and who was the daughter of A.M. Sullivan of The Nation. Within a comparatively short time he was a partner with Munton, Morris, King and Gavan Duffy and the father of two children.

A wide spectrum of correspondents

Important leaders of opinion in Ireland were already writing to him as a person involved in the cultural and political life there; there is no indication of how they came to know him so well, given his birth and education abroad. His papers in the National Library of Ireland  contain correspondence which starts when he was only twenty-four, although it is clear that it was well-established before then. In date and content the letters trace the two phases of the movement to self-determination, that is, before and after 1916. What is extraordinary is the regard in which George Gavan Duffy was held and how accessible he was to a wide spectrum of personages. Everyone writes warmly and with extraordinary reliance on his wisdom and discretion. It is almost as if he is regarded as a king-across-the-water or a young Dali Lama. Correspondents look for his advice, his support for their ideas or his disapproval of their opponents’, and are eager to have him put his expertise to practical use by running their legal errands. There is a diversity of attempts to get him ‘on side’. His standing must have rested on more than the reputation of his father, who had left Ireland fifty years before. How did these people know him—and how was he already involved in what Roy Foster has described as the ‘radical avant garde of cultural nationalism’? He was a very young man whose only apparent Irish connection was as the son of a famous patriot, who must have been merely a name to a younger generation of separatists and, moreover, one who had accepted two titles from Queen Victoria and found his berth in the colonial establishment. Presumably George Gavan Duffy had made this wide acquaintance through his visits to Ireland while a student and through his contacts with Irish society and societies in London.

Avoided taking sides

As early as 1906 Bulmer Hobson was looking for his advice on a name for a new publication and raging at ‘the stupidity of that lot in Dublin…I will do nothing until I hear what you think’, yet it is clear that Duffy wisely took no sides and successfully resisted being drawn into the shifting alliances and the coteries of political theorists. The letters reveal no quarrels on his side with any of his eclectic correspondents: one almost wishes for his sake that his patience had occasionally snapped. The unrelenting demands on his time and attention rather shocks the reader at this remove; nowhere is there even a cursory recognition that here was a man at the start of his career, newly married and within a few years the father of two children—or, indeed, that there might be clients paying hopefully for his services. ‘Let your work slide in consideration’, urged his most constant correspondent, P.S. O’Hegarty who, although also living in London, wrote almost every other day, long irascible diatribes in serial form, criticising all and sundry, e.g. ‘Arthur Griffith has shown himself more small-minded, mean even than I have ever dreamed of’. The thus-maligned Griffith was also a regular correspondent who asked him to come over to Manorhamilton to help in an election: ‘your skill as a solicitor and your name would be of national assistance’.
He was barely qualified when he was being urged to move to Ireland. Frank Biggar sent his congratulations from Belfast and  added simply, ‘I wish you were at home’. Arthur Griffith, in the same month, wrote of enquiries about a possible legal career in Ireland and suggested that Gavan Duffy be called to the Irish Bar ‘to obviate the three years regulation’. The reference was to the requirement that to practise in Ireland an English solicitor would have to serve another apprenticeship in the jurisdiction. There is no indication that Duffy himself wanted to do so during this period: ten years on, he was to become an Irish barrister when, disgracefully, it was made impossible for him to continue practising law in England. In December 1909 James Brady, a solicitor, wanted him to stand for Sinn Féin in a Dublin constituency—note that this was eight years before the party mounted its sustained parliamentary campaign. Gavan Duffy replied that he appreciated the honour but, ‘I cannot see my way to fall in with your purpose…shall explain my views better when I see you’.
Not all the siren voices were calling him to fight the good fight. The O’Donnell, in welcoming him to the legal profession, issued a trenchant warning that if he attacked the King, he would be struck off the rolls: ‘I advise you as Issac Butt or Alexander Sullivan would…this is the curse of certain “Irish Nationalists” that they have absolutely no principles. Like that murderous ass Wolfe Tone who became the guide of a horde of savage Jacobins under the bloody Hoch [sic], dripping with the slaughter of thousands of gallant soldiers, holy priests and disarmed peasants after the capitulation of Quiberon. The red scum of the guillotine were to be the saviours of Ireland from Grattan’s Parliament.’ Two years later Alice Stopford Green enlisted his help ‘to assemble a gathering of twelve most extreme young men’ for Sunday luncheon in Grosvenor Road and a walk by the river. She felt it would consitute a really good Irish gathering. Patrick Pearse touchingly sent his thanks to Mrs Gavan Duffy for her kind hospitality to him in London and eagerly confided his plans to make St Enda’s a financial success—and a limited company. He had changed the prospectus—‘you see, I have taken your advice’. It was as if his correspondents thought there was nothing on which he did not have the wisdom of Solomon. John Chartres poured out troubled doubts about his Protestant faith and ‘its self-satisfied wooden-heartedness’ to this most observant of Roman Catholics! Duffy was already immersed by 1910 in the question of possible abstention from the Westminster parliament and was convinced that it should not become settled policy but a matter of tactics. He had not deviated from that opinion six years later and was opposed to Count Plunkett making it the central plank of his campaign, remarking irritably that ‘these converts have a way of being more popish than the Pope’.

The 1916 Rising and Casement’s appeal

The 1916 Rising marked the change from political theorising to militant activism and with Roger Casement’s arrest there was a seismic change in Gavan Duffy’s life. In a letter urging a friend to support a committee providing help to the families of prisoners he said ‘I am unable to take part in these things myself as I have undertaken to defend Casement’. The commitment was to cost him his career and to disgrace the English legal establishment. Since he could not find English counsel, not even the great Tim Healy, willing to accept the brief for the defence, he had to import his brother-in-law, Serjeant Sullivan KC. No effort was spared by those having power to make things as difficult as possible for Casement although he had already been sentenced to death.
After her husband died Margaret Gavan Duffy sent the notebook which she had kept during the trial (she had acted as his assistant since no one else would) to Dr McLysaght of the National Library. She told him that Cardinal Bowen wanted Casement, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, to sign a document before he was allowed baptism and he had refused. ‘Mgr. Kennedy, who was a personal friend of the Pope’s, brought the whole story to [the] Vatican and we heard that the Cardinal was hauled over the coals.’ When Gavan Duffy returned to his office after the trial, it was to find his name removed from the list of partners. There is a letter  from the judges’ chambers of the High Court of Australia written by Mark, his half brother, which is affectionate and understanding of his role in the case. By then, he was greatly taken up with the defence of Irish prisoners in British jails and was more convinced than ever that ‘a few good men at Westminster’ could have highlighted the injustice of their detention and the conditions in which they were held. His proposal, that were Count Plunkett to claim his seat, there he could take the oath under protest, anticipates de Valera’s doing much the same thing in the Dáil ten years later. In letters to Griffith, Duffy was particularly agitated about the suspension of the right to civil trial when there was no military emergency.
He thought in May 1917 that the Convention, which was being set up by the British government as a tentative step to calm mounting political agitation, offered the best hope of bringing about colonial Home Rule without partition and also the release of prisoners: he tried desperately to drum up serious support while others enlisted his. Lord Mounteagle sent a telegram that his presence in Dublin was most necessary: Duke, the Irish Secretary, telephoned him from the House of Commons. However, nationalist opinion settled against the idea and the supreme council of the Irish Nation League, of which Gavan Duffy was a founding member, joined with Sinn Féin and Count Plunkett’s group in issuing a statement repudiating the Convention but did not inform him. When, within a few months, the two smaller groups had been absorbed into Sinn Féin, he had moved with his family to Ireland and been called to the Irish Bar.

Expelled from Paris peace conference

He was elected to the first Dáil in 1918 and some months later was sent to the peace conference in Paris with Sean T. O’Kelly but later the British prevailed on the authorities to expel him, first from Paris and then from Brussels. The incident was reported by the French press. An acquaintance wrote, ‘Votre depart de Paris que j’avais appris par un article du Journal m’a plonge dans le stupeur et dans l’indignation. C’est une veritable infamie, un crime envers l’Irlande et envers la France, une ignoble basseuse devant l’Angleterre’ (Thirty years later, the French government made a gracious, although not so-declared, ‘amende honorable’ by conferring on him the Legion of Honour!). There is intriguing  evidence of a network of ‘agents’ he seemed to have been able to enlist almost at will across Europe. Several enterprising young women who took up the publicity brief with enthusiasm, among them a French poet, Anne Vivante, in Genoa; M. O’Brien in Barcelona; and Nancy Power in Cologne The letters here are gay and affectionate in tone and the sense of wartime camaraderie is strong. As soon as Nancy Power arrived in Cologne she was arrested at the train station by the British military authorities, detained and cross-examined but, reporting to Gavan Duffy, she is contemptuously dismissive of the ordeal.
The drive to make the case for independence was unrelenting and the material produced inexhaustible. The foreign minister of Cuba was importuned as well as the International Socialistic Conference in Stockholm. The Irish bishops’ letter of June 1921 from Maynooth was printed and translated for local distribution into several languages including Catalan and Dutch. It is as difficult to understand how such output was financed as it is to wonder why the various governments so mercilessly pursued did not, out of sheer desperation, beg their British allies to set the Irish free! By the spring of 1921 Gavan Duffy had his headquarters in the Via Veneto, Rome, as the ‘envoy extraordinary of the delegation of the Irish Republic’ and from there he corresponded in deferential diplomatic French directly with Cardinal Gasparri, secretary of state at the Vatican. The Pope was clearly getting advice from other quarters so His Holiness did not deem the time opportune to accede to the request for an audience but, surprisingly, ‘will gladly consent to admit Mrs Gavan Duffy and her children to his august presence’ (in fact, the pope gave the children their First Communion on the occasion). Duffy’s three-page reply, while, even more flowery and seeped in filial piety, stubbornly urged that he might be allowed to put the case to counter the British representations. Shortly thereafter he and the other Irish representatives abroad were recalled to Dublin under arrangements of safe conduct guaranteed with the British authorities to attend a meeting of Dáil Éireann after the Truce.

Decline of influence

Thereafter his political star seemed to fade unaccountably. His participation as one of the delegates in the Treaty talks was not proportionate with his background and experience especially given the London setting. As might be expected in the beginnings of the new state, his role as Dáil Minister for Foreign Affairs was not in the first rank of importance but he kept all the reports drawn up in April 1922 of the various ministries, including Education, Home Affairs, the Post Office and his own with other parliamentary papers. When the Civil War broke out and the government shut down the Dáil Courts overnight rather than face an application for habeas corpus, he resigned in protest at what he later described as ‘a desperate act of official lawlessness’. He was never to be forgiven for thus asserting the rule of law. It is to his eternal credit that he refused to allow himself to be shamed or sneered into silence. When the Dáil, which was elected in June, finally met in September 1922 he tried—almost daily—to ensure that parliament would ‘legalise and control with suitable safeguards such executive action as may be necessary during the present civil war for curtailing the liberty of the subject’. He introduced motion after motion to have the Hague Convention of 1907 applied to prisoners, to have the death sentences imposed by military courts reviewed by the judge advocate general and, significantly, that the national press be admitted to their proceedings. Kevin O’Higgins, who invariably reacted violently—and irrationally—to Gavan Duffy treated all his contributions as if they were effete, if not treasonable, and the power of army officers was not made subject to the scrutiny of parliament nor of the press.
Another absorbing interest of his, as might be expected, was the drafting of the 1922 constitution: there are several copies of the different bills as they were drafted among the papers with his comments and notes in the margin but the man, whose opinion on every strand of national progressive thought had been avidly sought a few years before, was not even consulted about the instrument on which an independent Ireland would be founded. The interest remained; in a recording made for the Bureau of Military History shortly before his death in 1951, he returned to his conviction that the 1922 constitution could have been used to reclaim an independence from the Crown which had been ceded by the Treaty. One wonders why it still bothered him because by that time, not only was there another constitution, to the making of which he had undoubtedly contributed, but the recently-declared Irish Republic was no longer linked with the British Crown.
He lost his Dáil seat in August 1923 and thereafter devoted himself to the law. Dáil Éireann lost a fiercely independent-minded man and a brilliant intellect but not the people. George Gavan Duffy’s third career as a judge gave to the development of Irish jurisprudence one of its great seminal influences and centred it in the vindication of individual and civil  rights before the law.

Mary Kotsonouris is a former district court judge.

Further reading:

G.M. Golding, George Gavan Duffy 1882-1951 (Dublin 1982).


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