An Irish-Australian ‘Who am I?’

UnknownBy: Keith Harvey

  1. I was born 12 April 1816 in Monaghan, Ireland, and died at Nice, France on 9 February 1903. I am buried at Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery within the circle of the O’Connell monument.
  2. I was married three times and outlived all my wives. My third marriage occurred when I was 65 and produced four more children to add to the six from my second marriage and one surviving child from my first.
  3. I was tried five times for sedition by the English government but escaped conviction each time, thanks to my able lawyer.
  4. I was later knighted (1873) by the English government and appointed to the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George [KCMG] in 1877.
  5. I became a member of the British House of Commons in 1852 and later the Legislative Assembly in the Colony of Victoria.
  6. I subsequently became Premier and Chief Secretary of Victoria for a year, and later served as Speaker of the Victorian Parliament, a position I did not enjoy greatly.

If you answered ‘Charles Gavan Duffy’ to any of these questions, you are, of course, correct. Duffy’s political and personal life was lived ‘In two hemispheres’ (as he later described it), and was remarkable for its fertility, fullness and contrasts. Duffy, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography [ADB], boasted that he was the ‘first Catholic emancipated in Ireland’ as most of his schooling was at the local Presbyterian academy.

Duffy went to Dublin in 1832 to become a journalist, studied the ‘panorama of Irish resistance’ and ‘burned to strike a blow in that hereditary contest’. In 1839 he  went to Belfast to edit a Catholic newspaper, The Vindicator. In 1842 he moved to Dublin, and with two barristers, founded The Nation, which supported the Repeal Association founded by Daniel O’Connell, which had sought to repeal the Act of Union of 1800 incorporating Ireland into the United Kingdom. The failure of repeal movement to achieve its aims led to divisions between the Young and Old Irelanders, Duffy supporting the former and O’Connell the latter. Duffy disliked O’Connell’s alliance with the English Whigs and was one of those who founded the Irish Confederation.

Admitted to the bar in 1845, but disillusioned with constitutional action, by 1848 (the year of revolutions in Europe). Duffy was advocating more radical measures. The English government responded by seizing his newspaper and jailing him. Tried five times for sedition, Duffy was eventually acquitted – although other Young Irelanders were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

After his acquittal, Duffy revived The Nation and returned to constitutional means of agitation, and, with others established the Tenant League in 1850, which returned forty members of parliament pledged to Tenant Rights in the UK general election of 1852. Duffy was returned as an MP for New Ross, County Wexford in the UK House Of Commons where he sat until 1855. Duffy’s plans for an Independent Irish party were wrecked, he thought, by those seeking personal gain from their positions. According to the ADB:

In despair Duffy sold The Nation and in November 1855 sailed for Australia with his wife and children. Lucas, his closest colleague, thought, his ‘real reason is want of means … but he wants to go off in poetry rather than in prose.

Duffy went to Sydney first but then to Melbourne, where he settled. He established himself as a barrister, preferring to avoid politics. However, he was soon persuaded to stand for election to Victoria’s new Parliament, the first to be elected to rule the newly self-governing colony. Only males could stand for office and they had to own property, which Duffy did not.

A public appeal for funds resulted in £5000 being raised, £2000 of which came from NSW, including a donation from Henry Parkes. Duffy bought a house in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the seat of Villiers and Heytesbury in the Western District in 1856. Reportedly, a Melbourne Punch cartoon depicted Duffy entering Parliament as a bog Irishman carrying a shillelagh atop the parliamentary benches (Punch, 4 December 1856, p. 141). Ironically, the Irish radical Duffy was the only member of the new parliament who had served in the House of Commons in London. According to the ADB:

As the only member who had sat in the Commons, he acted as parliamentary schoolmaster to secure close adherence to British procedure, although it was difficult for his opponents to reconcile this new role with the ‘Irish rebel to the backbone’. Describing himself as a ‘radical reformer’, he began his political career by sponsoring a bill to abolish the property qualification for members.

Land reform was another keen interest of Charles Gavan Duffy, Victorian MLA. Duffy was Commissioner for Public Works, President of the Board of Land and Works, and Commissioner for Crown Lands and Survey in the government of fellow Irish catholic John O’Shanassy in 1858-59 and later in 1861-63, and his Land Act was passed in 1862 but it failed to achieve its purpose.

After the fall of the O’Shanassy Government in 1863, Duffy took advantage of a parliamentary pension , leaving Victoria to visit Europe. He later returned however, and resumed an active Victorian parliamentary career. In February 1868 he also helped to found The Advocate, a Catholic lay journal, later the organ of the Melbourne Archdiocese (until 1990). He wrote The Advocate’s first editorial, ‘What shall we do in the pending elections?’, to make Catholics aware of the power of their vote.

In June 1871, Duffy was invited to form a Government and he became Premier and Chief Secretary of Victoria. His government being a mixture of free traders and protectionists, proved to be short-lived and lasted only a year. In 1874, he again left the colony travelling to Europe for treatment for a voice ailment but returned once more and became Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in 1877, later complaining of ‘the exhausting and killing monotony of the Chair’.


Charles Gavan Duffy’s Grave

In 1880 he returned to Europe, no longer wanting any active role in politics. He settled in Nice, France and wrote articles, letters and books. One of his last political stands was in favour of the South African Boers to the dismay of the English colony at Nice. He died on 9th February 1903 and was buried at Glasnevin cemetery beside his Young Ireland friends within the circle of the O’Connell monument.

Private life

Duffy’s private life was almost as interesting and varied as his career in Irish nationalism and politics.

He was married three times and survived all his wives, including his last who he married when he was 65. His first wife was Emily McLaughlin who died in 1845, with one surviving child, John Gavan. In 1846, Duffy married Susan Hughes of Newry with whom he had six children. Susan died in 1878. In 1881, after he had moved for the last time to Europe, he married Louise Hall in Paris, with whom Duffy had a further four children. Louise died in 1889.

Duffy’s descendants were also destined to make their mark, in Australia, Ireland and elsewhere. ADB notes that Duffy’s eldest son was John Gavan, who also had a political career in Victoria (and Australia); of the children of Duffy’s second wife, Sir Frank Gavan (1852-1936) became chief justice of Australia; Charles Gavan (1855-1932) was clerk of the House of Representatives in 1901-17 and of the Senate in 1917-20, Philip was a surveyor and civil engineer noted for his work in Western Australia on the Coolgardie water supply, and Susan was gifted as a writer. The children of his third marriage were George, President of the Irish High Court; Bryan, a Jesuit educationist in South Africa, Thomas, a missionary in India, and Louise, MA, who was given an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland for her work in educational.

Keith Harvey, has previously written for Tinteán and is Editor of The Debate, the journal of the Australian Institute of Employment Rights.

Sources: New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia; Australian Dictionary of Biography On Line;;