Charles Gavan Duffy

Journalist, rebel and prime minister of Victoria, Australia

Charles Gavan Duffy was born in Monaghan town on April 12, 1816 into a family with strong Newry connections.

At the age of 18, the self-educated writer joined the staff of Charles Hamilton Teeling’s nationalist paper, the Northern Herald. In 1836 he started working for the liberal Dublin Morning Register, first as an unpaid trainee, and later as its sub-editor. In 1839 he left Dublin to edit (and soon own) the Vindicator, organ of Belfast’s Catholics.

Interested in politics, Duffy perceived himself as a spokesperson for Northern Catholics. He joined Daniel O’Connell’s Loyal National Repeal Association and together with John Blake Dillon and Thomas Davis founded the weekly journal, the Nation.

Duffy was a talented writer, good networker, and excellent organiser, but not a charismatic leader. He often worked behind the scenes, and promoted the prominence of others.

As the editor of the Nation, Duffy was one of the repealers who were indicted for seditious conspiracy in 1844, and spent some months in Richmond prison. In 1845, after the death of Davis, Duffy persuaded another Northerner, John Mitchel, to become the Nation’s sub-editor.

After two years of strained relations with O’Connell’s Repeal Association, Duffy and other Young Irelanders split from the main body in 1846, and formed the Irish Confederation. However, another split occurred with Mitchel’s more radical faction at the end of 1847. Both sides came together again during the 1848 revolutions in Europe, when they organized a rising, but split again when the insurrection failed.

Mitchel and Duffy, the two most prominent Northerners in the Young Ireland movement, later engaged in a vicious personal and political battle. Both were on opposite strands of the political spectrum. Duffy, a moderate constitutional nationalist was never a revolutionary at heart. More than anything else, he was a political survivor, ambitious, shrewd and practical. Mitchel, on the other hand, became the epitome of Irish revolutionary nationalism.

Duffy did not participate in the uprising, since he was arrested on July 8 1848. It proved difficult to obtain a verdict against him, and he was arraigned five times, before he was discharged in 1849. This outcome was surprising, for he was one of the most prominent Young Ireland leaders, but there is no evidence of secret deals with the government. However, Mitchel accused him of cowardice and betraying his principles, labeling him ‘Give-in-Duffy’.

On regaining freedom Duffy revived the Nation, but it never again expressed the same optimism and vigour. With Frederick Lucas he formed the Irish Tenant League, and was elected MP for New Ross in 1852. He founded the short-lived party of independent opposition, which was weakened by frequent attacks by 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.’ He also had financial worries. On October 8 1855 he sailed with his family to Australia, where he was received with great enthusiasm by his fellow-countrymen, and began life anew as a barrister in Melbourne. When his supporters raised £5000 to qualify him for membership of the legislative assembly of Victoria, Duffy entered politics again. In 1856 he became a member of the House of Assembly for Villiers and Hytesbury.

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 England. However, his European liberalism was often perceived as outdated. Emphasizing proper procedures, propriety and middle-class respectability in all his affairs, he was often criticised as being vain, formal, meticulous, and fastidious.

Duffy was in charge of the Lands Department in the O’Shanassy ministry in 1858-9, and again in 1861. He carried 'Duffy’s Land Act' whose main object was to facilitate land purchase by industrious inhabitants of Victoria and deserving immigrants. However, the act fell short 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, enabling him to live as a gentleman.

In 1867 he constituency of Dalhousie in north-western Victoria elected him as their legislative representative. The following year, he launched the Advocate, a Catholic lay journal which tried to convince Catholics of using their electoral power.

Duffy was prime minister of Victoria from 1871 to 1872, uniting the free traders and the protectionists under Sir Graham Berry. Duffy was not a very popular prime minister, because of his free trade principles, which clashed with the views of Berry’s Progressive Party. His Catholicism and support for Catholic emancipation separated him from the majority of liberals.

Duffy was also prominent in the discussions about the federation of the Australian states, a fact that has often been neglected by historians. In 1870, he chaired the royal commission on federation and hosted the Intercolonial Conference in Melbourne in September 1871. However, as the premier of a protectionist state, he was unable to curb the rivalry between Victoria and New South Wales.

In 1873 Duffy was knighted in recognition of his services to Victoria. Visiting England, Ireland, and the continent in 1874-6, he was asked to stand for Westminster but rejected Isaac Butt’s Home Rule policy. Duffy was unanimously elected speaker of the legislative assembly of Victoria in 1877, and was made KCMG.

In 1880 Duffy resigned the office of speaker and left Victoria for southern Europe, being tired of the pettiness of colonial life. Since he had always considered himself a 'poet-statesman' Duffy devoted himself to literary work, publishing valuable but hightly subjective accounts of his own experiences, such as Young Ireland, a Fragment of Irish History, 1840-5  and Four Years in Irish History, 1845-9. He was also president of the Irish Literary Society in 1892.

Charles Gavan Duffy died at Nice on February 9, 1903, and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.

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