DUFFY, Sir Charles Gavan (1816-1903)


DUFFY, Sir Charles Gavan (1816-1903)
Irish patriot and premier of Victoria
was born in Monaghan, Ireland, on 12 April 1816. His father, John Duffy, was a prosperous shopkeeper, his mother was a daughter of Patrick Gavan, a gentleman farmer. At nine years of age Duffy heard his father speak of Wellington and Peel having refused to work with George Canning, because he was friendly to Catholic emancipation. This made a great impression on the boy, who developed a passionate love for his country and a desire to serve her. It was difficult in those days to find good Roman Catholic schools in Ulster, and Duffy received most of his education at a school kept by a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. John Buckley. He was afterwards educated privately. When just 20 years of age he obtained a position at Dublin on the Morning Register, and soon became its sub-editor. In 1839 he went to Belfast to edit the Vindicator, and in the autumn of 1842 to Dublin to found a weekly journal the Nation, which had a great effect on the nationalist movement. In 1845 he edited and published The Ballad Poetry of Ireland, which ran into six editions within a year, and numberless editions since. He became a member of the Irish Confederation and in July 1848 was arrested, placed in Newgate prison, Dublin, and tried for treason. He was defended with great ability, the trial was postponed three times, and on the fourth occasion the jury disagreed; but only one was for acquittal. At the fifth presentment the jury again disagreed, but seven were for acquittal. Duffy was then let out on bail. "Consider yourself," wrote Carlyle, whom he had met in London some years before, "as a brand snatched from the burning; a providential man, saved by Heaven, for doing a man's work." In 1850 he was engaged in the organization of a tenants' league to secure fair rents and permanent tenure for Irish farmers, and in 1852 was elected a member of the house of commons, where he sat in opposition as one of 50 Irish members hoping to do much for their country. But they found themselves unable to agree among themselves, nothing could be done, and Duffy, dispirited at the turn of events, decided to retire from parliament and emigrate to Australia.
In October 1855 Duffy sailed for Melbourne. He was met on arrival by a deputation of his compatriots who greeted him with enthusiasm. He was also invited to take up his residence at Sydney where there was equal enthusiasm when he arrived on a visit. Parkes (q.v.) was most friendly and offered him £800 a year to write for the Empire. He decided to stay in Melbourne, and in November 1856 was elected a member of the legislative assembly. It was necessary to have a property qualification, and his friends and admirers appear to have had no difficulty in collecting £5000 for that purpose. Duffy looked upon this as a retaining fee for services he intended to render to his new country. His first action was to bring in and carry a bill for the abolition of the property qualification of members of parliament. He also proposed the appointment of a select committee to consider the subject of federation. The committee duly reported, but the parliament of New South Wales would not take up the question, and nothing came of it. In March 1857 he took office in the first O'Shanassy (q.v.) ministry as minister of public works, but when parliament met a few weeks later a vote of no-confidence was immediately carried. However, in March 1858 O'Shanassy formed his second ministry with Duffy as president of the board of lands and works. He also became commissioner of crown lands and survey in December. A land bill had been promised, but Duffy disagreed with his colleagues on the question of alienating large tracts of agricultural land which he considered should be kept for selectors. He resigned from the ministry on this account in March 1859. In November 1861 O'Shanassy formed his third ministry with Duffy again in charge of the lands department. He succeeded in passing a new land act, the chief feature of which was an attempt to provide settlers with good land at a low price. The act was a failure because its intentions were evaded by dummying and other methods, but Duffy always claimed that the amendments of subsequent parliaments preserved the essential intentions of the act. He published in 1862 a Guide to the land law of Victoria, which went into four editions within a year.
At the beginning of 1865 Duffy visited Europe and was away for two years. After his return he was elected in 1867 as member for Dalhousie. He had several times in the past raised the question of federation, and in 1870 made his final effort when another royal commission was appointed to go into the question. A first report was produced, but eventually the question was allowed to lapse again. In June 1871 Duffy became premier and chief secretary. He remained in office for 12 months and was defeated on the question of the appointment of Mr Cashel Hoey as secretary of the agent-general's office in London. It was scarcely a sufficient reason, but Hoey had become editor of the Nation after Duffy left for Australia, and enough prejudice on the Irish question remained to turn sufficient votes. In 1874 Duffy revisited England and was offered a seat in the house of commons but declined it. Returning to Melbourne in 1876 he was elected as member for North Gippsland and in 1877 was unanimously elected speaker. He retired in February 1880 on a pension of £1000 a year and went to live in Europe at Nice in the Riviera. He made occasional visits to London, but though still as interested as ever in the Irish movement, he was out of sympathy with the tactics of the time, and declined nomination as a candidate for Monaghan in 1885 and 1892. He published in 1880 Young Ireland: A Fragment of Irish History, the second volume of which under the title of Four Years of Irish History, appeared in 1883. An enlarged and revised issue of chapter iv of Young Ireland was published in 1882 under the title of A Bird's-eye View of Irish History, and other works were The League of North and South (1886), Thomas Davis: The Memoirs of an Irish Patriot (1890), Conversations with Carlyle (1892), and My Life in Two Hemispheres (1898). A friend who spent three weeks with Duffy towards the end of 1899 when he was in his eighty-fourth year, spoke of him as "youthful in mind and manner and full of intellectual vigour". He died on 9 February 1903 and was given a public funeral at Dublin on 8 March. All Dublin turned out to do his memory honour. Duffy was married three times (1) to Emily McLaughlin, (2) to Susan Hughes, (3) to Louise Hall. He was knighted in 1873 and created K.C.M.G. in 1877. His eldest son, John Gavan Duffy (1844-1917), born at Dublin 15 October 1844, educated at Stonyhurst, arrived in Melbourne 1859, was from 1874 to 1904 member for Dalhousie in the legislative assembly of Victoria, and held office as president of the board of land and works in the Service (q.v.) ministry, 1880, postmaster-general in the Munro (q.v.) and Shiels (q.v.) governments 1890, and also attorney-general for a short period, and postmaster-general in the Turner (q.v.) government for five years from 1894. He was an able debater and administrator and very prominent as a layman in the Roman Catholic church of which he was a Knight of St Gregory. He died on 8 March 1917. Another son, Sir Frank Gavan Duffy, is noticed separately, and a third, Charles Gavan Duffy (1855-1932), was a valued public servant who rose to be clerk of the federal senate. He was created C.M.G. in 1904.
Duffy was a pleasant companion with a sense of humour and a keen wit. He was an excellent journalist who exercised an immense influence in the Irish movement, for his intellectual honesty and completely sincere patriotism could not fail to make him a great force. When he came to Australia sectarian bitterness and the fact that many people could only think of him as a traitor to England made it difficult for him to take the high place his abilities entitled him to. His work as a forerunner of federation and his early realization that the land of Australia would have to be made available to the small holder, mark him out as an enlightened leader of the people, and the literary work of his old age is of great interest and value to students of the Irish question. His Conversations with Carlyle is also a document of great interest.
Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres; R. Barry O'Brien, Irish Memories; The Times, 14 and 15 February, 9 March 1903; The Argus, 9 March 1917, 24 February 1932. The many references in G. W. Rusden's History of Australia and H. G. Turner's History of Victoria must be read with caution as neither writer is free from prejudice.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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