Identity Statement for George Gavan Duffy

  • Reference code: IE UCDA P152
  • Title: Papers of George Gavan Duffy (1882–1951)
  • Dates: 1916–1951
  • Level of description: Fonds
  • Extent: 3 boxes
  • Context
  • Content and Structure
  • Conditions of Access and Use

Biographical History

George Gavan Duffy was born in Cheshire, England in 1882 to Sir Charles Gavan Duffy and his third wife, Louise (née Hall). He had three younger siblings, Louise who founded Scoil Bhríde at 70 Stephen’s Green, Dublin; Bryan who became a priest and Inspector of Religious Instruction in Cape Town, South Africa; and Tom who also entered the priesthood and, as a member of the Paris missionary Society, was sent to India to found a training college. He also had thirteen half brothers and sisters from Sir Charles previous marriages.

Sir Charles is famous in his own right as a co-founder with Thomas Davis and John Dillon of The Nation, a journal whose motto was ‘to create and foster public opinion in Ireland and make it racy of the soil’. He sailed for Australia in 1855 and entered parliamentary life there. Owing to ill-health he settled in Nice on the French Riviera where he died in 1903.

George Gavan Duffy was brought up with his brothers and sister in Nice and spoke French and Italian fluently, a linguistic ability which was very much to his advantage when he became an envoy of the Irish Republic in Paris and Rome. Although schooled on the continent he returned to England in his teens to study at Stonyhurst. He excelled in all subjects and also completed a three year post-school course in Philosophy after which he entered the legal profession and practised as a solicitor in London.

Gavan Duffy did not become a public figure until he personally defended several of the insurgents of the 1916 Rising, the most famous being Sir Roger Casement. Although the case was unsuccessful and Casement duly executed, the trial had an enormous effect on Gavan Duffy and after a short spell he moved to Ireland permanently and became immersed in Irish political life.

During the 1918 election, Gavan Duffy was nominated as Sinn Féin candidate for South County Dublin and was immediately sent to Paris to join Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh as an envoy of the Irish Republic While in Paris, Gavan Duffy published much propaganda in the form of articles and pamphlets urging recognition of Ireland as a sovereign nation. As a result of this he became an increasing embarrassment to France as her relationship with Britain was being threatened by the anti-British propaganda he was promulgating in the Press. Finally, after publishing a letter he had sent to Clemenceau in protest against the maltreatment of Terence MacSwiney in prison, he was officially banished from Paris. After his banishment he was sent to Rome and from there became a ‘roving delegate’ travelling through Europe on behalf of the Provisional Government.

On 7 October 1921, de Valera chose his plenipotentiaries to negotiate the Treaty between Ireland and Britain. Along with Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Robert Barton, and Eamonn Duggan, Gavan Duffy was chosen due mainly to his legal expertise. Gavan Duffy and Barton, who was his cousin, protested against signing the Treaty and Gavan Duffy always felt that Lloyd George’s threat to return to immediate and terrible war, a threat which convinced Collins and Griffith to sign, was complete bluff. Reluctantly, Gavan Duffy became the last plenipotentiary to sign the Treaty.

During the Treaty debates which followed, Gavan Duffy stated that he would recommend the Treaty reluctantly but sincerely as he saw no alternative. He also placed the onus on the people who were responsible for drafting the Constitution to frame it in accordance with the terms of the Treaty. Unfortunately he did not agree with Griffith’s decision to show the draft constitution to Lloyd George who immediately ordered that references to the King had to be inserted as well as an Oath of Allegiance. This prompted Gavan Duffy to resign but he was compelled to remain in office due to the outbreak of Civil War.

Meanwhile Gavan Duffy was serving as Minister for Foreign Affairs and although he had little opportunity to make much of his short time in office (January 1922–July 1922), he did influence foreign policy for future years and his principal aim was to have Ireland become a member of the League of Nations. His tenure in office was cut short by his decision to resign when the Government abolished the Republican Courts and executed his good friend Robert Erskine Childers.

Now at odds with the Government in power, Gavan Duffy effectively became a member of the opposition. He was subjected to clandestine raids on his house and theft of his private papers which he attributed to the Free State Army although this was always officially denied. Having dallied with the idea of forming a National Reconstruction Alliance with Col. Maurice Moore and others, he stood in the 1923 election as an Independent candidate. The constituents in South County Dublin, however, failed to re-elect him and he lost his seat.

His political career now at an end, Gavan Duffy re-immersed himself in the law and became a well-known and highly respected legal personality. He returned to the Irish Bar and built up a large practice and was engaged in some notable constitutional cases such as the Land Annuities controversy in which he claimed that the Free Sate could not be bound either in honour or in law to hand over annuities to Britain. He was also involved in many habeas corpus cases such as R. (O’Sullivan) .v. Military Governor and R. (O’Connell) .v. Military Governor, Hare Park Camp, both of which involved the false imprisonment of people under emergency legislation.

Gavan Duffy was appointed Senior Counsel in 1930 and Judge of the High Court in 1936. He acted as an unofficial legal advisor to de Valera during the drafting of the 1937 constitution and was consulted on many resultant issues. He was also a member of the commission to set up the second house of the Oireachtas in 1937. At the height of his legal career he was appointed President of the High Court.

Gavan Duffy married Margaret Sullivan in 1907 and had a son and a daughter. He died at his home in Bushy Park Road, Terenure on 10 June 1951.

Archival history

This collection was transferred from the custody of the Franciscan Library Killiney to the custody of UCD Archives in July 1997 as part of the OFM-UCD partnership agreement.

Scope and Content

Legal career. Correspondence and memoranda relating to the Roger Casement Trial (1916) where he acted as barrister for Casement; and to his tenure as Senior Counsel at the Inner Bar (1930–36); Judge of the High Court (1936–51); and President of the High Court (1946–51).

Political career. Correspondence and memoranda relating to his political career commencing with his nomination as Sinn Féin candidate for South County Dublin (1918), his tenure as envoy extraordinary representing Ireland in Paris, Rome and other European capitals (1919–21); his role in the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations and ensuing debates (1921–22); his role in drafting the Constitution of the Irish Free State (1922); his tenure as Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Second Dáil Éireann (1922); his resignation from the Dáil and its consequences (1922); and his unsuccessful stance as an Independent candidate in South County Dublin in the general election (1923).

Semi-official and personal correspondence (1922–39); printed material including contemporary ephemera and propaganda (1916–22); transcripts of speeches and particularly of a voice recording from the Bureau of Military History (1951); drawings photographs and reproductions.

  • Access: Non-Fransiscan private paper collection subject to terms of the OFM-UCD partnership agreement. Available by appointment to holders of a UCD Archvies reader's ticket. Produced for consultation in microform.
  • Language: English; some Irish and French; occasional Italian and Spanish
  • Finding aid: Descriptive catalogue
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