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 Stephens 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.
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.
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
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
On 7 October 1921, de
Valera chose his plenipotentiaries
to negotiate the Treaty between Ireland and Britain. Along with
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 Georges
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 Griffiths
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 1922July 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.
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.
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. (OSullivan)
.v. Military Governor and R. (OConnell) .v. Military Governor, Hare Park
Camp, both of which involved the false imprisonment of people under emergency
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.
Transferred from the custody of the Franciscan Library Killiney
to the custody of UCDA in July 1997 as part of the OFM-UCD partnership agreement.