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Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (1816–1903)

by Joy E. Parnaby

This article was published:

Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (1816-1903), Irish nationalist and Victorian statesman, was born on 12 April 1816 in Monaghan, Ireland, son of John Duffy, shopkeeper, and his wife Ann, daughter of Patrick Gavan of Latnamard. Reading and dreaming over his few books, he grew up during the struggle for Catholic emancipation and his nationalism was kindled by stories of 1798. He boasted that he was the 'first Catholic emancipated in Ireland' as most of his schooling was at the local Presbyterian academy. He 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'. He was admitted to the King's Inns in 1839 and went to Belfast to edit a Catholic weekly. 

In 1842 Duffy married Emily, daughter of Francis McLauglin. He returned to Dublin and, with two young barristers, Thomas Davis and John Dillon, founded his own weekly, the Nation; with it he hoped to 'change the mind of his generation and so to change their institutions', to foster a sense of national unity and to educate the Irish people to achieve their national freedom. Daniel O'Connell, hero of Catholic emancipation, revived the movement for repeal of the Union in 1840 and the Nation supported him. Duffy was a good business manager; within two years he had a circulation of 11,000 and showed his skill in discerning talent. In 1845 he published the popular Ballad Poetry of Ireland, including some of his own poems. In that year he was admitted to the Bar and his wife died. In 1846 he married Susan, daughter of Philip Hughes of Newry.

Davis and other middle-class Protestant intellectuals in Trinity College Historical Society believed that the divisions of Ireland could be transcended only by awareness of a common national heritage; thus their ideas diverged from those of O'Connell. The basis of the repeal movement was the Catholic peasantry, but the Nation hoped to bring in the Protestant middle class. The great famine intensified the divisions between the old leader and the young men, and O'Connell forced the issue by demanding a pledge that no resort be made to violence. The Young Irelanders left Conciliation Hall and set up their own confederation. Davis had died in 1845 and without his leadership they were soon divided between the reformers William Smith O'Brien and Duffy, and the revolutionaries Peter Lalor and John Mitchel. The Paris revolution of February 1848 brought increased activity and a new Treason Felony Act under which Mitchel, O'Brien and other Young Irelanders were transported to Van Diemen's Land; Duffy was imprisoned but, ably defended by Isaac Butt, was freed after his fifth trial. He then revived the Nation and helped to organize a League of North and South of Protestant and Catholic, to send to parliament members pledged to secure the passage of a land reform bill. Duffy represented New Ross in the House of Commons in 1852-55, but his plan for creating an Independent Irish party was wrecked by discreet patronage and by withdrawal of support by Dr Paul Cullen, who regarded Duffy as an Irish Mazzini. 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 was welcomed with enthusiasm in Melbourne and Sydney, but settled in Melbourne, 'the capital of Australia; here the popular element is strong and triumphant'. He set up as a barrister but was persuaded to stand for the first parliament under responsible government and £5000 was raised by public subscription, £2000 of it in New South Wales including a donation from (Sir) Henry Parkes, to provide him with a freehold qualification for either House; half this sum was used to buy a house in Hawthorn and half deposited in a bank. Duffy was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Villiers and Heytesbury. 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 at the centre of the radical platform, and Duffy claimed that he suggested to his Young Ireland friend, Moses Wilson Gray, the idea of calling a convention modelled on the League of North and South. With his great prominence as a land reformer, Duffy was given charge of the Lands Department in the O'Shanassy ministries in 1858-59 and 1861-63, and his Land Act was passed in 1862. Like the Nicholson Act of 1860 which it modified, the Duffy Act provided for selection after survey within specified agricultural areas and extended annual pastoral licences to 1870. However, loose drafting made it easy for squatters to employ dummies and the Act soon broke down. The agricultural areas were withdrawn, and although some genuine selection took place, the Western District squatters were the chief beneficiaries. Duffy's attempts to amend the Act were defeated; he blamed its failure 'solely on the manner in which it was drafted' by Professor William Hearn, and the ministry's refusal of support to its amendment.

Tension between O'Shanassy and Duffy had led to Duffy's resignation from the ministry in 1859. O'Shanassy, a self-made early settler, a devout Roman Catholic and an O'Connellite, seemed jealous of the brusque new chum, fresh from the House of Commons, with his literary tastes and his legal knowledge, and his part as a leading Young Irelander in driving O'Connell to his death as O'Connell's son alleged. This early quarrel was patched up in 1861 but revived when O'Shanassy acquired squatting property and moved further away from the 'Popular Party'. When the ministry resigned in 1863, Duffy and three others had been in office long enough to qualify for life pensions of £1000, although the provision was revoked soon after their claims were made. This windfall enabled him to live as a gentleman 'dividing my time between politics and the pruning knife', to buy property at Sorrento and to visit Europe twice before he finally left Victoria.

Duffy made the first of these visits in 1865 to settle his sons at school; in speeches at dinners in his honour and in a public lecture he entered into discussion of the 1866 reform bill, with a spirited defence of colonial self-government in opposition to the criticism of Lowe. On his return to Victoria he took a leading part against the McCulloch government on education and the Darling grant. In the absence of O'Shanassy and Bishop James Goold, Duffy marshalled Catholic opposition to George Higinbotham's education bill in May 1867, and in February 1868 helped to found the Advocate, a Catholic lay journal. He wrote its first editorial, 'What shall we do in the pending elections?', to make Catholics aware of the power of their vote. Duffy had also been connected with but made no claim to ownership of the Victorian, an Irish Catholic weekly which ran from July 1862 to April 1864.

It was easier for Duffy to attack the government than to form an administration. His religion isolated him from other liberals; he was not popular and his free trade sympathies were out of touch with the mood of the 'Progressive Party'. Early in 1871 he contemplated retiring from active politics to the Speaker's chair but withdrew his candidacy after a riding accident. His influence was still great and he continued to be active in negotiations which accompanied changes of government, without a chance to form an administration himself. However, in June he was called upon by the governor to form a ministry 'because he was the principal agent effecting the organisation of the opposing sections of the Legislative Assembly which defeated the McCulloch administration', free traders under Duffy and protectionists under (Sir) Graham Berry. The McCulloch government was defeated on its budget proposal for a property tax of 6d. in the £. Some form of direct taxation seemed unavoidable, especially to the opponents of tariff increases, to finance new government responsibilities.

The new alliance was heavily weighted in Berry's favour. An able orator, he announced that this was the first truly radical ministry with no merchants, squatters, bankers or a single Melbourne representative in it. The free trader might organize the alliance but the protectionist treasurer dictated the policy, and the tariff of 1871 was a clear commitment to protection. Duffy was not happy about government control of railways, but his second measure was a bill providing for railway extensions to serve some of the centres represented in this 'provincial' ministry. When the Legislative Council opposed the economy change to a narrower gauge, Duffy averted a crisis by discreet appointments to a joint conference. The ministry avoided commitment on the education question, but Duffy and Berry were both opposed to increased state control. In the recess popular support was stimulated by banquets in country towns and city support by such radical groups as the new Democratic Association. While Duffy was heartened by the 'sympathy and applause of the industrious classes', many members of the assembly resented this appeal to the people over the heads of their elected representatives. Although this popular support was not then well organized, it was vocal enough to alarm business interests and large landowners. Berry's radical programme had aroused conservative opposition which could be easily combined with and channelled into sectarian and national opposition to Duffy's leadership.

Despite David Syme's prayer that Duffy would keep the Pope and the Irish out of his road, his premiership brought to the surface bitter religious and national prejudices. The Irish Catholic minority was large and growing, and Duffy was determined to make Catholic emancipation a reality and to secure for Catholics a fair share of positions of responsibility 'as a policy, proclaimed and defended, not by stealth'. Other factors also militated against Catholic leadership: the Pope's denunciation of liberalism in the Syllabus of 1864, the publication of the doctrine of Infallibility in 1870, the strong line taken by the hierarchy in Australia after the Provincial Council of 1869 particularly on education, and the increased proportion of Catholics shown by the 1871 Victorian census. In this setting the Duffy ministry could be made to appear a serious political danger.

The Opposition under James Francis attacked the ministry for its neglect of the education question; after the final defeat the governor refused to grant a dissolution. Catholic clergy then entered the field to fight the new Francis administration in the ministerial elections, in hope of delaying the introduction of an unfavourable education bill. Bishop Goold's pastoral admonition on education was read in churches on the eve of the elections. This clerical interference rebounded on itself and confirmed the opposition of those who disliked Catholics and feared the influence of priests; the 1872 Education Act was carried in the wake of this sectarian bitterness. The education question had awakened the Catholics to the need to organize their vote; it was rarely united but followed personal and political divisions among the Catholic candidates. Duffy thus suffered from the fear of Catholic power, without benefiting greatly from any well-organized Catholic support. The Duffy ministry was short lived, but it was significant in the commitment to protection which reflected Berry's growing power, and in acting as a catalyst in the education question.

The 1871 tariff heightened trade rivalry between the colonies whose leaders now found it necessary to meet more often to discuss common problems. Some federal body would clearly have been valuable but was not possible while rivalry remained intense. Federation had a great academic appeal for Duffy but he found agreement with representatives from the other colonies very difficult. In 1857-62 he had chaired several select committees and urged the need for a conference to discuss federation. His able report for the first committee, 'the political art of Duffy at its highest', came to nothing. In 1870 when the withdrawal of British troops was proposed he chaired a royal commission on federation. Its recommendation that the colonies remain neutral in the event of war involving the mother country aroused more interest than its statements on federation. It involved Duffy in a wide correspondence, brought adverse criticism with the suggestion that he wished to sever the connexion, and was not well received in the colonies or in England. Again as host to the Intercolonial Conference in Melbourne in September 1871 he did nothing to diminish the rivalry between Victoria and New South Wales, but crossed swords with Sir James Martin with skill and relish. Negotiations to renew the border duties agreement of 1867 broke down, and although the colonies accepted the principle of reciprocal trade agreements with each other they could not agree on a joint statement for the Colonial Office. Duffy refused to sign the statement prepared by New South Wales which implied criticism of Gladstone, an 'unexpected gush of loyalty' noted with quiet surprise at the Colonial Office. In the depth of rivalry between Victoria and New South Wales Duffy could not think in federal terms while he was premier of a protectionist colony. Several of his ministers were protectionists vigorously opposed to federation or anything like intercolonial free trade, and in 1877 they were to carry the stock tax which further aggravated relations. The royal commission of 1870 was Duffy's last public move on federation in Australia. In 1890 when interest was reviving, he wrote 'The Road to Australian Federation' for the Contemporary Review; soon afterwards he found that Parkes had revived the subject and Duffy wrote to him with some bitterness: 'In the Federal movement, I not merely took the principal part but practically did everything … The flowers gathered from so much seed make but a scanty bouquet'.

In 1874 Duffy went to Europe for treatment for a voice ailment. He was asked to stand for parliament but would not accept Butt's Home Rule policy, and he came away from the O'Connell centenary celebrations distressed by the bitterness and divisions he had found in Ireland. On his return to Victoria in 1876 he opposed Berry's stonewall tactics, and was content to take the Speaker's chair in 1877, turning from active politics to writing. He had always thought of himself as a 'poet-statesman', above all enjoying talking about ideas and literature. The Carlyles were his lifelong friends and through them he met many English men of letters. In Victoria he helped Marcus Clarke with employment and literary criticism. He waited in the Speaker's room for a chance to discuss philosophy and history with Charles Pearson. He had been a trustee of the Melbourne Public Library and National Gallery for years, and in Europe was always on the look-out for suitable pieces of sculpture and pictures to send to the gallery.

Duffy was knighted in 1873 and appointed K.C.M.G. in 1877. He was growing weary of colonial politics and 'loathed the task of answering again and again the insensate inventions of religious bigotry' of Orangemen. After his sixtieth birthday he was free to leave Victoria permanently without losing his pension. His wife died on 21 September 1878 and of the few Young Ireland friends left in Australia, Michael O'Grady died in 1876 and Edward Butler in 1879. He complained of 'the exhausting and killing monotony of the Chair'. Like many liberal contemporaries in Europe he had become disillusioned. His private letters were filled with 'the groans of a disappointed reformer'. 'We have lost our way … Parliaments have become such bear gardens'. He was distressed at the 'naked selfishness of the democracy', at the 'unexpectedly bad class of representatives' returned by manhood suffrage. Compared with the pettiness and meanness 'in the bitter and blockhead cabals of Colonial life', 'Life in London is as little like life in the colony as the tide of the Atlantic is like a waterhole in the Lachlan'. It was not surprising that in 1880 he returned to Europe, 'to work for Ireland but not in Parliament'. He settled at Nice and devoted himself to writing articles for serious journals, letters to The Times and solid historical works.

He welcomed Gladstone's land bill in 1881 but would not join the Home Rule League. When the Conservatives came to power with Irish support, he tried to win Carnarvon to his own scheme: a 'Fair Constitution for Ireland'. He continued to stress the need for parliamentary self-government, 'The most perfect system of liberty that exists in the world'. The basis of his claims for Ireland now was the success of self-government in Australia and his own personal success in a free community. He stressed this 'Australian Example' so strongly that it provoked Dicey in 1886 to write 'Ireland and Victoria', to demonstrate the falsity of the analogy.

The most popular of Duffy's historical works was Young Ireland (London, 1880). It was followed by Four Years of Irish History (1883), The League of North and South (1886), the Life of Thomas Davis (1890), Conversation with Carlyle (1892) and My Life in Two Hemispheres (1898). Duffy contributed a section on the 'Carnarvon Controversy' to R. B. O'Brien, Life of Charles Stewart Parnell (1898), and expanded a chapter of Young Ireland into a Bird's Eye View of Irish History (1892). These histories became classics, but a recent critic has detected a 'subtle bias', for although Duffy makes much of his fairness and keeps close to the documents, these books were written by a patriot for patriotic purposes as yet unachieved, a participant defending himself against O'Connell and Mitchel and complaining that the contributions of Young Ireland had been belittled by later leaders. Duffy appears best as an organizer and scene shifter for the prominence of others. This talent of the old campaigner was not appreciated by the younger generation in the Irish Literary Society. He was its president in the early 1890s and planned to publish Young Ireland writings in a revived Irish Library series, but Yeats ridiculed the romanticism of Young Ireland, was irked by Duffy's prestige and his old-fashioned notions and 'pressed upon an unwilling Gavan Duffy the books of our new movement'.

Duffy's retirement at Nice was enlivened by the four young children of his marriage at Paris on 16 November 1881 to Louise Hall; when she died on 17 February 1889, he brought his daughters from Victoria to look after the household. One of his last political stands was in favour of the Boers to the dismay of the English colony at Nice. He died on 9 February 1903 and was buried at Glasnevin cemetery beside his Young Ireland friends within the circle of the O'Connell monument.

Duffy's eldest son was John Gavan; 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, M.A., who was given an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland for her educational work.

Duffy was a man of charm, wit, talent and learning, and a devoted friend. He knew that he was brusque and peremptory in controversy. His enemies complained of his 'morbid vanity' and Deakin wrote of his 'subtlety, finesse and insincerity', but granted him the sincerity of his liberal sentiments. For Duffy was above all a Liberal. Frustrated and disappointed in his work for Ireland, his optimism tempered by his colonial experience, he continued to write to educate and so to free his countrymen. 'Duffy was a liberal by instinct and on reflection, and remained true to his colours to the last'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (Lond, 1926)
  • D. R. Gwynn, Young Ireland and 1848 (Cork, 1949)
  • A. Deakin, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881, J. A. La Nauze and R. M. Crawford eds (Melb, 1957)
  • J. H. Whyte, The Independent Irish Party, 1850-59 (Lond, 1958)
  • A. G. Austin, Australian Education, 1788-1900 (Melb, 1961)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • K. B. Nowlan, The Politics of Repeal (Lond, 1965)
  • L. O'Broin, Charles Gavan Duffy (Dublin, 1967)
  • J. M. Ward, ‘Charles Gavan Duffy and the Australian Federation Movement, 1856-70’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 47, part 1, 1961, pp 1-30
  • J. E. Parnaby, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy in Victoria (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1941)
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • G. R. Bartlett, Political Organization and Society in Victoria 1864-1883 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964)
  • Charles Duffy papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 309/99-104.

Citation details

Joy E. Parnaby, 'Duffy, Sir Charles Gavan (1816–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Gavan Duffy, 1877

Charles Gavan Duffy, 1877

State Library of Victoria, A/S01/09/77/84

Life Summary [details]


12 April, 1816
Monaghan, Ireland


9 February, 1903 (aged 86)
Nice, France

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