Charles Gavan Duffy

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Sir Charles Gavan Duffy
Charles Gavan Duffy 1846.JPG
8th Premier of Victoria
In office
19 June 1871 – 10 June 1872
Preceded by Sir James McCulloch
Succeeded by James Francis
Personal details
Born 12 April 1816
Monaghan, Ireland
Died 9 February 1903(1903-02-09) (aged 86)
Nice, France
Nationality Irish, Australian
Spouse(s) Emily McLaughlin, Susan Hughes, Louise Hall.
Profession Politician.

The Rt. Hon. Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, KCMG, PC (12 April 1816 – 9 February 1903), Irish nationalist, journalist, Poet and Australian politician, was the 8th Premier of Victoria and one of the most colourful figures in Victorian political history. Duffy was born in Dublin Street, Monaghan Town, County Monaghan, Ireland, the son of a Catholic shopkeeper. Both his parents died while he was still a child and his uncle, Fr James Duffy, who was the Catholic Parish Priest of Castleblayney, became his guardian for a number of years.


He was educated at St Malachy's College in Belfast and was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1845.

Even before being admitted to the bar, Duffy was active on the Irish land question, and in that connection in 1842 he became an ally of James Godkin.[1]

In 1842, he married Emily McLaughlin, who died in 1845. He married Susan Hughes in 1846, with whom he had six children.

Duffy became a leading figure in Irish literary circles. He edited Ballad Poetry of Ireland (1843) and other works on Irish literature.

Charles Gavan Duffy was one of the founders of The Nation and became its first editor; the two others were Thomas Osborne Davis, and John Blake Dillon.[2] All three were members of Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association, and would later become to be known as Young Ireland. This paper, under Duffy, transformed from a literary voice into a 'rebellious organisation'.[3] As a result of The Nation's support of Repeal, Duffy, as Proprietor, was arrested and convicted of seditious conspiracy in relation to the Monster Meeting planned for Clontarf, just outside Dublin, but was released after an appeal to the House of Lords.[4]

In August 1850 Duffy formed the Tenant Right League to bring about reforms in the Irish land system and protect tenants' rights, and in 1852 he was elected to the House of Commons for New Ross.

Main article: Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848
Main article: Young Ireland

In November 1852, Lord Derby's government introduced a land bill to secure to Irish tenants on eviction, in accordance with the principles of the Tenant League, compensation for improvements prospective and retrospective made by them in the land. The bill passed the House of Commons in 1853 and 1854, but in both years failed to pass the House of Lords. In 1855 the cause of the Irish tenants, and indeed of Ireland generally, seemed to Duffy more hopeless than ever. Broken in health and spirit, he published in 1855 a farewell address to his constituency, declaring that he had resolved to retire from parliament, as it was no longer possible to accomplish the task for which he had solicited their votes.[5]

Emigration and political career

In 1856, despairing of the prospects for Irish independence, he resigned from the House of Commons and emigrated with his family to Australia. After being feted in Sydney and Melbourne, Duffy settled in the newly formed Colony of Victoria. In early colonial Victoria, Duffy, with his political and literary reputation, was an exotic and romantic figure, particularly for the colony's large Irish community. For this reason he was feared and hated by many in the English and Scottish Protestant establishment, especially when he indicated his intention of entering Victorian politics.[6]

A public appeal was held to enable him to buy the freehold property necessary to stand for the colonial Parliament. He was immediately elected to the Legislative Assembly for Villiers and Heytesbury in the Western District in 1856. A Melbourne Punch cartoon depicted Duffy entering Parliament as a bog Irishman carrying a shillelagh atop the parliamentary benches (Punch, 4 December 1856, p. 141. Also see O'Brien, Shenangians, p. xi.). He later represented Dalhousie and then North Gippsland.

With the collapse of the Victorian Government's Haines Ministry, during 1857, another Irish Catholic, John O'Shanassy, unexpectedly became Premier and Duffy his second-in-charge. Duffy was Commissioner for Public Works, President of the Board of Land and Works, and Commissioner for Crown Lands and Survey. Irish Catholics serving as Cabinet Ministers was hitherto unknown in the British Empire and the Melbourne-based Protestants 'were not prepared to counternance so startling a novelty.'(McCaughey, Victoria's Colonial Governors,p. 75; also O'Brien) In 1858–59, Melbourne Punch cartoons linked Duffy and O'Shanassy with images of the French Revolution in an attempt to undermine their Ministry. One famous Punch image, 'Citizens John and Charles', depicted the pair as French revolutionaries holding the skull and cross bone flag of the so-called 'Victorian Republic'. (Punch, 7 January 1859, p. 5; also see O'Brien) The O'Shanassy Ministry was defeated at the 1859 election and a new government formed. (O'Brien)

Like other radicals, Duffy's main priority was to unlock the colony's lands from the grip of the squatter class, but his 1862 lands bill was amended into ineffectiveness by the Legislative Council. The historian Don Garden: "Unfortunately Duffy's dreams were on a higher plane than his practical skills as a legislator and the morals of those opposed to him."[7]

Premier of Victoria

In 1871 Duffy led the opposition to Premier Sir James McCulloch's plan to introduce a land tax, on the grounds that it unfairly penalised small farmers. When McCulloch's government was defeated on this issue, Duffy became Premier and Chief Secretary (June 1871 to June 1872). Victoria's finances were in a poor state and he was forced to introduce a tariff bill to provide government revenue, despite his adherence to British free trade principles.

An Irish Catholic Premier was very unpopular with the Protestant majority in the colony, and Duffy was accused of favouring Catholics in government appointments, an example being the appointment of John Cashel Hoey to a position in London. In June 1872 his government was defeated in the Assembly on a confidence motion allegedly motivated by sectarianism. He was succeeded as premier by the conservative James Francis and later resigned the leadership of the liberal party in favour of Graham Berry.

Speakership and retirement

File:Sir Charles Gavan Duffy Celtic Headstone.JPG
Grave of Charles Gavan Duffy, Glasnevin, Dublin.

When Berry became Premier in 1877 he made Duffy Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, a post he held without much enthusiasm until 1880, when he quit politics and retired to the south of France. Duffy remained interested in both the politics of his adoptive country and of Ireland. From his exile in France, Duffy was an enthusiastic supporter of the Melbourne Celtic Club, which aimed to promote Irish Home Rule and Irish culture.[8] His sons also became members of the club.

He was knighted in 1873 and made KCMG in 1877. He married for a third time in Paris in 1881, to Louise Hall, and had four more children in his 70s. One of his sons, John Gavan Duffy, was a Victorian politician between 1874 and 1904. Another, Sir Frank Gavan Duffy, was Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia 1931–1935.

Yet another son, Mr Justice George Gavan Duffy (born 1882), was an Irish politician and later (from 1936) a judge of the Irish High Court, becoming its President from 1946 until his death in 1951.

His grandson, Charles Leonard Gavan Duffy, was a judge on the Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia.

Sir Charles Gavan Duffy died in Nice in 1903, aged 86.

(Note: Both Charles and Frank Gavan Duffy are sometimes referred to as though their surname was Gavan Duffy. There is no doubt that the family surname was Duffy, but the family tradition of giving all children the middle name Gavan has led to some confusion about this.)


Texts on Wikisource:


  1. Smith, G.B., 'Godkin, James (1806–1879)', rev. C. A. Creffield, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  2. Young Ireland, T. F. O'Sullivan, The Kerryman Ltd. 1945 pg 6
  3. McCarthy, History of Our Own Times, Vol.1, p.331.
  4. Young Ireland and 1848, Dennis Gwynn, Cork University Press 1949,Pg15-16
  5.  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainO'Brien, Richard Barry (1901). [ "Duffy, Charles Gavan" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Dictionary of National Biography (1st supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Dictionary of Irish National Biography
  8. D. J. O'Hearn, Erin go bragh – Advance Australia Fair: a hundred years of growing, Melbourne: Celtic Club, 1990, p.67.


  • Browne, Geoff, A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament, 1900–84, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1985.
  • Duffy, Charles Gavan. Four Years of Irish History 1845–1849, Robertson, Melbourne, 1883. (autobiography and recollections)
  • Garden, Don. Victoria: A History, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1984.
  • Keatinge, Patrick, ‘The Formative Years of the Irish Diplomatic Service’, Éire-Ireland, 6, 3 (Autumn 1971), pp. 57–71.
  • McCarthy, Justin. History of Our Own Times, Vols 1–4, 1895.
  • McCaughey, Davis. et al. Victoria's Colonial Governors 1839–1900, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1993.
  • O'Brien, Antony. Shenanigans on the Ovens Goldfields: the 1859 election, Artillery Publishing, Hartwell, 2005, (p. xi & Ch.2)
  • Thompson, Kathleen and Serle, Geoffrey. A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament, 1856–1900, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1972.
  • Wright, Raymond. A People's Counsel. A History of the Parliament of Victoria, 1856–1990, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992.

External links

Additional Reading
Political offices
Preceded by
James McCulloch
Premier of Victoria
Succeeded by
James Francis