Chalres Gavan Duffy (1816-1903), Young Irelander, Irish nationalist founder of The Nation and Australian statesman.

Born in Monaghan to middle-class Catholic parents and educated at the local Presbyterian academy, Duffy entered journalism in 1832. After working at several papers he founded The Nation along with John Dillon and Thomas Davis in 1841. A central figure in the Young Ireland movement, he was indicted by never convicted on several counts of treason including involvement in the abortive 1848 rising. He was a founder of the Irish Tenant League, campaigning for fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale—the so-called three F’s—before entering parliamentary politics as MP for New Ross in 1852. Derided by Archbishop Cullen as the ‘Irish Mazzini’, Duffy left parliament in 1855 disillusioned at failure to advance the rights of tenants.

Duffy left Ireland that year for Australia, setting himself up as a barrister in Melbourne. In less than a year, Duffy was back in politics. With the support of the burgeoning Irish community he purchased a free hold and was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Victoria in 1856. Duffy immediately made land reform a central platform of his political agenda and was rewarded by the O’Shanassy administrations with the Department of Lands from 1858-9 and 1861-3, passing the Duffy Land Act in 1862. Over the next decade he remained an influential figure in Australian politics, chairing several commissions on federation and advocating inter-colonial free trade. The most powerful opposition leader in the Assembly, Duffy was invited to form a government in June 1871. However, the combination of his free-trade liberals with Sir Graham Berry’s protectionists proved a fractious coalition. Accusations of political jobbery forced Duffy out of office in June 1872, but not before he hosted the Melbourne Inter-colonial Conference of 1871. Nevertheless, he remained a powerful figure in colonial politics. Knighted in 1873 (KCMG in 1877), Duffy returned to the Victoria Legislative Assembly in 1877 as Speaker, a post which he held for three years before retiring to the south of France in 1880.

A political liberal of the traditional European variety and early advocate of Australian federalism, Duffy was also a committed Catholic. Although negatively affecting his political career, he helped to found catholic journals like the Advocate and remained a passionate supporter of Catholic emancipation in a colony dominated by Protestants.

His later career was focused on political and historical writing which included several biographies and political histories such as: Young Ireland (1880); The life of Thomas Davis (1890), and contributing to O’Brien’s Life of Charles Stewart Parnell (1898) amongst others.



Sources: Joy E. Parnaby, ‘Duffy, Sir Charles Gavan (1816 - 1903)' in Australian Dictionary of Biography

Picture: Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (1816 - 1903), by unknown engraver, 1877, courtesy of La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria. A/S01/09/77/84.