George Gavan Duffy
George Gavan Duffy was born in Rock Ferry, Cheshire, England in 1882, the son of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy and his third wife, Louise. His half-brother Sir Frank Gavan Duffy (1852–1936) was the fourth Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, sitting on the bench of the High Court from 1913 to 1935.
His sister Louise Gavan Duffy came to Ireland in 1907, taught in Patrick Pearse's school for girls Scoil Íde, was, with Mary Colum first Secretary of Cumann na mBan, was out in the Easter Rising of 1916 in the GPO and Jacob's garrisons, and founded and ran Scoil Bhríde, a bilingual school in Dublin, which is still in operation.
Gavan Duffy qualified as a solicitor and practised in London. He defended Sir Roger Casement at his trial for high treason after the Easter Rising. Although the case was unsuccessful and Casement executed, the trial had an enormous effect on Gavan Duffy and in 1917, when he was called to the Irish Bar, he came to live in Dublin, where he became immersed in Irish political life.
During the 1918 Westminster election, he was elected as a Sinn Féin MP for South County Dublin. He was sent to Paris to join Seán T. O'Kelly as an envoy of the newly declared Irish Republic. Gavan Duffy published articles and pamphlets urging recognition of Ireland as a sovereign nation at the Paris Peace Conference, which caused increasing embarrassment to the French establishment, who believed his publications were damaging Franco-British relations.
Gavan Duffy and O'Kelly had the great problem of seeking France's help against Britain when the treaties ending the First World War had not yet been signed; Britain had been France's main ally for most of the war, in which France had suffered enormous losses. In January 1919 the Sinn Féin-affiliated Irish Republican Army had also started the Irish War of Independence against Britain, and the new Dáil had declared independence from the United Kingdom. Further, the British position was that it was preparing a revised system of Irish Home Rule which would be effected after the Peace Conference, and that it had tried to solve the Irish Question at the Irish Convention in 1917, which Sinn Féin had boycotted. Sinn Féin had joined in the campaign against conscription in 1918 and applauded the 1916 Easter Rising.
In consequence all the Allies of World War I saw the Sinn Féin movement as more or less hostile. A final letter of June 1919 demanding recognition and addressed to the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, the chairman of the Peace Conference, was not replied to.
Finally, after publishing a letter he had sent to Clemenceau in protest against the former mistreatment of Terence MacSwiney in prison in 1917, Gavan Duffy was banished from Paris. He then went to Rome and from there travelled through Europe on behalf of the Ministry of the Irish Republic, without securing its recognition.
When Éamon de Valera chose his plenipotentiaries to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 Gavan Duffy was chosen due mainly to his legal expertise. He protested against signing the Treaty but did so reluctantly, becoming the last person to sign. During the debates which followed in Dáil Éireann, Gavan Duffy stated that he would recommend the Treaty reluctantly but sincerely as he saw no alternative for the achievement of independence. He also placed the onus on the people who were responsible for drafting the Constitution of the Irish Free State to frame it in accordance with the terms of the Treaty. He disagreed, however, 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.
On 21 December 1921 he gave his main reason for supporting the treaty, the impact of renewed war on the people, concluding:
- "You may gamble on the prospects of a renewal of that horrible war, which I for one have only seen from afar, but which I know those who have so nobly withstood do not wish to see begun again without a clear prospect of getting further than they are to-day. We are told that this is a surrender of principle. If that be so, we must be asked to believe that every one of those who have gone before us in previous fights, and who in the end have had to lay down their arms or surrender to avert a greater evil to the people, have likewise been guilty of a breach of principle. I do not think an argument of that kind will get you much further. No! The solid principle, the solid basis upon which every honest man ought to make up his mind on this issue, may be summed up in the principle that we all claimed when it was first enunciated by the President, the principle of government by the consent of the governed. I say that no serious person here, whatever his feelings, knowing as he must what the people of this country think of the matter, will be doing his duty if, under these circumstances, he refuses to ratify the Treaty. Ratify it with the most dignified protest you can, ratify because you cannot do otherwise, but ratify it in the interests of the people you must."
This prompted him to resign but he was compelled to remain in office, serving as Minister for Foreign Affairs from January 1922 to July 1922. On the outbreak of the Irish Civil War he resigned when the Provisional Government refused to effect a court order for habeas corpus in favour of George Plunkett (a son of Count Plunkett), who was detained without charge.
His tenure in office was cut short by his decision to resign again when the Executive Council of the Irish Free State abolished the Republican Courts and executed his good friend Erskine Childers. He stood in the 1923 general election as an independent candidate but failed to be re-elected.
Barrister and Judge
Gavan Duffy 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 Irish Free State could not be bound either in honour or in law to hand over annuities to Britain. He 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 of Ireland and was consulted on many issues pertaining to it. He was also a member of the commission to set up the second house of the Oireachtas, Seanad Éireann, in 1937.
In 1946, at the height of his legal career, he was appointed President of the High Court, a position he held for the rest of his life. His most controversial judgement was in the Tilson case heard in 1950, where he applied the Ne Temere decree to the letter because the 1937 Irish Constitution gave the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland a "special position". The Supreme Court of Ireland then agreed with his judgement, but Gavan Duffy has been criticised since then for his rigid and intolerant opinion. He was a longstanding member of the hard-line Catholic organisation An Ríoghacht.
In 1945 Gavan Duffy also extended the privilege of clergy to evidence heard by Catholic priests hearing confessions, to the effect that a priest was not obliged to repeat the evidence to any other party, including a court of law. Proposals to reverse the privilege were published in 2012.
Gavan Duffy died at his home in Bushy Park Road, Terenure, on 10 June 1951.
- "Mr. George Gavan Duffy". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "George Gavan Duffy". ElectionsIreland.org. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- See: NAI file DFA ES Paris 1919; Official Memorandum in support of Ireland's demand for recognition as a sovereign independent state. Presented to Georges Clemenceau and the members of the Paris Peace Conference by Sean T. O'Ceallaigh and George Gavan Duffy.
- Irish Law Times Report vol.86 (1952) pp. 49–73
- Finola Kennedy, Family, economy and government in Ireland; ESRI, Dublin (1989) pp.70–71.
- Donal Barrington, The family and education; The Irish Monthly, Irish Jesuit Province, 1953.
- Maurice Curtis, A Challenge to Democracy: Militant Catholicism in Modern Ireland, The History Press Ireland, 2010, p. 55
- Irish Daily Mail, 21 May 2012, pp1 and 8. The case was Cook v. Carroll (1945) Irish Reports 165; a pregnant girl and her boyfriend had both confessed their affair to a priest, and the girl's family wanted the father's admission of paternity to the priest to be repeated in a court case for child support. The man denied paternity and Gavan Duffy ruled that the priest was not obliged to repeat what he had heard in the man's confession.
- Golding, G.M. George Gavan Duffy 1882–1951: a legal biography (Dublin, 1982)
- Gavan-Duffy's speech on 21 Dec 1921, pp.86–89
- Letter to Clemenceau demanding recognition, June 1919
|Minister for Foreign Affairs
Jan. 1922–Jul. 1922