Louise Gavan Duffy: Nationalist, Gaelic revivalist, Cumann na mBan founder member
Vote 100: Nice-born teacher who was at GPO during 1916 Easter Rising also founded Scoil Bhríde on St Stephen’s Green
Louise Gavan Duffy (1884-1969), educator, nationalist and Irish-language enthusiast, was born on July 17th, 1884, in the Cimiez neighbourhood of the French city of Nice, the only daughter among four children of the marriage of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, journalist and politician, and his third wife, Louise Hall of Rock Ferry, in Cheshire.
Her mother died when she was five, and she was reared in Nice by her Australian half-sisters from her father’s second marriage; she was educated privately at home.
Her interest in Irish was stimulated when she found an Irish grammar among her father’s books, although he himself spoke no Irish. When he died, in 1903, she visited Ireland for the first time to attend his funeral and resolved to stay, but she was unable to do so until 1907, when a small legacy from her maternal grandmother made it possible to return.
Gavan Duffy went to help in the kitchen on the top floor of the GPO, and remained there until the building was evacuated on Friday evening
She joined the Gaelic League, went to the Tourmakeady Gaeltacht, in Co Mayo, and became fluent in Irish. After completing a correspondence course from Cusack’s College in London, she matriculated in 1907, and subsequently went on to study at University College Dublin, during which time she lived at the women’s college in the Dominican Convent on Eccles Street in Dublin.
Having graduated with a BA in 1911, she managed and taught at Scoil Íde, set up by Patrick Pearse. When Scoil Íde closed, the following year, she went on to take the Cambridge teacher’s diploma in 1913 and her MA (again from University College Dublin) in 1916. She worked as an assistant in education at St Dominic’s Training College in Eccles Street for two years.
Though best known for her involvement in nationalist politics and the Gaelic revival, Gavan Duffy was sympathetic to the women’s suffrage movement and was among the speakers at a mass meeting of women in the Antient Concert Rooms in Dublin in June 1912, which demanded an amendment to the home-rule Bill to include women voters.
She joined Cumann na mBan on its foundation, in April 1914, and was made joint secretary with Mollie Maguire (Mary Catherine Colum), who later married Padraic Colum.
Politically she was not in any inner circle and therefore knew nothing about the planned Rising until Easter Monday 1916, when she learned of it by chance. Having made her way without any difficulty to the General Post Office, on O’Connell Street, she asked to speak to Pearse and impressed on him her opposition to what he and his comrades had embarked on. In her view their actions were not justified because of the certainty of defeat and the loss of life.
Nevertheless, she went to help in the kitchen on the top floor, where Desmond FitzGerald was in charge, and remained there until the building was evacuated on Friday evening. Her group, led by FitzGerald, was the last to leave, bringing some wounded men to Jervis Street Hospital.
The following day she reiterated to Thomas MacDonagh her opposition to the Rising, when she went to the Jacob’s biscuit factory, where MacDonagh was still holding out, unaware of the surrender of the GPO, and had a bitter argument with him.
Re-elected to Cumann na mBan’s executive at their 1917 convention, she was one of a number of influential nationalist women who signed a petition demanding self-determination for Ireland, which was handed to President Woodrow Wilson by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in 1918.
She became involved in 1917 in the National Aid Association and Volunteer Dependants Fund, very likely as a result of her painstaking forays across Dublin to deliver messages to families from men she had met in the GPO and who were now prisoners.
In 1917 she fulfilled her personal ambition by opening on St Stephen’s Green an Irish-speaking school for girls, Scoil Bhríde, with Annie McHugh, who later married Ernest Blythe. The school was raided by the military on several occasions – and not without reason, as it was used by some Irish Volunteers as a place to meet or conceal papers: Richard Mulcahy, Desmond FitzGerald and Michael Collins all had keys, and Collins met Archbishop Patrick Clune there in October 1920.
As a supporter of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, Gavan Duffy left Cumann na mBan and joined Cumann na Saoirse, the women’s organisation that backed the Free State government.
Her close friendship with Ernest Blythe influenced her political outlook and led to a cooling-off in relations with her brother, a signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty
After the civil war she ceased to be politically active and concentrated her energies on educational matters. Finance was a continual problem, but in 1926, through the offices of Blythe, now minister for finance, the school was amalgamated into the national school system, which entitled it to be publicly funded with a senior girls’ school attached.
Her work with University College Dublin’s department of education began in 1926, when Scoil Bhríde was recognised for teacher-training purposes.
Until her retirement, in 1956, she was a government supervisor and later lectured in the teaching of French. Having retired, she devoted much of her time to the Legion of Mary and to a group that worked with French au pairs in Dublin.
In 1948 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland (of which University College Dublin is a part). She gave a lively and lengthy account of Cumann na mBan and the events of Easter Week to the Bureau of Military History, and a lecture on the same topic at University College Dublin in March 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising; this was subsequently published.
There is little doubt that her close friendship with Ernest Blythe influenced her political outlook and led to a cooling-off in relations with her brother. George Gavan Duffy was a prominent figure in the struggle for independence and a signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Appointed minister for foreign affairs in January 1922, he resigned in protest when the provisional government closed the Dáil courts on the outbreak of civil war.
A strong upholder of the rule of law, he voiced his opposition in the Dáil to several of the more draconian emergency measures, and thus became somewhat of a bete noire to the government. Prompted by Blythe, his sister made it clear that she also failed to understand his reservations. Thereafter, up to the time of his death, in 1951, they met only on formal family occasions.
Louise Gavan Duffy died on October 12th, 1969, unmarried, at her home on Kenilworth Square in Dublin and was buried in the family plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.
From the Royal Irish Academy Dictionary of Irish Biography, published by Cambridge University Press