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THE ENIGMA OF SIR CHARLES GAVAN DUFFY: LOOKING FOR CLUES IN AUSTRALIA STEVEN R. KNOWLTON to his contemporaries and to subsequent scholars, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy has been something of an enigma. In Ireland, he was tried for treason; in Australia, he was twice knighted for serving the crown that had earlier tried to hang him. He talked like a democrat, sort of, and said he was a rebel, but did not act it. His greatest success was as a political journalist supporting Daniel O’Connell in the 1840s, but he had such a falling out with O’Connell’s political and biological heirs that Irish nationalist politics were splintered for another generation. Duffy said he recognized the critical religious dimension in both Irish and Australian politics, but he made a hash of this connection on two continents. He designed the model of a third party holding the balance of power (which Parnell consciously copied to great effect a generation later) but was unable to win even the most meager legislative concessions during a very propitious period in the British House of Commons. And across a lengthy career in Australian politics, the legislation most closely tied to him—a populist land-reform measure in 1862—was by nearly all measures not merely a failure but a disaster. In his own time, conservatives called Duffy a radical republican and worse, while liberals accused him of selling out to the propertied classes. Protestants were highly suspicious of Duffy, “a papist,” yet the Catholic hierarchy thought him not Catholic enough. Through it all, Duffy maintained that there was no inconsistency and that he was simply misunderstood . At least in the latter view, Duffy was right; none of his contempories quite figured him out, and he has posed problems for scholars up to the present. In his sweeping History of Australia, Manning Clark dismissed Duffy as a harmless “bourgeois liberal.”1 David Syme’s biographer decided THE ENIGMA OF SIR CHARLES GAVAN DUFFY 189 1 C.M.H. Clark, A History of Australia, 6 vols. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1962–86), 4:121. Duffy was “at heart a conservative,”2 while in one study Patrick O’Farrell speaks of Duffy’s “radicalism”3 and in another describes him as “a Catholic version” of the “Anglo-Irish professional classes, . . . educated men of enterprise ” who “sought openings for talent, the satisfaction of ambition, wealth, power through politics.”4 And in a recent essay, Eugene Doyle put Duffy in the camp of radical-land-reformer James Fintan Lalor,5 which, it will be shown, is only partly correct and misses an important (and vexing ) conservative thread to Duffy’s political philosophy. It is little wonder that Duffy warned an Australian audience: “Trust me. . . . To be misunderstood is as injurious in the end to a community as to an individual.”6 In large measure, Duffy has been misread because the bits and pieces of what he believed do not fit together in familiar ways—either in Ireland or in Australia—leaving him open to charges of hypocrisy and inconsistency . O’Farrell correctly notes that Duffy in many ways aped the AngloIrish Ascendancy, but that ascendancy was almost exclusively Protestant, meaning that Duffy was suspect both by members of the faith from which he had come and the social class to which he aspired. Second, the problem remains of squaring Duffy’s long advocacy of radical political reform with a much more conservative class consciousness. And, third, while in some regards he was a political radical, Duffy was also a devout Catholic, which put him squarely and immovably on the conservative side of a number of political questions, most notably education. To put these seemingly disparate pieces into a consistent whole, it is necessary to recall Duffy’s Irish career and then to follow him to Australia, where he tried to accomplish in an adopted homeland what he could not do in his native one. A key point of Duffy’s life in Ireland is that as a bright, ambitious Catholic growing up in Ulster in the 1820s, he never quite fit in, always feeling a bit cheated. “I am shy of pedigrees,” he wrote in his autobiograTHE ENIGMA...


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