Best known for her involvement in nationalist politics, the Gaelic revival, and the women’s suffrage movement in Ireland, Louise Gavan Duffy joined Cumann na mBan on its foundation in 1914 and was made joint secretary.
Louise Gavan Duffy was writing her MA thesis at her lodgings on Haddington Road when she heard the 1916 Easter Rising had begun. She made her way across the city to the GPO in O’Connell Street.
“I was brought to Pearse and had the temerity to tell him that I thought the rebellion was very wrong as it would certainly fail but that I wished to be there if there was going to be anything doing.”
She spent the week on the top floor of the GPO preparing and supplying food. In the kitchen she worked under the leadership of Desmond Fitzgerald. The women in the GPO were given the opportunity to leave under the protection of the Red Cross on the Thursday as the shelling of the building had caused fires but almost all of them refused. In the end she was amongst the second group of the people to leave the GPO on the Friday, tunnelling through the walls of the buildings to avoid coming under fire.
Duffy was born in Cimiez, France. Her father and brothers were important figures in political and legal spheres. She was raised in France in a well to do and culturally vibrant house and with exposure to political ideas and people. Her father had been repeatedly tried for treason and sedition due to his actions as a nationalist. Eventually he moved to Australia where he became the 8th Premier of Victoria. Finally he retired to France. Her brother George Gavan Duffy was one of the signatories to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, a politician, barrister and judge.
Louise first came to Dublin in 1903, when her father died and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. That was when she first heard Irish spoken; she found a grammar book in her father’s belongings and became curious. Her father had not been an Irish speaker, although his mother had been fluent. Duffy fell for the language and resolved to move to Ireland.
After 1916 she was elected to Cumann na mBan’s executive and in 1918 was one of the signatories to a petition for self-determination for Ireland given to President Woodrow Wilson by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. During her time in the GPO, she had collected names of the Volunteers and promised to take messages to their families. This may have influenced her in being involved in the National Aid Association and Volunteers Dependants Fund. In the aftermath of the rebellion there were 64 known dead among the Volunteers, 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested. Families needed support, these organisations were able to arrange funding from the USA.
In 1917 she co-founded and ran Scoil Bhríde, an Irish language school for girls in Dublin, which is still in operation. Her co-founder was Annie McHugh who later married Ernest Blythe. During the Irish War of Independence, Duffy was mostly focused on the school. However the school was raided by the military and Duffy later admitted it was in fact used for rebel meetings and to safeguard documents. In October 1920, leader Michael Collins met Archbishop Patrick Clune there in secret.
The war ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. The result was the Irish Civil War which lasted until 1923. Duffy was a supporter of the Treaty, which her brother had signed, and as such she left Cumann na mBan and joined Cumann na Saoirse which she was instrumental in founding as an Irish republican women’s organisation which supported the Pro-Treaty side.
Once the civil war was over, Duffy left the political arena and focused on education. She especially had to focus on funding in the early years of the school. She worked with UCD’s Department of Education from 1926 once Scoil Bhríde was recognised as a teacher training school. She published educational documents like School Studies in The Appreciation of Art with Elizabeth Aughney and published by UCD in 1932.
Until her retirement, she also lectured on the teaching of French. Once retired she gave much of her time to the Legion of Mary and to an association which worked with French au pairs in Dublin. In 1948 she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws by the National University of Ireland. She retired as principal in 1944.
Recognising the importance of her first hand experience and with a good political understanding, Duffy recorded her memories of the events in which she had taken part. In 1949 she gave an account of her life in relation to nationalist activities to the Bureau of Military History. She was involved in Radio Éireann broadcast in 1956 about the women in the Rising. In 1962 she took part in the RTÉ TV program Self Portrait broadcast on 20 March 1962. In March 1966 she gave a lecture in UCD to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising which was published in The Easter rising, 1916, and University College Dublin (1966).
In 2014 An Post issued a stamp to commemorate the centenary of the founding of Cumann na mBan. In 2016, for the centenary, a documentary has been produced which discusses seven of the women, including Duffy, who were involved in the Easter rising.
She died, unmarried, in 1969, aged 85, and was interred in the family plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Luíse, a play based on the life of Louise Gavan Duffy, was written and directed by Celia de Fréine and performed by Hilary Bowen-Walsh, Presented by Umbrella Theatre Company in association with Scoil Bhríde and the Ranelagh Arts Festival. Music of Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill on video.