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Charles Duff (1894 - 1966):
Author; barrister; linguist


The youngest child of John Duff, Secretary of the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway, and his wife Anne Marie (Maude) Duff (née Elkins), Charles St Lawrence Duff was born in Enniskillen where he attended Enniskillen Model School before being sent to a Dublin boarding school, which he hated. Later he and a companion stowed away on a ship in Dublin, but were discovered in Liverpool, and Duff was returned to Enniskillen and sent to Portora Royal School in 1911 for a year or so, He enjoyed his time there, continuing his studies in French, Spanish and German.

He then became an assistant purser with the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, acquiring a knowledge of Portuguese. In 1914 Duff went ashore to work in the company’s office in France, where he remained until he joined the British Army in January 1916, refusing a commission. In 1917 he was attached as an interpreter and bombing instructor to the Portuguese troops serving with the Allies on the Western Front, being awarded the Portuguese Military Medal. He was later attached to the British Military Mission in Italy in Rome and Genoa. He had contracted malaria in Brazil and been gassed in France. Gravely ill, he was hospitalised from the Armistice in November 1918 until March 1919.

After he was discharged he was still medically unfit and so the steamship company would not take him back. Duff was unemployed for a period until his language skills led to a post in the News Department of the Foreign Office in London in 1919, where he remained until 1936 when he resigned because of what he regarded as the pro-Fascist sympathies of the Foreign Office.

His life in the decade between 1919 and the start of the Second World War was characterised by remarkable energy and a wide range of literary effort. He was called to the English Bar by Gary’s Inn in 1923, no doubt to improve his position in the Foreign Office. He was the Literary and Dramatic correspondent of La Prensa of Buenos Aires (1929) and of O Estado de São Paulo (1935-38). His translation of the 17th century Spanish poet and writer Francisco de Quevodo’s Humorous and Satirical Works (1926) was followed by This Human Nature (1930), and at least two plays: Mind Products Ltd (a work of science fiction melodrama) published in the Netherlands in 1932, and An Irish Idyll (1933), broadcast by the BBC. Anthropological Report on a London Suburb (1935), was a satire on middle class suburban life. It may be during this period that he published a third play, Oilfield, and a collection of stories and satires, Ring out the Grief, although both appear to be now lost, and neither appeared in his entry in Who’s Who. Duff was also interested in James Joyce, with whom he said he was acquainted during his Dublin schooldays. His Handrail and the Wampus (1931), a short pamphlet in three parts written in a Joycean style, was followed by James Joyce and the Plain Reader (1932), an early commentary on Ulysses and Work in Progress (which later emerged as Finnegan’s Wake.)

A Handbook on Hanging, an elegant polemic against capital punishment which is probably Duff’s best-known work, was first published in 1928 and went through six further editions before his death, each carefully updated to take account of topical events. A German translation supervised by Berthold Brecht in 1931 was burned by the Nazis in 1933. Further editions were published after his death.

The Truth about Columbus (1936), was a carefully researched and comprehensive account of Christopher Columbus’s voyages of discovery to the New World, and Duff’s favourite work. That year was a turning point in Duff’s life when he resigned from the Foreign Office, and, apart from 1937-38, when he was a lecturer at London University, and 1954-55 when he was Professor of European Languages at the newly founded Nanyang University in Singapore, from then he supported himself by writing until his death in 1966.

Duff travelled extensively in Spain and was deeply attached to its people and culture. An active supporter of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in 1938 he published Spain against the Invaders, Napoleon 1808-Hitler and Mussolini 1936. He edited The War in Spain, a weekly newspaper in 1938 and 1939, and in 1938 edited Spain at War, an illustrated monthly journal of facts and figures. His A Key to Victory: Spain (1940), warned against the pro-German attitude of General Franco, and argued for a peninsular war to liberate the Spanish from the Nationalist regime. His prominence as a supporter of the Republican cause was noticed in Germany, shown by his inclusion in the Sonderfahndungsliste-GB, or “Special Wanted List for Great Britain”, a list prepared by the German SS of over 2,800 prominent individuals to be arrested in the event of a German invasion of the United Kingdom.

Apart from contributing reviews and magazine articles, and preparing further editions of his earlier work, Duff published a wide range of language books, some jointly with others. The Basis and Essentials of German (1933) was followed by similar titles on Russian (1937) and Italian (1944). Throughout the 1950s he published many textbooks on French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Russian, many of which ran into several editions at home and abroad, as well as translations of foreign classics such as Emile Zola’s Nana (1953).

Ordinary Cats (1950), and two travel books, Ireland and the Irish (1952) and England and the English (1954), demonstrated the breadth of his interests, being introductions to travel in Ireland (North and South) and England, combining prehistory, folklore, literary and political history in an easy style.

Duff’s translation from the French of Jean-Paul Clébert’s The Gypsies (1963), and his A Mysterious People, an Introduction to Gypsies (1965) revealed a deep knowledge of, and sympathetic interest in, all aspects of Romany life and culture.

As he and his brother David drove off from Amiens Street (now Connolly) Station on Easter Monday 1916 they were confronted by an armed Irish Volunteer, who, on hearing from Charles Duff (who was in British Army uniform) that he was returning to his unit in France, advised them to leave the area. In his last work, Six Days to Shake an Empire (1966), Duff drew on this to place the events in Dublin in Easter Week in a broad historical context.

Duff married Ivy May Victoria Gaute in the summer of 1916. He referred briefly to their marriage in his autobiography No Angel’s Wing (1947), and it appears he left her and their four children in 1936 and did not support them financially thereafter. He formed another relationship with Margaret Duff, but it appears that he never divorced his wife Ivy. Charles Duff died at his home at Allens Farm House, East Bergholt, Suffolk, on 15 October 1966. He was cremated and his ashes scattered on Lough Erne.



Born: 7 April 1894
Died: 15 October 1966
AR Hart
Bibliography:

Information from Frank Roofe provided by Gordon Brand, and from Gordon Brand; Portora Royal School records; information from Gray’s Inn; No Angel’s Wing; WWW; Duff’s entry in the Sonderfahndungsliste-GB provided by Brett Hannam; Familia, Number 33 (2017); private information and personal knowledge