Duffy, James (1808/9–1871), publisher, was born probably in Co. Cavan, at either Shercock or Kingscourt, and was educated locally at a hedge school. He had at least two brothers and two sisters. He is said first to have made a living as a pedlar in Cavan and Meath, dealing with Bryan Geraghty, a bookseller in Anglesea Street, Dublin, with whom he exchanged Irish manuscripts for catholic prayer-books, and buying up for resale in Britain bibles distributed in Ireland by protestant missionaries. When aged about thirty he set up in business in Anglesea Street – he moved to Wellington Quay in 1846 – as a publisher, printer and bookseller, specialising in low-priced catholic books, such as A pocket missal for the use of the laity (1838) and a new edition of the Catechism (1848) by Andrew Donlevy (qv), made possible by the invention of the stereotype. Duffy also printed and distributed public statements by catholic prelates, and was able to call himself ‘bookseller to the cardinal archbishop of Dublin’.
At the request of the editor of the Nation, Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) (to whom he was not related), he republished an anthology of nationalistic ballads, The spirit of the nation (1843; 59th ed., 1934), a successful venture that linked him to the Young Ireland movement and expanded into the publication of numerous popular historical writings, beginning with Duffy's Library of Ireland series. Duffy published several periodicals for catholic readers, which combined pietism and patriotism with hagiography: Duffy's Irish Catholic Magazine (1847–8), Duffy's Fireside Magazine (1850–54), and Duffy's Hibernian Magazine (1860–64).
Judged by the distinction of his authors (who included William Carleton (qv), Thomas Davis (qv), John Mitchel (qv), James Clarence Mangan (qv), and Richard Robert Madden (qv)), the number and popularity of his productions, and their formative influence on catholic popular opinion, he can be considered the most important Irish publisher in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. He was particularly significant in providing the Young Ireland movement with a cheap and reliable publisher for the dissemination of their writings. Charles Gavan Duffy described him as ‘a man of shrewd sense and sly humour but without cultivation or judgment in literature’ (Young Ireland, 671). He never took a holiday and, though a kindly employer, never allowed his staff to take holidays. The Irish American newspaper Irish American Weekly credited him with providing employment for 500 people and with having bought enough land to give him an income of £5,000 a year; it also noted that his ruthlessness had made him unpopular within his trade.
In 1840 he married Frances Lynch in Kingscourt, Co. Cavan. They had five sons and five daughters. The family susceptibility to pulmonary illnesses took a dreadful toll: none of the sons lived beyond the age of twenty-three, three dying from tuberculosis, while one of his daughters died of pneumonia aged fourteen and another two daughters succumbed as relatively young adults to tuberculosis.
James Duffy died, aged sixty-two, a justice of the peace, on 4 July 1871 at his home at Clontarf, Dublin. He was buried at Glasnevin cemetery. His will, which disposed of an estate worth almost £25,000, was contested unsuccessfully in court by the younger of his two surviving sons. His son-in-law Edmund Burke became managing director of James Duffy and Company Limited, but after his death in 1901 the company passed out of the control of its founder’s family.