Harrison, Letitia Dunbar- (Crawford, Aileen) (1906–94), librarian and methodist activist, was born Letitia Elizabeth Eileen Dunbar in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, on 4 February 1906, the youngest of at least four children of Arthur Dunbar, a commercial traveller, and his wife Margaret (née Birch). Soon after her birth her parents and siblings emigrated to America; Letitia remained in Dublin and was brought up by her childless maternal aunt, Edith Elizabeth Harrison, and her husband, John Walter Harrison, a warehouseman. She was known as a child by the surname Harrison and subsequently hyphenated her foster-parents' name with her own, changing it by deed poll c.1930–31. At some point she also started using the middle name 'Aileen'. (During the controversy in which she later became embroiled, the variations in her name were cited to insinuate that there was something disreputable about her.) The family were members of the Church of Ireland.
Letitia was educated locally and at Alexandra College (1918–24) where she received honours at junior, middle and senior grade intermediate level, winning the Jeannie Turpin Essay Prize and the Helen Prenter Prize in English literature. After winning the Lady Ardilaun entrance scholarship in French she attended TCD (1924–28), winning several term prizes and graduating with honours in modern literatures (French and Spanish). She then took a six-month library training course at Dublin County Library, followed by nine months in charge of the children's library at Rathmines and attended a further training course in library studies at UCD.
In 1930 she was appointed county librarian in Mayo, despite having failed the Irish language test. Under the relevant legislation, candidates not qualified in Irish were given three years to qualify. Her appointment provoked intense resistance in Mayo, which was rapidly taken up by catholic periodicals in Dublin and by local bodies in other counties. Mayo County Council's library committee refused to accept the appointment. A public meeting on 30 November, which heard several vehement speeches including by E. A. D'Alton, catholic dean of Tuam and uncle of the future Cardinal John D'Alton (qv), rejected Dunbar-Harrison's appointment through 10–2 panel vote by six catholic clerics, one protestant cleric and four lay catholics, chaired by the catholic Bishop of Killala. The two members in favour of her appointment were the Church of Ireland rector of Castlebar and Dr Anthony MacBride, brother of Major John McBride (qv).
A public controversy developed in the letters columns of the Irish Independent and the W. T. Cosgrave (qv) government came under attack from several catholic periodicals. Among them was the Catholic Bulletin, where under several pseudonyms Fr Timothy Corcoran (qv) presented the whole affair as proof that the government were stooges of Freemason job-hunters, 'fished out of the Elizabethan cess-pool' i.e. TCD (Jan.1931, 10) whom they were appeasing in order to stay in power with protestant votes. A special meeting of Mayo County Council on 27 December 1930, after further heated oratory, decided by a vote of 21–6 not to accept the appointment. On 1 January 1931 the council was dissolved and replaced by a commissioner, P. J. Bartley, who promptly confirmed Dunbar-Harrison's appointment.
Resistance to her appointment had several elements. Chief among them was hostility to the centralised Local Appointments Commission, instituted in 1926 to try to prevent the large-scale corruption which existed under the previous system of local appointments. This combined an appeal to localism with a 'respectable' fig-leaf for opponents who did not wish to oppose Dunbar-Harrison on religious grounds (for example, the Jewish Fianna Fáil TD Robert Briscoe (qv) gave this reason for opposing the appointment during a dáil debate on 17 June 1931, as did the Sinn Féin paper An Phoblacht). Objections to her lack of Irish qualification in a Gaeltacht county were also prominent – although the Gaelic League refused to take a position in the controversy, pointing out that some of her opponents had a record of lukewarmness or hostility towards the language movement. Also cited was opportunism by political opponents of the Cumann na nGaedheal government, particularly Fianna Fáil; Éamon de Valera's (qv) public statement that libraries were educational and therefore denominational, and his suggestion that separate library systems be created for protestants and catholics are regarded as one of his more blatant exercises in opportunism, and it was noted that P. J. Ruttledge (qv), who fiercely denounced Dunbar-Harrison, was himself a TCD graduate. The opposition, however, was not confined to Fianna Fáil; one of Dunbar-Harrison's most vocal opponents was an ex-Redmondite Independent councillor, T. S. Moclair.
The principal reason given by her opponents, however, was that she was a protestant and a graduate of TCD; Fr Corcoran claimed both that TCD qualifications were worthless and that even if Dunbar-Harrison had been the best-qualified candidate her protestantism would still make her unacceptable. Catholic clerical opponents (including Archbishop Gilmartin of Tuam) argued that a non-catholic librarian might consciously or unconsciously disseminate literature which would undermine catholic faith and values.
Dunbar-Harrison arrived in Castlebar in the second week in January 1931, having declared that she hoped the 'unpleasantness' would soon be forgotten and that she would do her best to serve the people of Mayo. She published what was intended as the first of a series of 'Library notes' in the Connacht Telegraph (24 Jan. 1931), emphasising that the library was 'the People's University', particularly well-stocked with catholic and patriotic titles. She was met by a county-wide boycott of the library, beginning in Ballina and spreading southwards, which appears to have been largely clerically organised; local library sub-committees running the estimated 120 local branches in the county voted themselves out of existence and returned their books to the central library at Castlebar. Within a short time only the Castlebar central library (and possibly two or three local branches) remained operational. One of the few regular attendees at the Castlebar library was the catholic parish priest, Canon McHugh, whose support for Dunbar-Harrison apparently reflected loyalty to Cumann na nGaedheal. Dunbar-Harrison set about classifying and cataloguing the returned books and learning Irish. Before being advised by P. J. Bartley not to give interviews, she told a journalist that she found the inhabitants of Castlebar friendly and courteous and that they had made it clear that they had nothing against her personally. (Some local opponents even called her 'a refined and cultivated young lady' while reiterating that she was unsuitable as librarian (Ir. Independent, 28 May 1931).)
In June 1931 a Fine Gael Mayo deputy moved a motion in the dáil condemning the appointment. This was supported by Fianna Fáil and Labour but resisted by the Cosgrave government; while Seán T. O'Kelly (qv) extensively quoted allegations made by the Catholic Bulletin, Frank Aiken (qv) suggested that the appointment was being influenced by 'Deputy [Henry] Thrift [representing TCD], the Grand Sword-Bearer [of the Masonic Order in Ireland]', and Richard Mulcahy (qv), the Local Government Minister, pointed out that the previous appointment of a protestant county librarian in Laois had not provoked controversy. There were speculations that the government might fall, but only two Mayo Cumann na nGaedheal TDs voted with the opposition, and Cosgrave was retained in power by Independent and Farmers Party TDs.
With the library system paralysed, significant problems arising from the demise of the county council (the vocational education committee was left without a quorum, making it impossible to pay vocational teachers' salaries), and threats that a new campaign might be mounted against the appointment of protestant dispensary doctors, the government entered into clandestine negotiations with the catholic bishops and other local elements. On 13 January 1932, shortly before the general election, Letitia Dunbar-Harrison was transferred to the Department of Defence library, receiving a slightly higher salary and full civil service status, with her time in Mayo counting towards her pension. It does not appear that any further protestant county librarians were appointed for some years; Helen Roe (qv), the protestant county librarian in Laois, provoked controversy in the 1930s by conducting research into sheela-na-gigs.
One Mayo opponent of the appointment had declared that the librarian's past had not been an Irish past and her future was unlikely to be an Irish future (Brother M. S. Kelly, Catholic Bulletin, Jan. 1931, 11). This was not the case. In June 1932 Letitia Dunbar-Harrison married R. C. Crawford, a methodist minister and occasional contributor to the Western People whom she had met in Castlebar. She appears to have become a methodist before her marriage, as she took to writing for the Irish Christian Advocate as 'Miss Silver Birch, BA'. She remained a regular contributor to the Advocate for the rest of that journal's existence, successively as 'Silver Birch, BA' (after marriage) and 'Silver Birch, MA' (after acquiring the TCD MA in the 1950s). On marriage she resigned from the public service (as then required by law). She was subsequently known as Aileen Crawford. They had no children.
Methodist ministers moved from place to place after six-year terms, and the Crawfords subsequently lived in Dundalk (Co. Louth), Adare (Co. Limerick) and Roscrea (Co. Tipperary) before moving to Whitehead, Co. Antrim, where Rev. Crawford died in April 1954. Aileen Crawford subsequently settled in Belfast, where, after qualifying as an accredited local preacher, she became the first woman to apply to join the Irish methodist ministry. After she failed one of the required examinations, the methodist church considered the issue and decided in 1955 that while there were no theological reasons for excluding women from the ministry, they could not be ordained for practical reasons (this decision was later reversed). She continued to preach at church services.
Aileen Crawford became a temperance activist in the White Ribbon movement. She was secretary of the Irish Methodist Women's Association 1945–59 and president 1959–62, and was active in 'meals on wheels' and social services associated with University Road Methodist Church, Belfast. She died in Belfast on 12 October 1994. She is not known to have written anything about her Mayo experiences.
Some supporters of the appointment warned opponents that their actions would have adverse consequences for the employment prospects of Irish catholics in Britain, where the controversy was widely publicised, and for the reputation of the new Irish state. The Mayo library affair was rapidly and repeatedly cited by Ulster unionists such as St John Ervine (qv) and native liberals such as Sean O'Faolain (qv) as exemplifying bigotry and narrow-mindedness. It remains a standard reference point for discussions of the politico-religious tensions of the new state. Letitia Dunbar-Harrison's memory remains overshadowed by the controversy of which she was the unwitting victim. In 2009 the RTÉ/TG4 documentary series Scannal devoted a programme to the Mayo library controversy.