O’Duinn, Seán (1873–1952), teacher, propagandist and trade representative, was born John J. Dunne on 7 September 1873 at 1 Forge Street, Mountmellick, Queen’s Co. (Laois), the son of James Dunne, a shopkeeper of Mountmellick, and his wife Catherine (née McEvoy); his mother had previously been married and been widowed. He lived with his parents until 1896 when he started lodging with, and working as a bookkeeper for, his uncle maternal William McEvoy, a prominent local merchant. His nationalism can be traced to 1907, the date of his personal ‘Sinn Féin’ notebook, in which he wrote several essays and speeches relating to the Gaelic League and Sinn Féin. He temporarily adopted ‘Seaghan J. O’Duinn’ as an alternate spelling for his name (c. 1907) and during the following decade used the variants, ‘Seán Ó Duinn’ and ‘Seán O’Duinn’, before settling firmly on ‘Seán O’Duinn’ in his later years. In November 1908 he left Mountmellick to become a teacher of commercial subjects at St Enda’s School in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin, where he taught during the 1908–9 academic year under the supervision of Patrick Pearse (qv). In 1909 O’Duinn studied Irish at the Leinster College of Irish in the same class as Éamon de Valera (qv).
As part of a scheme to establish an Irish consular service in key commercial ports around the world, Arthur Griffith (qv) sent O’Duinn to Aarhus, Denmark (c. 1909). The actor and linguist Gearóid Ó Lochlainn (1884–1970), who had also been sent to Denmark by Griffith, decided to leave Aarhus to establish a language school in Odense, whereupon O’Duinn replaced him in the local Berlitz school. In securing this post, O’Duinn received a character reference from Pearse, which he described as one of his proudest possessions. About a year later, Ó Lochlainn asked permission from O’Duinn to exchange positions with him; O’Duinn agreed, moving to Odense.
An accomplished journalist, O’Duinn regularly wrote technical articles (1915–22) in Horace Plunkett’s (qv) Better Business journal on the Danish cooperative movement for the instruction of Irish cooperators. Similarly he wrote fifteen articles (1915–18) in the Father Mathew Record on the Irish temperance movement and took the example of Denmark as an instructive parallel for how Ireland should combat ‘King Alcohol’ (Father Mathew Record, 1916). He also contributed articles to the Danish newspaper Fyns Venstreblad that drew attention to the Irish conscription crisis and argued in favour of republicanism (1917–18), and translated numerous articles from Danish into English and vice versa for newspapers such as the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator, the Irish Press Philadelphia, and Fyns Venstreblad.
In a January 1919 memo to Dáil Éireann policy, Griffith noted that O’Duinn was capable and reliable and should be employed for propaganda purposes. De Valera too showed his appreciation of O’Duinn (c. 1919) by stating that he had relayed valuable information. Throughout the Irish war of independence, O’Duinn reported directly to Art Ó Briain (Arthur O’Brien (qv)), keeping him informed of relevant developments in Denmark (and wider Scandinavia). He provided Ó Briain with a synopsis of Irland, a book by the pro-British journalist Kai-Friis Møller, alongside a scathing criticism of it; he warned Ó Briain of Møller’s journalistic work in the Danish press, with an emphasis on Møller’s lengthy interview of Arthur Griffith. He informed Ó Briain about the anti-Irish sentiment expressed by the Danish paper, Politiken, which he contrasted with the paper, Folket, which dedicated a poem to the memory of Terence MacSwiney (qv). O’Duinn also warned several Scandinavian newspaper editors about the writer Shaw Desmond (1877–1960) who he discovered had worked as a British propagandist during the first world war.
O’Duinn translated and distributed various propaganda pamphlets around Scandinavia, particularly to hotels, high schools and libraries, including about 2,500 copies of one such pamphlet, The voice of the protestant church in Ireland (with assistance from his sister, who was a nun based in Aarhus). Corresponding regularly with the prominent Norwegian politician C. J. Hambro, O’Duinn aided him in acquiring reading materials for his influential book, Irske Streiftog og Studier (‘Irish wanderings and studies’) (1920). This book combines Hambro’s experiences of travelling Ireland with a heavily nationalist-flavoured history of the country. After visiting O’Duinn and Ó Lochlainn in 1920, George Gavan Duffy (qv) recommended to the dáil that £25 be made available for them to advertise Hambro’s book in Scandinavia; Gavan Duffy also recommended O’Duinn for the role of trade agent to Odense.
O’Duinn corresponded with a range of significant figures during the war of independence, such as Katherine Hughes, Ernest Blythe (qv), Robert Brennan (qv), George Gavan Duffy and Seán T. O’Kelly (qv), exchanging information for propaganda purposes and advancing Irish interests in the international arena. He probably had the most influence in Norway, thanks to Hambro who spoke regularly on Irish matters, and his career is instructive for scholars interested in the international dimensions of the Irish revolution.
On 25 January 1922 he married Petra Magdalene in Odense; she was the daughter of Jens Madsen, a farmer of Vissenbjerg, and his wife, Ane Madsen (née Petersen). The couple’s only child, Anne Caitlin O’Duinn, was born in Rotterdam on 5 September 1923. O’Duinn became the Irish trade representative to Rotterdam (1922–5), a role that he maintained until that consulate was dissolved. Afterwards, he settled in Strib, Denmark, where he did some teaching but generally lived quietly. Having been sick and bedridden for several years, he died at his home at Sønder Alle, Strib, on 15 August 1952. He was buried at Vissenbjerg Kirkegård. Anne O’Duinn deposited his personal papers at the Vejlby-Strib Lokalhistoriske Arkiv (Vejlby-Strib Local Historical Archive) in Denmark.