Duff, Charles St Lawrence (1894–1966) author, barrister and linguist, was born on 7 April 1894 in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, the youngest of ten children to grow to adulthood of John Duff, secretary of the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway, and his wife Anne Marie Duff (née Elkins). Having attended Enniskillen Model School, where it seems he largely ran wild, he was sent to a boarding school in Dublin (which he hated). Whilst at the school, he and a companion stowed away on a ship to Liverpool intending to take ship for foreign parts; they were discovered in Liverpool, and Duff was returned to Ireland by an older brother, an anglican clergyman in Birkenhead. He was then sent to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen in 1911, where he seems to have remained for a year or so. Although he did not achieve the academic success at Portora enjoyed by his older brother David (qv), Charles enjoyed his time there and continued his studies in French, Spanish and German.
On leaving Portora, he became an assistant purser with the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, whose ships plied from Liverpool to South America, including Brazil. He acquired a knowledge of Portuguese, and his experiences are amusingly described in his autobiography, No angel's wing (1947). In 1914 he went ashore to work in the company's office in La Rochelle-Pallice in France, where he remained until he joined the British army in January 1916.
He refused a commission, although at one point he was an acting sergeant. His knowledge of Portuguese led to his being attached for some months in 1917 to the Portuguese troops serving with the allies on the western front, where his duties included acting as an interpreter and as a bombing (grenade) instructor. He was awarded the Portuguese Military Medal. After a spell attached to the Royal Engineers Inland Waterways and Docks branch at Sandwich in Kent, he answered a notice seeking men with a knowledge of Italian. Having bought an Italian grammar and brushed up his knowledge of the language, he spent the remainder of the first world war with the British Military Mission in Italy, initially in Rome. By the end of the war he was serving in Genoa, where he fell gravely ill, having had malaria in Brazil and been gassed in France, and was hospitalised from the armistice of November 1918 until March 1919.
After his discharge, the steamship company would not take him back as he was not medically fit, and it was some time before he could get a job, existing on a small war pension. In 1919 his language skills led to a post in the news department of the Foreign Office in London, which was eventually made permanent. Although initially congenial, the work does not seem to have been particularly demanding, and he found time to read for the bar (being called by Gray's Inn in 1923) and to be the literary and dramatic correspondent of La Prensa of Buenos Aires (1929) and of O Estado de Sao Paulo (1935–8).
From 1926 to 1936 Duff published a wide range of works, starting with his translation (1926) of the Humorous and satirical works of the seventeenth-century Spanish poet and writer Francisco de Quevedo. Other publications included a philosophical work, 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, which was broadcast by the BBC and published in 1933. A third play, 'Oilfield', is listed on the flyleaf of a later work as co-written with Léo Lania, the pseudonym of Lazar Herrmann, an Ukrainian-born, German-speaking journalist, playwright and screenwriter. It may be that it was during this period that Duff published a collection of stories and satires, 'Ring out the grief', although it and 'Oilfield' appear now to be lost, and neither appeared in his entry in Who's who. A satire on middle-class suburban life, Anthropological report on a London suburb, was published in 1935.
During this period, Duff was influenced by James Joyce (qv), with whom he claimed to have been acquainted as a schoolboy in Dublin. In 1931 he published Handrail and the wampus, a short pamphlet in three parts written in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness style, which clearly drew on his experiences in the merchant navy and the army. He published an essay, James Joyce and the plain reader (1932), an early commentary on Ulysses and the 'Work in progress' that ultimately became Finnegans wake.
It was during this decade that A handbook on hanging appeared. First published in 1928 and probably Duff's best-known work, this was an elegant and satirical polemic against capital punishment, which went through six further editions before his death, each carefully updated to take account of topical events. A German translation supervised by Bertolt Brecht in 1931 was burned by the Nazis in 1933. Further editions were published after Duff's death, including an Italian translation in 1998, and reprints published in 2001 in New York, and in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in 2011.
The truth about Columbus and the discovery of America (1936), a carefully researched and comprehensive account of Christopher Columbus's voyages of discovery to the New World, was Duff's favourite among his works; a new and enlarged edition was published in 1957. Nineteen thirty-six was a turning point in Duff's life. Disenchanted with what he saw as its pro-fascist, appeasement culture, he resigned from the Foreign Office. From then on (apart from 1937–8, when a lecturer at London University, and 1954–5, when professor of European languages at the newly founded Nanyang University in Singapore), he supported himself by writing.
In the years immediately following his resignation, Duff's principal interest was supporting the republican side in the Spanish civil war (1936–9). He had spent some months in Spain before the first world war, and returned on a number of occasions in later life. He remained deeply attached to its people and culture, as can be seen from his books dealing with Quevedo and Columbus. After leaving the Foreign Office, he threw himself into writing on behalf of the republican cause. In 1938 he published a pamphlet, Spain against the invaders, Napoleon 1808–Hitler and Mussolini 1936. He edited The War in Spain (1938–9), a weekly newspaper, and Spain at War (1938), an illustrated monthly journal of facts and figures that appeared for several months. After the defeat of the republican forces, he wrote A key to victory: Spain (1940) warning against the dangers of the pro-German attitude of General Franco, and arguing for another peninsular war to liberate the Spanish from the nationalist regime. His prominence as a supporter of the Spanish republic was noticed in Nazi Germany, and he was included in the Sonderfahndungsliste-GB, popularly known as 'the black book', a list prepared by the German SS of over 2,800 prominent individuals who were to be arrested in the aftermath of a German invasion of the United Kingdom.
Apart from contributing reviews and articles to magazines, and preparing further editions of his earlier works, between the end of the second world war and his death in October 1966 Duff published a large number of language books, some jointly with others. His first venture in this area appears to have been in 1933, when he co-wrote The basis and essentials of German, followed by similar titles on Russian (1937) and Italian (1944). Throughout the 1950s, he published a wide range of language textbooks on French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Russian, as well as translations of foreign classics such as Emile Zola's Nana (1953). Many of the language textbooks ran into several editions, some also being published in New York, and several were reprinted after his death.
Duff's publications during this period were not confined to language textbooks, and demonstrated the wide scope of his interests, ranging from Ordinary cats (1950) to Ireland and the Irish (1952) and England and the English (1954). The latter were substantial volumes combining his broad knowledge of prehistory, folklore, and literary and political history in an easy, informative and non-partisan style as introductions to travel in Ireland (north and south) and England. His other great interest was in all aspects of Romany Gypsy life and culture. In his 1963 translation from the French of Jean-Paul Clébert's The Gypsies, he supplied footnotes and a supplementary bibliography which display a deep and scholarly knowledge of Gypsy history and lore gathered over a lifetime, also evident in his A mysterious people: an introduction to Gypsies of all countries (1965).
Charles Duff's last work, Six days to shake an empire, examined the origins, events and effects of the 1916 Easter rebellion, and was published in 1966 a few months before his death later that year. Placing the rebellion in its wider context throughout the British empire and commonwealth, and not just in Irish history, Duff drew on his own experience of Easter Monday 1916. He had been in British army uniform when he met his brother David that morning at Amiens Street (latterly Connolly) Station, and as they drove off they were confronted by an armed Irish Volunteer, who, on hearing from Charles Duff that he was returning to his unit in France, advised them to leave the area.
In the summer of 1916 Duff married Ivy May Victoria Gaute, but abandoned her and their four children around the time he resigned from the Foreign Office in 1936. He formed another relationship with Margaret Duff, described as widow in the grant of probate of his will, but not as his wife in the will itself; 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.