31 December-Letitia Dunbar Harrison

Letitia Dunbar-Harrison was recommended for appointment as Librarian for County Mayo in the west of Ireland in July 1930 by the independent Local Appointments Commission. What should have been a routine appointment caused conflict between local and national government and between church and state. It became a famous public controversy which attracted national headlines. Reports about the controversy also appeared in newspapers in places such as London and Boston.

Letitia Dunbar-Harrison was born in Dublin on February 4th 1906. Her family were members of the Church of Ireland. Letitia was educated at Alexandra College in Dublin and entered Trinity College Dublin in 1924. She graduated with an honours degree in French and Spanish in 1928. Afterwards she trained as a librarian at University College Dublin and worked at the Rathmines Public Library in Dublin.

Following independence in 1922 the Local Appointments Commission had been established by the Irish Government. Its role was to prevent nepotism or corruption in recruitment to senior local government posts. The Commission advertised the Position of County Librarian for Mayo in early 1930. Following public competition Letitia Dunbar-Harrison was recommended for appointment by the Commission.

Under the law Mayo County Council was obliged to ratify her appointment. However the County Council backed by the Library Committee refused to do so. The reason given for refusing to ratify the appointment was that Ms Dunbar-Harrison was not proficient in the Irish language. However it is widely accepted that the Council refused to ratify her appointment because she was not a Roman Catholic and also that she was a graduate of Trinity College Dublin.

The Minister for Local Government, Richard Mulcahy, abolished the Council and appointed a Commissioner, PJ Bartley, to carry out its functions. One of his first acts was to appoint Letitia Dunbar Harrison as County Librarian for Mayo. Soon after her appointment clerics and conservative Catholics organised a boycott of the library services in Mayo. Monsignor D’Alton, a member of the library committee and Parish Priest of Ballinrobe, said at the time: ‘The only outstanding qualification she has is that she is a Protestant and was educated in Trinity College. Are these not peculiar qualifications for a Catholic county like Mayo? 99% of the people of Mayo are Catholic’.

The appointment of Ms Dunbar-Harrison caused political controversy. Mr Eamon de Valera, then leader of Fianna Fáil the main opposition party stated: ‘I say that if I had a vote on a local body, and there were two qualified people who had to deal with a Catholic community, and if one was a Catholic and the other a Protestant, I would unhesitatingly vote for the Catholic’.

In order to defuse the controversy Taoiseach W. T. Cosgrave held a meeting with Dr Thomas Gilmartin the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam. Following the meeting Ms Dunbar-Harrison was promoted to the Department of Defence Library in Dublin later that same year.

While she was living in Castlebar Ms Dunbar-Harrison met her future husband Rev. Robert Crawford, a Methodist Minister. They married a short time after she moved to Dublin in 1931. Letitia was forced to resign her position because at the time married women were not allowed to work in the civil service.

Mayo County Council was abolished for failing to carry out its statutory duty, namely the appointment of Ms Letitia Dunbar-Harrison as County Librarian, in the year 1930 On This Day.

Main Street, Castlebar, Co. Mayo on 1880-01-01 00:00:00

Wynne’s, Castlebar, Co Mayo. 1989

Menawn Cliffs, Achill. County Mayo, Ireland] (LOC) on 1890-01-01 00:00:00

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