Letitia Dunbar-Harrison

Castlebar librarian nearly brought down government

THE appointment of a Trinity College educated, non-Irish speaking Protestant lady to a position as librarian in Castlebar in 1930 almost brought down the then Cumann na nGaedheal government and led to the abolition of the sitting Mayo County Council, who opposed the ruling of the Local Appointments Commission (LAC), writes Tom Gillespie.

It became a national issue and resulted in heated debates in both the Senate and the Dáil.

Mayo Genealogy Group have researched the controversial standoff between Mayo County Council and the LAC.

When 25-year-old Miss Letitia Dunbar-Harrison accepted a position with Mayo County Library, as appointed by the LAC, she would not have believed the conflict that would ensue.

The commission was established in 1926 to oversee appointments. Four years later over 100 appointments had been made by the LAC which were accepted by county councils all over Ireland as it was within the law.

It was suggested that candidates who were not proficient in Irish would have three years to learn the Irish language.

In 1930 Mayo County Council opposed her appointment. Even local resentment at what was perceived as metropolitan intrusion was not the core of the problem. It was rather that Miss Dunbar-Harrison suffered from the dual stigma of being a Protestant and a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, with no knowledge of the Irish language.

It became a government versus local government dispute, with church versus state and party members versus party members. Mayo County Council were given time to accept her nomination, and the matter was raised in the Senate and the Dáil debates.

In the height of the row, on December 31, 1931, the Minister for Local Government, Richard Mulcahy, abolished the council.

He appointed a commissioner, P.J. Bartley, to carry out functions, the first of which was to appoint Letitia Dunbar-Harrison as a librarian to Mayo.



All but five out of the many Mayo library centres boycotted the new librarian. One opponent, J.T. Morahan, was ‘opposed to the appointment of a product of Trinity to the position of librarian in this county. Trinity culture is not the culture of the Gael; rather it is the poison gas to the kindly Celtic people’.

Ballina-based TD P.J. Ruttledge argued: ‘It has to be recognised that in Co. Mayo, where practically 99% of the people are of a certain religious persuasion, a person in the position of librarian must feel, as any person who holds definite religious views must, that these views must be portrayed in some way in the distribution of books. What may appear to a member of one religion as being perfectly all right, may appear to a member of another religion as being completely wrong.’

Ruttledge was chairman of Ballina Urban Council from 1919 to '32 and chairman of Mayo County Council from 1922 to '26. He was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1921 as a Sinn Féin TD for Mayo North and West. He was re-elected to the Dáil again in 1923 for Mayo North and in a further 10 elections until 1951.

In 1926 Ruttledge was a founder-member of Fianna Fáil. He joined the cabinet of Éamonn de Valera in 1932, serving as Minister for Lands and Fisheries, Minister for Justice and Minister for Local Government and Public Health, resigning in 1941 due to ill health.


New position

Eventually the government resolved the Dunbar-Harrison situation when they offered Letitia a position during January 1932 with a higher remuneration to the Dublin Military Library, which she accepted.

Letitia Dunbar-Harrison was born in Dublin in 1906. She received her education at Alexandrea College, Dublin, prior to attending Trinity College. She graduated with a degree in French and Spanish.

Letitia trained as a librarian at the Dublin County Library headquarters.

In her first posting to Rathmines Library she specialised in children’s books.

During the summer she took a course in library techniques at University College Dublin.

She was appointed by the LAC to a position with Mayo County Library for the Castlebar branch in 1930.

Due to the controversy Letitia stayed a year prior to a posting to the military library in Dublin.

It was peculiar…that a small issue in Mayo just started to escalate and a snowball just rolled on into an avalanche…It became a national issue and could have brought down the Government,” stated Pat Walsh, author of The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian (Mercier Press 2009).

She was forced to resign her position with Dublin Military Library when she wed due to the marriage ban at that time.

When Latitia married Methodist Minister Robert Crawford, in Dublin, whom she had met in Castlebar, she became known as Aileen Crawford. Due to his ministry they moved to various counties - Waterford, Tipperary, Louth and Antrim.

She remained on in Northern Ireland following his demise. She contributed to her adopted Methodist church for many years.

In 2009 a documentary was made of the controversy by RTÉ for the Scannal programme. It was directed and produced by Kevin Cummins with presenter Garry Mac Donnacha.

In the programme Letitia’s niece remembered her aunt as being a woman ahead of her time.


* Read Tom Gillespie's County Town column every Tuesday in our print edition