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Crawford, Aileen, née Dunbar (later Dunbar-Harrison)
1906-1994

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An Irish librarian who became the subject of major controversy over her appointment. Born, Letitia Elisabeth Eileen (Aileen) Dunbar, in Dublin, on 6 February 1906 to Arthur and Margaret Dunbar, her parent and siblings emigrated to Canada when she was two years old, leaving her with her aunt and uncle John and Elizabeth Harrison, whose name she adopted.

As a Protestant educated at Trinity College Dublin, her selection by the relatively new Irish Free State government’s Local Appointments Commission (LAC) to fill a vacancy for Mayo county librarian plunged her into the midst of a cause célèbre that set church and state against each other and almost brought down the Irish government. The appointment was rejected by the County’s Library committee and subsequently the full County Library Committee of Mayo County Council refused to endorse the LAC recommendation on the grounds that the librarian did not have the requisite knowledge of Irish. However the real issue was that she was Protestant and, above all, a Trinity-educated Protestant in charge of the library service of a predominantly Roman Catholic county. In response, in December 1930, the Government abolished Mayo County Council and formally appointed Miss Dunbar Harrison as librarian. She arrived in Castlebar, County Mayo in January 1931 and attempted to maintain a skeleton library service despite widespread boycott and closures of branch libraries. As speculation grew of an imminent general election, the controversy was eased when on 6 January 1932 she accepted a librarian’s post at the Department of Defence in Dublin with an increased salary. During her year at Castlebar Aileen Harrison met local Methodist minister, Rev. Robert (Bob) Crawford and their friendship led to her commencing a regular column in the weekly Irish Methodist The Irish Christian Advocate under the nom de plume, Miss Silver Birch, BA. She and Bob Crawford married on 30 June 1932 and for the next 20 years they served several Irish circuits.

Following Bob Crawford’s death in 1952 she felt a call to preach and successfully completed her local preacher’s examinations. She subsequently became the first woman to apply as a candidate for the Irish ordained ministry but conveniently was failed in one of her written examinations. Although not accepted as candidate she was the catalyst which in 1954 led the Methodist Church in Ireland to authorise a report on women in the ministry. She was All-Ireland Secretary for the Women’s Department 1945-59, and was elected President 1959-62. She died in Belfast in 12 October 1994.

Sources

  • Pat Walsh, The Curious Case of the Mayo Librarian, (Cork: Mercier, 2009)
  • R.P.Roddie, ‘The Battle of the Books’, Methodist Newsletter, May 2009.

Entry written by: RPR
Category: Person

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