It was a meeting across the generations in Castlebar recently when a venerable war hero and international diplomatic figure paid tribute to a young sports star. The occasion was the presentation of the inaugural Professor Sir Patrick Duffy Achievement Award to Castlebar swimmer and Rio Olympian, Nicholas Quinn.
Sir Patrick Duffy, he of the Mayo heritage who had contributed so much to public life in Britain, had made the journey to personally add his words of praise to the young swimmer. The physical energy and mental alertness of the sprightly Sir Patrick belies his 96 years - he still prefers the walk from Castlebar railway station to the town centre on his frequent visits to the county town from his home in England.
Sir Patrick’s admiration for Nicholas Quinn, enunciated at the formal presentation ceremony at Lough Lannagh Holiday Village, was more than reciprocated as the younger man expressed his deep appreciation of the award and all it represented.
The evening was a tribute to Nicholas Quinn and Sir Patrick, gracious as ever, insisted that the young sportsman should occupy the spotlight for the occasion. But the peer’s own life story - so full of achievement and accomplishment - would equally have made for an occasion of celebration in its own right.
Former MP, war hero, Minister for the Navy, former President of the Assembly of NATO, tireless advocate of human rights and the cause of working people, knighted for his contribution to the Western Alliance, Sir Patrick Duffy has managed to pack a lot into one lifetime.
His father, James, and mother Margaret, were both natives of Raith,Aghamore. His father was a miner in Doncaster who had survived the carnage of the Great War, His son clearly recalls, as a six-year-old, marching alongside the striking miners in the Great Strike of 1926, and learning the words of ‘The Red Flag’ into the bargain.
Like father, like son, Patrick volunteered for service in the second World War and served for a time in Northern Ireland, where he first became aware of the simmering problems in that divided statelet for which, he realised, Britain was responsible. His election to Parliament for the Labour Party was the first step in a public career which saw him become an influential figure in the field of international security, eventually becoming President of the NATO Assembly in Brussels.
In his biography, ‘Growing Up Irish in Britain, and British in Ireland’, Sir Patrick tells the story of how his father had, from the age of 12, accompanied his own father to England for seasonal work. They would walk, with their neighbours, to Drogheda, board the cattle boat to Liverpool, walk the long distance via Bury to the hiring fair at Skipton, where young James - still a child - would be hired out to a farmer to do a man’s job. Interestingly, Patrick’s parents always felt their first duty was to Britain, the country that had given them a home and a livelihood, and their Irishness - though never denied - came second.
Sir Patrick Duffy was, all his life, a staunch pro-European. And yet, when he was asked to give his considered advice to the people of Yorkshire leading up to the EU Referendum, his well reasoned newspaper contributions in favour of Brexit came to be seen as a crucial factor in the outcome. It was a stance that surprised a great many, disappointed a substantial number of his old Labour confreres, but ultimately won the day by its cogency, objectivity and insight into how the Europe he had once championed had, in his view, lost its way.