Two months ago, one of Mayo’s most distinguished emigrant sons celebrated his 100th birthday at his home in Doncaster. Covid restrictions meant the celebrations were a little muted, but that hardly mattered to Sir Patrick Duffy, busily working on the second volume of his autobiography.
Still alert, incisive and deeply knowledgeable about the political world he graced for so long, Patrick Duffy’s life has been one of accomplishment and achievement. As a young man, son of a Mayo father and mother, he had no less than five narrow brushes with death as a
fighter pilot with Fleet Air Arm in the second World War. His deliverance he puts down to his deep rooted Catholic faith and his trust in God, never more so than when his plane crashed near Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. It was mid winter, and he lay there for a day and a night before his rescuers found him - to their amazement, he was even untouched by frostbite.
The first volume of his autobiography, ‘Growing Up Irish in Britain - British in Ireland’, was published seven years ago, and its title succinctly captures the latent ambivalence of so many of his background. His parents, James and Margaret, were natives of the village of Aghamore, settling in Wigan in the early 1920s (James had actually worked in the ill fated Maypole colliery as a miner). The family moved to Rossington in Yorkshire where, as a six year old,
Patrick Duffy witnessed the General Strike, which was to leave a lasting impression on him for the rest of his life.
He was of the first generation to benefit from access to higher education, taking a doctorate in economics at the London School of Economics and Columbia in New York, before returning to a professorship at Leeds University.
It was from there Patrick Duffy embarked on a political career, taking a parliamentary seat in 1963 and, apart from one minor blip, serving in the Commons until 1992. (“I spent twenty of my twenty five years in opposition,” he ruefully recalls).
Patrick Duffy was as avowedly Catholic and Irish as he was avowedly ‘old’ Labour. A moderate within the party, he drew the ire of those in the ascendency in the 1980s who advocated extremism, and who almost deselected him as an MP, failing by just five votes. He was always his own man, especially in matters of individual conscience, but also in the ties which bound him to his Irish homeland. His was the lone voice of dissent in the Commons when Maggie Thatcher stridently proclaimed to the house in 1981 that she could not, and would not, countenance any compromise to save the life of the dying hunger striker, Bobby Sands.
But Patrick Duffy’s integrity was recognised and admired by all, ally and foe alike. The fruits of office came his way during the brief tenures of Labour in Government - he served as Parliamentary Private Secretary at Defence, and was appointed Minister for the Navy, where
his office in the Admiralty was that once occupied by Churchill.
He was first President of the NATO Assembly, and lead the first western delegation to the Kremlin in 1989, going on to chair the historic conference at Westminster when the Warsaw Pact nations symbolically ended the Cold War.
He received his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in 1991 for his much lauded contribution to the Western Alliance, a year after meeting Pope John Paul in private audience at the Vatican.
And there is one further honour which yet awaits Sir Patrick. A dedicated admirer of the Mayo Emigrant Liaison Committee (as he is of the Mayo Peace Park in Castlebar), he has been nominated to receive the John Kennedy International Diaspora Award on his next visit to his second home in Roscommon.