On call for a lifetime
After 43 years, Noel Duffy’s time as a fireman in Westport came to an end on Christmas Day
CHRISTMAS Day was celebrated across the world last week, but in the Duffy household in Pinewoods in Westport, a day that has always been a double celebration took on even more significance.
Having joined the Westport Unit of the Mayo County Fire Brigade as an enthusiastic 17-year old in 1965, Noel Duffy reached the mandatory retirement age on Christmas Day – when he also celebrated his sixtieth birthday.
And so, quietly, and with his ever-supportive and loving family by his side as always, he switched off his pager for the last time, surrendered his position as Station Officer in Westport to Ger Geraghty, and called time on a career that has seen him attend thousands of call-outs, save countless lives and millions of euros worth of property. And, in 43 years of unselfish dedication to his community, he also became the longest-serving fireman in Ireland.
Joining the Fire Brigade is no easy task today, with an interview process and certain criteria, fitness requirements and training that must be completed before any candidate can be considered. It was different in Noel’s day.
“I was working for my uncle Mick Duffy in his garage on Mill Street in April of 1965 and Jack Corcoran was the Station Officer in Westport at the time. He popped in one day and asked would I be interested in joining the fire service. My late father Eamon was Sub-Station Officer at the time, and both he and Jack and the likes of the late Joe Berry made those early days very easy and comfortable for me, and helped me along a lot.”
The station had one tender and was at The Fairgreen in front of the old school building when Noel joined, and he is easily able to list the changes in training, technology, equipment and facilities that have benefited the fire service over the last four decades. Also notable is the fact that most of their call-outs were to fires on land in Noel’s early days – whereas now they deal a lot with road traffic accidents – and inevitably encounter a lot of death and tragedy as a result.
There were ten firemen in Westport when Noel started and today the number is the same. His father was a member of the fire service when Noel was born, and he spent 39 years serving the people of Westport and was also Station Officer before he retired in 1987. Mattie Reidy then took charge before retiring in 1994 – when Noel was handed the white helmet.
His successor, Ger Geraghty, said there will be nobody to sing a song for the lads now that Noel has retired.
“We had a lot of great days together, I’ve served for 38 years with him and you couldn’t get better than Noel. The Duffys have given huge service to Westport through the fire brigade. Our last call-out was on Sunday [week] and Noel ran into the station as sprightly and dedicated as I remember him doing 38 years ago. He was a fair Station Officer and we never had major problems that we couldn’t sort in-station.”
Ger added that Noel Duffy is a people person and was always on call for everyone and helped so many in his own quiet way.
“It is obvious that he was of the belief that the fire brigade belongs to the community, and we will miss him,” he said.
Noel remembers his first call-out – to a bog fire on a mountain in Ballycroy. He spent over 14 hours roaming the hills beating out fires – a physically demanding incident that he fittingly recalls as a baptism of fire.
The largest fire he ever attended came a few years later when the Westport Textiles Factory was destroyed in 1969.
“I was working in the factory at the time and it was burnt to the ground,” Noel recalls. “The Chief Fire Officer in Mayo back then was Cathal Garvey and he always told us in Westport that if the textiles ever went up the place would be destroyed as the roof was all felt and timber. He was right. We arrived around 4pm on Saturday evening and there was just smoke, and ten minutes later the whole roof had collapsed. We were at the scene of that fire with units from across the county until 1pm on Monday.”
The eldest child of Westport’s largest and one of its best-known families, Noel has lived in the town all his life. As a result he has regularly been to scenes where he knew those affected by the incidents.
“It’s never easy,” Noel said, “dealing with accidents and the deaths and scenes we encounter, but when you are on the job you are not thinking about it, it is when you go home and get into bed that it can start to creep into your mind.”
Falling off a two-storey building in Belclare in 1973 when the pressure in a hose he was using to fight a fire knocked him off a ladder caused Noel to spend a week in hospital. However, this and leg injuries sustained by a colleague several years ago that forced his retirement aside, Noel feels that the Westport Fire Brigade has been lucky over the years in terms of accidents, and he got great satisfaction from the job up to his very last call. He is also very proud of the fact that from when any call is received, no matter what the hour, the Westport unit is mobilised and on the road within five minutes.
“My own lads here in the service made my job very easy,” he said. “They were always excellent and deserve the highest praise. We work as a team and support each other like a family.”
Of course Noel has his own family in his wife Ann, sons Stephen and David, and daughters Ann-Marie and Karen. He is also quick to point out that without their input his job would not have been possible, as before the ‘Campwest’ call-out system was established in Castlebar in 2004, half the calls for the Westport Fire Brigade were routed through the Duffy family home.
Noel’s employers at Carrowbeg College have, he said, always been completely accommodating and understanding of his double life, and in keeping with the Duffy family tradition, he has also been supported whilst on the job by his brother John – who has over 30 years of service – and his brother-in-law Pat Scahill. Just don’t mention the now-legendary soccer rivalries that exist within the close-knit group at Westport Fire Station. It is also no secret that the firemen are always on their best behaviour when Noel’s beloved Manchester United lose!
The Westport Fire Brigade averages around 150 call-outs per year, and Noel has served in four different stations around the town. Last year he was particularly proud to be Station Officer when the ribbon was cut to officially open Westport’s new €2.5 million state-of-the-art fire station on the Leenane Road.
If Noel Duffy tells you he doesn’t miss the fire service, don’t believe him. The camaraderie and routine of the brigade have been part of his life for so long that the vibrations of his pager signalling another incident will inevitably be missed. There were other advantages too.
Recalling that Noel Duffy used to leave in the middle of Westport United soccer matches and arrive at the station in shorts and football boots when he heard the alarm sounding, John Doyle, a long-serving colleague of Noel’s before he too retired with 43 years of service in 2006, remembers an incident involving Noel from the days when firemen were called to the station by an electric bell system which was installed in their homes.
“Noel was itching to get into town one Sunday evening so he went out to the hall and started tapping the hammer that was between the bells, which is the mechanism that rang them. His wife Ann said to him ‘Noel, the bells are ringing’ and he said ‘ya I know, have to go, I’ll see you in a while’. Later that evening Ann met Teresa Berry and asked her if she knew where the fire was that their husbands were called to, and Teresa told her that there was no fire because Joe was up in the house.”
In 43 years he never rescued a cat out of a tree, but Noel vividly remembers one of his most unique call-outs.
“We got a call to attend an incident up the Sheeffrey Mountains in the late sixties and when we got there we found a sheep stuck up on a ledge. We had to extend a 46-foot ladder all the way and tie a 19-foot ladder to it to access the ledge, and myself, Joe Berry, Mattie Reidy and John Doyle had to go up there and get the sheep – which was probably worth less than £1 at the time – down. I’ll tell ya, you wouldn’t look down from the ladder a second time, we could hardly see the fire engine, and you’d never be allowed to do anything like that today.”