Sir Patrick Duffy, currently celebrating his 103rd birthday, witnessed the General Strike, survived an air crash while an officer in the Fleet Air Arm, and confronted Margret Thatcher over the Hunger Strikes.
He spoke to Irish Post columnist Kevin Meagher
Born before the partition of Ireland, Sir Patrick Duffy – Britain’s longest-living former Member of Parliament – turned 103 on June 17.
Sir Patrick was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1920 to Irish Catholic immigrant parents James and Margaret Duffy, both from the village of Raith, near Aghamore in Co. Mayo.
The former Labour politician and World War II veteran has certainly packed a lot into his 103 years.
Blessed with a ‘retentive’ memory, he offers a first hand account of the highs and lows of the 20th century. He remembers the bitter General Strike of 1926, when his father, a Mayo man, was a coal miner in Wigan. He also remembers when fascist leader Oswald Mosley came to speak in the town in 1930.
His first visit to see family in Ireland was in 1932, when he was just 12. Éamon de Valera had just become Taoiseach for the first time.
Waved off, he made the entire trip on his own.
“Many of the train stations I passed though are no longer there,” he says.
We’re in Doncaster, sitting in Sir Patrick’s front living room, shaded from the midday sun. He lives next door to his sister, Patsy, in attractive red-brick houses built in the 1930s.
He remembers them being constructed after the family moved to the South Yorkshire coalfield in the 1930s.
His cairn terrier, Millie, is ever watchful. Books, newspapers and periodicals are neatly stacked in front of him, evidence of an undimmed interest in current affairs.
His life has had many parts.
Having enlisted in the Royal Navy at the start of World War II, his talent was quickly spotted, becoming an officer in the Fleet Air Arm.
A flyer, he crashed on a Scottish mountain, spending the night in the wreckage until medics arrived. “They couldn’t inject me with morphine because my veins had frozen,” he says.
He was given the Last Rites. Twice. Yet here he is, eight decades later.
The young Patrick underwent plastic surgery – then in its infancy – to repair his wounds by a surgeon pioneering the practice, and he still has regular check-ups to this day.
With incredible fortitude, he returned to flying.
After the war, he studied at the London School of Economics, later taking a doctorate from Columbia University in New York.
He was elected as a Labour MP in 1963, going on serve as Navy Minister in James Callaghan’s Labour government in the 1970s.
In 1981, as news broke that hunger striker Bobby Sands had died, he became the only MP to rebuke Margaret Thatcher on the floor of the House of Commons for her ‘moral bankruptcy’ in not ending the strike.
About his long career, Sir Keir Starmer told me: “Sir Pat has achieved so much through this remarkable life. From serving in the Royal Navy during World War II, to contributing to the country again as a minister in Callaghan’s Government, he has shown time and time again the what public service and sacrifice means.
“With such a long life and career, Pat has seen the best of this country – and the worst. From the general strike in 1926, to Mosley’s hate speeches in the thirties, his dedication to always fighting for working people, even well past retirement, is a true inspiration to all of us in the labour movement. On behalf of the entire Labour Party, we send our best wishes to Sir Pat as he marks his 103rd birthday.”
A popular and effective minister, Sir Patrick found a new role during Labour’s wilderness years in the 1980s heading the NATO Assembly, rubbing shoulders with presidents and prime ministers.
And even a pope.
Brushing aside a group of dignitaries, including the then Italian prime minster, he was taken aside by Pope John Paul and lobbied about aid spending.
Sir Patrick retired from the House of Commons in 1992, only to find himself involved with long-term planning around warships, a subject on which is he internationally respected.
More recently, he completed the manuscript of his latest book, recounting in forensic detail many of the stories of his long and dramatic life.
“I have never retired,’ he tells me defiantly. With regular telephone calls from a wide circle of friends and family, that much is clear.
“Always be purposeful. Always have things in your diary.”
As I leave him, a new television is being delivered at Patsy’s.
And just in time, too. The pair were planning to sit down on Friday night to watch Ireland play Greece.
“If it’s Irish, we want it to succeed!”