b. 17/11/1889 Gweedore, County Donegal, Ireland. d. 08/04/1969 Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland
James Duffy (1889-1969) was born on the 17th November 1889 in the home of his mother, Catherine Doogan, at Thorr, Gweedore, Co. Donegal, Ireland. His father, Peter Duffy, lived elsewhere, at Bonagee, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, and when he was a few months old, Duffy was sent to live with his father. Duffy was the third son of the couple and he attended a local primary school in Drumlodge, near Letterkenny. His father was employed on a seasonal basis in the agricultural and fishing industries, picking up work wherever and whenever he could and Duffy followed in his father’s footsteps and worked in the fishing industry. Like so many young men from Ireland at this time, Duffy felt his fortunes lay elsewhere and he moved to Glasgow, where he found work in the famous John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank.
Duffy was still working in the John Brown Shipyard when war was declared and he enlisted in the Army on the 1st December 1914, joining the 6th (Service) Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who had been raised in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, in August. The battalion was part of the 31st Brigade, 10th (Irish) Division, the first complete Irish division to serve with the Army. The constituent member regiments were drawn from Ireland’s four provinces and early training took place in the Dublin area. The Division moved to Basingstoke, Hampshire in May 1915, and two months later embarked for the Gallipoli Peninsula, arriving on Mudros on the 7th August. The 10th (Irish) Division later landed on “C” Beach, south of Suvla Bay, and Duffy was soon busy as the battalion went into action.
The 6th Royal Inniskillings were transferred to the Salonika front on the 24th October, and were involved in the fighting of the 7th and 8th December, at Kosturino and then Karajakois, and remained in the theatre of operations until September 1917, when they were posted to Alexandria, to prepare for the forthcoming invasion of Palestine. On the 1st November, the battalion captured Abu Irgeig, and took part in the successful operations of the Third Battle of Gaza. Throughout his time in Palestine, Duffy was kept busy in his role as stretcher bearer and on the 27th December he performed the following act which was to lead to the award of the VC.
While his company was holding an exposed position, Private Duffy (a stretcher bearer) and another stretcher-bearer went out to bring in a seriously wounded comrade; when the other stretcher-bearer was wounded he returned to get another man; when again going forward the relief stretcher-bearer was killed. Private Duffy then went forward alone, and under heavy fire succeeded in getting both wounded men under cover and attended to their injuries. His gallantry undoubtedly saved both men's lives, and he showed throughout an utter disregard of danger under very heavy fire.
Six months after the fighting in which Duffy performed his heroic deeds, the battalion were sent to France and landed at Marseilles on the 1st June 1918. Duffy was presented with his medal by the King in the quadrangle of Buckingham Palace on the 25th July 1918, and later returned home to Bonagee, where he was given a vigorous reception. In the same year, Duffy married Maggie Hegarty, and the couple went on to have seven children and twenty four grandchildren. Duffy was demobilised in 1919, little knowing that he was never to enjoy the luxury of regular employment again. If he did find work it was usually as a casual labourer on the roads or on farms when the harvest was due in, but ill health and the situation in Ireland during the 1920’s conspired against him, which included being kidnapped by the IRA in 1921, because he had served in the British Army and was of a higher profile than many others because of the VC.
It appears that Duffy missed out on several VC events, including the VC Garden Party of 1920 and the service for the Unknown Warrior, due to the non-arrival of the invitations which were incorrectly addressed. The matter was resolved in time for the 1929 House of Lords VC Dinner and Duffy attended the event. In 1934, he took part in the Londonderry Armistice Parade, but his ill health continued to cause problems for him and he was living off a disability pension for malaria and rheumatism of 13 shillings and 6 pence a week, out of which he had to pay 2 shillings and 6 pence for the rent of his cottage in Bonagee. When he was ill, Duffy was sent to Leopardstown Hospital, Dublin, where he received a much needed boost to his income with a weekly grant of 25 shillings from a fund set up by a wealthy American businessman for distressed VC recipients and the Royal British Legion assisted when they could.
Duffy’s misery continued when his wife passed away in 1944, and it is reported that pressure from within the family to sell the VC to the highest bidder may have caused some friction, but Duffy bequeathed his medals, in the event of his death, to his former regiment in 1949. In 1956, he attended the Dublin Festival of Remembrance, where he joined three other VC recipients, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO (1916), Joseph Woodhall VC (1918) and John Moyney VC (1917), and later the VC Centenary celebrations in London. Two years later he was invited to a dinner held in Dublin to commemorate the six Irish regiments that were disbanded in 1922. Duffy was, like many other VC recipients, reluctant to speak of his actions that led to the VC and would often play down the award but the medal attracted attention and on at least one occasion Duffy was visited by Earl Mountbatten during one of his regular summer holidays to Ireland.
On the 7th April 1969, following a long illness, Duffy passed away at Drumany , Co. Donegal, and was buried in Conwal Cemetery, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. He was afforded a full military funeral which was arranged by Major George Shields, Chairman of the Belfast branch of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers Regimental Association, and who had served with Duffy in 1917, and by Archdeacon Louis Crooks, who had become a good friend of Duffy’s. The funeral began at Duffy’s cottage and his coffin had to be passed through the sitting room window and was carried by eight members of the Royal Irish Rangers, led by CSM William O’Neill and the cortege was led by Piper Major James Creggan who played the lament “Flowers of the Forest”. A Requiem Mass was held at St. Eunan’s Cathedral in Letterkenny, and then moved onto the cemetery passing through the town. The shops and offices closed, lorries, cars and buses were parked up on the side of the road and their drivers stood along with the majority of the population in silence as the cortege passed, and it was reported that the only sound to be heard was the clink of the medals of the old soldiers.
Duffy was laid to rest beside his wife and several wreaths were laid before Lance-Corporal J. Maxwell, played The Last Post and then Reveille at the graveside. Duffy left five sons and one daughter and in 1997, one of the sons, Hugh, was buried with his parents. Ten years later a stone bench was unveiled in Letterkenny Town Park on the 10th July 2007 to honour Duffy. His daughter Nellie was present when former Letterkenny Mayor Ciaran Brogan unveiled the bench in one of his final duties in the office.
The VC, 1914 – 1915 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal, King George VI Coronation Medal (1937) and Queen Elizabeth Coronation Medal (1953) are currently on display at the Inniskilling Museum in Enniskillen Castle, Northern Ireland.
LOCATION OF MEDAL:INNISKILLING MUSEUM, ENNISKILLEN, NORTHERN IRELAND.
BURIAL PLACE: CONWAL CEMETERY, LETTERKENNY, IRELAND.
Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, 11th November 2017
James Duffy's medals on display at the Donegal Museum in December 2017