‘I’m 87 years young,’ he laughs. ‘I was born on 24 May. Empire Day. The Union flag was flying high over Belfast! Well, the Empire’s long gone but I’m still here!’
Donal has a wonderful laugh, a softly contagious heart warbler which he has been unleashing ever since he first heard my name. He is funny, positive, intelligent and most eager to share the wisdom of his years. He is well known around Ravensdale for playing the pipes at the annual Poc Fada na hÉireann festival up in the mountains of Mourne behind his home.
At times, though, he is grave. Such as when he recounts the events of a cold morning in 1922 when two armed men approached his father outside their family home in Belfast’s Duncairn Gardens and put six bullets in him.
‘At that time the pogroms were on,’ explains Donal. ‘Ethnic cleansing! My father was Catholic and we lived in a Protestant area. These two boys were outside the gate. “Are you Duffy?” “Yeh.” Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Six bullets. But he didn’t fall. He grabbed the gate. My mother heard the shots and she fell down the stairs and came out to him. A wee Protestant girl on the far side of the street went for a doctor and priest. He got two in the chest and three in the stomach and he lost the use of his arm. My mother was only a wee lassie. I was two years old. So that upset the whole apple cart!’
Donal’s father survived the attack but was unable to work for several years. The young boy was dispatched to live with his grandmother in Tyrone. ‘She thought I was God’s gift but really I was a wee rascal!’
Before the shooting, Donal’s father had worked as a miller. In 1926, he went to work at the oat mills in Letterkenny. ‘We lived in a place alongside the river called Rosewood. That was the nicest time of my life. Hunting rabbits, swimming and fishing after school. I was very sorry leaving Donegal.’
Donal left school aged sixteen in 1936. He needed a career and milling was not an option. As he says, the arrival of corn flakes put an end to oats. That said, he still eats porridge every morning. ‘It keeps you fit,’ he insists, adding ‘with cereals you’d get as much out of eating the packet.’
His younger brother, Jack, would later look west and move to Newhaven, New York, where he still lives. ‘He had a better chance because he was the last of us and stayed at school the full length.’
But for Donal, England beckoned. Not least when he was sacked from his job at a foundry in Dundalk when he asked for a pay rise. In the hot summer of 1939, a friend from Donegal got him a short-term job as a bricky in Aldershot. A few months later, Donal discovered the streets of London were covered in something even purer than gold. ‘Come January, the snow came and it snowed for six week and the snow was at least 4 feet deep. The county boss gave me a shovel and a brush and said, “I don’t mind where you go – just shovel’. I went up to a seaside place where they were all colonels and generals, and so on. “Mister, can you clean my path, please?” No problem! Ten shillings and a beer every time!’
By 1941, Donal was working as a metal moulderer at the Ford plant in Dagenham. A good salary put him within reach of a childhood ambition. ‘When I was a wee boy my father used to promise me he’d buy me a set of pipes, but he never had the money! So I found my chance now. I saved enough money – 29 guineas – and ordered a set from Cork. Then the post office in London told me they’d arrived and there was £25 duty on them. I could have gone to Cork four or five times and brought them back for nothing!’
Nonetheless, armed with his new pipes, Donal had a hobby. He practiced by night, much to the pleasure of his room-mate, Paddy Walton, a half-deaf Great War veteran from Cork. ‘He was at the Dardanelle’s. He told me the sea was red with blood. He was ran through the stomach and left for dead. The reason he lived was the Turkish bayonet wasn’t fluted like the European one. So they couldn’t finish you off. It was like a needle. The Turkish Red Cross saw he was still alive and put him aside.’
Like many an Irishman in London, Donal longed for home. But he was wary too.
‘I met this old man from Galway standing outside The World’s End pub singing a wee song, ‘God Bless the Ship that Brings Me Back to the Old Emerald Isle’. He was one of two brothers. It’s a tough life. Very sad. He was a wino. His brother was dead and so we raised a few pounds and dressed him up in a new suit and sent him back to Galway with the coffin. But a month later, he was back again. He said, “It’s forty years since I was in Galway before. Nobody knew me and nobody wanted to know me. I want to be back with people I know.” That’s the sad part of Ireland.’
By 1943, Donal was back in Ireland, kicking a football about with the lads and playing the pipes to his proud father. In 1962, the thirty-seven-year-old met and married Norah, a Dundalk girl twelve years his junior. ‘I wasn’t in a hurry to marry,’ he chuckles. But it is quite clear that Norah, who bore him seven children and passed away in 1998, was the dearest thing he ever had. They already have twelve grandchildren and three great-grandchildren so he can rest assured that his dynasty will survive.
For over forty years, Donal Duffy has been popping through a hole in an old stonewall and out into a magical riverside glade of stately beech, honeysuckle, glacial boulders and rushing waters. In part, this habit stems from his keen paternal interest in forestry. He certainly knows his timber, tapping fallen Spanish chestnuts with a carpenter’s eye, keeping another eye peeled for grey squirrels. But the real method in Donal’s madness becomes apparent when he unveils his pipes and gets down to some serious practice. One wonders what the local bird population makes of it.
Donal Duffy was interviewed in the spring of 2006 and passed away the following year. I am told his copy of 'Vanishing Ireland' was by his coffin during the funeral.
With thanks to Tom Lenox-Conyngham.