Honour comes century after VC

Nellie O'Donnell getting ready for this year's Remembrance service
Nellie O'Donnell getting ready for this year's Remembrance service

A Victoria Cross winner from Letterkenny will be honoured next month in his hometown, almost a century after his heroics in the First World War.

Private James Duffy served with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in the Great War as a stretcher bearer, and was held in high regard for his achievements.

Nellie O'Donnell visits her father's grave last year with her daughter Evelyn Gallagher

Nellie O'Donnell visits her father's grave last year with her daughter Evelyn Gallagher

As a VC holder he met the Queen and in 1979 was visited by Prince Charles’ great uncle Lord Mountbatten before his fateful trip to Mullaghmore in County Sligo where he was killed by an IRA bomb.

The News Letter spoke to Mr Duffy’s granddaughter Evelyn Gallagher, who still lives in the town which has taken 90 years to recognise his actions during the First World War.

She admits that younger family members had also been “in the dark” about their grandfather’s past.

She said: “He did the full war – 1914 to 1918 – but he didn’t like to talk about it. He was a very humble man.”

Private James Duffy

Private James Duffy

On December 27, 1917 at Kereina Peak in Palestine, Mr Duffy – then 28 – risked his life, going forward alone under very heavy fire to bring two wounded men under cover where he attended to their injuries.

It was this act that saw him awarded the Victoria Cross.

Nellie O’Donnell, who will be 94 in January, is the only remaining child of Mr Duffy. Her daughter – and Mr Duffy’s granddaughter – Evelyn commented: “He kept [the VC] on top of his wardrobe, and it only came out on special occasions. We were told very little about it as children. You’ve no idea how quiet this was kept.

“Whether or not it was because he was living on this side of the border I don’t know. He was spat at in Letterkenny because that’s the way those times were.

“It’s amazing now that we have a plaque going up and there is a bench dedicated to him as well.”

She added: “It’s only as adults we’ve realised his tremendous achievements. After his funeral in 1969 we started to learn of the significance of what he had done.”

She said: “He met the Queen in 1966. He also met the Duke of Gloucester. Before he went to Mullaghmore where he was killed, on his way Lord Mountbatten called in to see my grandfather. Anyone with a Victoria Cross was held in very high esteem.”

Mr Duffy’s granddaughter, who was 17 when he died, remembered singing for the war hero in 1967.

She said: “I sang the Inniskilling Dragoons – it was his favourite song. My mum has dementia and although she might not remember the way to the bathroom, she can remember all the words to the Inniskilling Dragoons.”

She commented of the Victoria Cross winner: “He had a rough time. Two of his daughters died aged 21 and 34. His wife died in her forties.

“My mum is his only remaining offspring.

“She will hopefully be unveiling the blue plaque. She plans to read at it as well.

“It’s at a beautiful location and it will be a very special day. We are very, very proud of him. It will be proud day for the family when the blue plaque is unveiled.”

In 2007, a special seat in the shadow of the UN commemorative wall in Letterkenny recognised James Duffy’s wartime achievements.

Now, a century on from his receipt of the Victoria Cross, an Ulster History Circle blue plaque will be unveiled in his honour.

The plaque – funded by the Ulster Scots Agency – will be located at 9 Castle Street, Letterkenny and will be unveiled at 11.30am on Friday, November 10. A reception will take place afterwards in the county museum at High Road.