Friends of Warriston Cemetery have recently uncovered the headstone of Owen Duffy, a merchant and ‘champion athlete’ who lived from 1848–96. Duffy has been on Spurtle’s radar for some time.
Duffy was born in Ireland, but at the time of the 1891 census he sold china from his business at 45 Carlyle Place. His home was just down the road at No. 1, where he lived with his wife Isabella and four Edinburgh-born children.
Donaldson1 recalls Duffy as follows:
The great Irish novelist, Charles Lever, throughout his works, maintains that the gallant sons of Erin are the most gentlemanly of men, the bravest of warriors, and the most ardent of lovers. That Irishmen are brave in battle is beyond dispute, as also is the fact of their success with the ladies. A ready wit and a continual flow of small talk, uttered with that delightful brogue which Father Magan possessed, is always a sure talisman to the heart of most females. As to the gentlemanly qualification, no better sample could be produced than the worthy subject of this article, Owen Duffy. He was not prone to fighting, however, nor was he in any way a lady’s man. Bluff, straightforward, and manly, with a big, broad smile, Duffy was welcome everywhere. Many a time have the committees of [Highland] games kept back the putting until Duffy arrived, much to the annoyance of his opponents.
He was born in the County Monaghan, Ireland, about 1847. When quite a young man, Duffy came over here, and shortly afterwards joined the Edinburgh Police Force, where he served for many years. We remember him best after he had left the police, and when he had a little hardware shop at Abbey Hill, Edinburgh. Here Duffy was always pleased to see an acquaintance.
‘Ye’re from Glasgow, are ye?’ Duffy would say. ‘Troth I’m glad t’ see ye. Come in, come in.’ And he would lead the way through narrow, tortuous passages among his goods and chattels, spread haphazard outside the counter into the back shop, where every variety of earthenware was piled up in the confusion.
‘There’s scarcely room for ye all, we’re that busy gettin’ in new stock,’ Duffy would remark, waving his arm around the collection, which comprised everything in the line, from the humble cup and saucer to expensive vases.
The dust of years on many of the articles belied Duffy’s statement as to ‘new stock;’ but what did he care? Like Mark Tapley2 he was jolly under all circumstances, and if he were not busy he would not damp the pleasure of meeting friends by detailing his troubles […].
A fine, pleasant man was Owen, honest and truthful, genial and happy in conversation, and witty in repartee. He was an athlethe only in one branch, which was putting, but at that he was a champion, especially with the light ball. He putt a genuine 16lb ball at Falkirk 48ft 6in., on ground slightly down hill. He was said to be at his best from ’69 until ’76, but we have seen him make splendid putting quite ten years later […].
Duffy was a big man, standing 6ft 1 in, in his stockings, and weighing 17st. He was fair haired, had merry blue eyes and ruddy complexion. He wore a trimmed moustache, but no beard, a square plug hat, and black coat. He was smart on his feet,unless when getting into position to putt, when he would waste perhaps ten minutes, making a firm place for his foot, rubbing the ball clean and dry, removing any little twigs or stone which had the remotest chance of being in the way, and, lastly, posing with the ball until he ‘just felt it right.’ Strangers to Duffy and his ‘way’ generally predicted, on seeing him get ready to putt, that was taking too much pains, and that he was doing himself more harm than good by so many preliminaries, but such was not the case. Duffy could not putt at all unless he indulged in his usual ‘preparation’.
Some of Duffy’s putts
Weight Distance Ground Place
15¼lb 47ft, 2in. – Renton
21lb 40ft downhill, a little Tillietudlen
24lb 36ft, 4in. downhill Bridge of Allan
24lb 37ft, 10in. downhill Luss
1 C. Donaldson (1901), Men of Muscle and the Highland Games of Scotland (Glasgow: Carter & Pratt).
2 Mark Tapley – a good-natured character in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.