Jury hears Desmond Duffy’s voice after witnesses tell of years of being silenced
‘Big’ Des and ‘Little’ Dessie seen by some as a fun-loving pair, but they lived through many issues
Desmond Duffy is pictured outside the Central Criminal Court in Dublin. Photograph: Collins Courts.
They met at a time when homophobia was rife in Ireland but stayed together as society changed. A proposal to enshrine marriage equality in the Constitution was resoundingly backed in a referendum in 2015 and the pair had planned to be wed in the summer of 2017.
However, their 36-year relationship also endured issues with alcohol and drug use, violence and bullying. An end to their relationship was foreseen by Duffy, but he thought it was he who would wind up dead.
Duffy grew up in Rathmines and attended St Mary’s College. Growing up in 1960s Ireland he hid his sexuality and went out with girls to create a “camouflage” for friends and colleagues.
When he came out to his parents they were supportive but concerned. His father offered to pay for medical or psychological treatment if it would help.
While dealing with such conflict, Duffy began drinking heavily and suffered a nervous breakdown. He went to psychiatric hospital and was offered electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat his sexuality. He declined.
After leaving hospital he stopped drinking for years, but later in life he would occasionally take a glass of wine. He took exception to being described during the trial as Sullivan’s drinking partner.
“I was his partner in life,” he said, “but I wasn’t his drinking partner as I wasn’t a pub person.”
The pair met in April 1980 and the attraction was immediate. Sullivan was outgoing and gregarious while Duffy was intelligent and reserved. They became known as ‘Big’ Des and ‘Little’ Dessie.
One trial witness, Melissa Farrell, said they were like “champagne and strawberries, bacon and cabbage. They complemented each other”.
At the height of the recession in the 1980s, they moved to London, but despite the thriving economy there, IRA atrocities made life difficult for the Irish.
By this time Sullivan’s abusive side had already emerged. In his evidence, Duffy said he did not want to “blacken” his partner’s name, but much of what was said, often by close friends of Sullivan’s, showed him in a poor light.
One witness, Anne Quinlan, described seeing Duffy being repeatedly punched by Sullivan as he drove them home from a wedding in the mid-1980s. Others said Duffy was often not allowed to talk and would be put down by Sullivan.
People asked him over the years why he stayed in the relationship, and Duffy compared himself to a woman who stays with an abusive man. “I covered it up and I denied it and, at the end of the day, I did love the man.”
When Duffy’s parents died his brother, Paul was his only remaining relative. Sullivan did not like Paul, who lived in a unit above them and was described as a “major hoarder”.
Former Lord Mayor of Dublin Mary Freehill remembered Duffy as being concerned for his brother’s wellbeing but said Sullivan wanted to “get this man into a home”.
Witnesses said Sullivan arrived at Paul Duffy’s funeral drunk and danced in the crematorium to a John McCormack song. Melissa Farrell, who knew both men from the beginning of their relationship, said this was the one time she saw Duffy react - telling Sullivan to “shut up” when he had insulted a woman at the afters. Sullivan then dumped a basket of sausages and chips over Duffy’s head.
In the months leading up to Sullivan’s death, Duffy felt things were getting worse. Abusive episodes had been a part of his life, but an intermittent part.
But Duffy believes that years of heavy drinking and cannabis use made Sullivan paranoid, and a diagnosis of prostate cancer in January 2016 “drove him mad”. He started buying the tranquilliser Diazepam on the streets and was prescribed Xanax. He told people that he was going to die of cancer.
His final day showed both sides of ‘Little’ Dessie.
Sullivan invited Lois Farrell to the pub because he wanted to celebrate her birthday. He remembered things like birthdays and had asked Duffy for money to buy Farrell a pair of earrings that he knew she would like.
Later that evening, as they left a pub having had drinks with Lois Farrell, Duffy could sense an outburst coming. Lois Farrell also noticed the tension.
Duffy said the violence started almost immediately after getting home. Sullivan punched him, pulled his hair and insulted his mother. Less than an hour later Sullivan was dead on their kitchen floor.
Caroline Biggs SC told the trial that her client did not want to blacken his lover’s name, but friends of both came forward to tell the truth, because if they did not, then Duffy’s voice would once again be silenced.
The jury heard what he had to say, and found him not guilty of murder.