Lives Remembered

Pat Deery: Mathematician, computer scientist, educationalist and devoted family man

Pat Deery was chair of the Foyle branch of the University of the Third Age from 2003-06

PAT Deery was among that exceptional first generation of Derry men to pass the 11-plus and win a scholarship to St Columb’s College.

Born in the Bogside in 1940, but moving early to Glenbrook Terrace in Rosemount, he was the eldest of four siblings (Manus, John and Sally) and the first in his family to attend post-primary education.

His mother was confident that he would have no problems and told the authorities that as an altar boy he "knew Latin already".

He turned out to be terrible at languages, but he did excel in maths and technical drawing.

Six years later he graduated with a State Exhibition in maths at the same time as fellow St Columb’s student Seamus Heaney.

Pat with Seamus Heaney and Robert McLaughlin at a St Columb's College reunion in 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of their State Exhibition

Like Seamus Pat had faced early tragedy, his younger brother Manus being lost in a drowning accident just before he was to join him at the school.

Queen's University altered their admission code to allow him to study Maths as a BA, because he didn’t have Ancient Greek, and he continued to explore the subject by staying on to do a post grad.

Pat thoroughly enjoyed his time in Belfast, getting into modern jazz and playing his trombone.

He shared digs with fellow Derry students, among them Phil Coulter, and recounted a group of them buying an old piano in the Markets pushing it the mile and a half up to Queen's.

For his post grad he worked with Fortran on Mainframe computers funded from America. He didn’t know it at the time but it was part of a worldwide NASA effort to do the calculations to put man on the moon – an Irish parallel to the work recorded in the Hollywood film Hidden Figures.

Pat always put family first, however, and returned to Derry before completing this project to walk straight into a job at his old school. He turned out to be a gifted maths teacher.

In a period where the lead-reinforced strap was a major instrument of instruction, ‘Wee Paddy’ didn’t possess one and instead relied upon enthusiasm and logic.

He inspired a generation, if the complements of those taught by him are anything to go by.

Using his knowledge of computing he also brought excitement to senior classes by bringing them to Derry Tech to test out mathematical problems on their mainframe.

He had not intended to stay long, harbouring an aim to travel on to NASA, but all that changed in 1964 when he met Ann, the love of his life, at a 21st birthday party. From then on they were inseparable and were married in 1965.

They bought a house in that different country for a Derryside man – the Waterside, where Ann was from - and two boys, Manus (named for his lost brother) and Kieran, soon followed. He proved himself to be a great father, full of fun, spending plenty of time with his boys.

In the late 1960s, like most of his peers, he took part in the civil rights marches in the city. He attended the fateful October 1968 march where he was pummelled by a water cannon in a shop doorway.

Pat grew up on the same street as John Hume and taught for most of the 1960s in the hut next to him. It was inevitable, therefore, that as a maths teacher he would become involved early in the committee of the Derry Credit Union.

He was there for many years, reflecting his interest in volunteering and his strong desire to give something back to the community.

In the early 1970s two girls, Irene and Aine, completed his family and Pat left St Columb’s to become a principal lecturer in maths and computing at the Tech.

They were difficult years in the city with regular bombs and many checkpoints. He had to walk across town each day to avoid snarl-ups on Craigavon Bridge and taught in a classroom with windows criss-crossed in tape to catch potential imploding glass.

Pat was always grateful, however, that he and his family never had to experience the tragedies visited upon so many.

For 10 years during the long school holidays, the family moved to a simpler life in Donegal. Staying in a three-roomed thatched cottage without running water and with one plug, they became immersed in the farming life of their neighbours: the Upper Annagh Grants.

This involved trips to ‘the moss’ to get turf, up the mountain to get ‘sods’, helping out with the cows, taking in the hay and of course when the ‘wains’ were in bed, slipping out to the hotels in Ballyliffin were there was always a sing-song.

Twixt Foyle and Swilly was a favourite book and the inspiration for many family trips across bog and mountain to see unusual ruins.

He also took up sailing as an activity to share with his teenage boys. Based at Prehen, he quickly became part of the committee of the Upper Foyle Sailing Club.

Ann and Pat also became involved with Marriage Encounter in the city and volunteered to take a leadership role in Youth Encounter and talk to teenagers about married life – no easy thing to put your relationship up to public scrutiny.

They then became involved in the Derry diocesan organising committee for the Pope’s youth mass in Galway in 1979.

During the 1980s his mother Rose fell ill with dementia and he visited her regularly at Seymour House. He volunteered to join the Friends of Seymour committee and stayed involved for 17 years.

With his sons at university he enjoyed almost a second parenthood with his two girls, encouraging their interests in the guitar and crafts and travelling further afield with the family for the first time.

The Waterside Parish expanded into a second church at Gobnascale and he joined its new choir. This was to become an involvement he would continue until his last illness.

At work, he became involved in the first UK committee to develop a syllabus for O-Level computing and in 1988 he took some time out in industry and completed a MSc in computing and education.

Returning to the Tech by 1990 he was deputy director of the institution and heavily involved in significant change as it transformed into the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education (NWIFHE).

There were extensions into the Waterside, an extension of the main campus at Strand Road and the incorporation of Strabane Tech. It was a busy and stressful time, but he coped well, always supported by Ann.

In 2000 Pat retired and became quickly immersed in both the Samaritans and in the development of the Derry branch of the University of the Third Age.

He also enjoyed having the time to enjoy his first two grandchildren (Daniel and Rose) and to explore a wide range of interests, from collecting sun dials to dabbling in stone carving.

He loved gadgets of all kinds, being an early adopter of most new technologies.

As a former maths teacher, a role as treasurer was inevitable at both charities, but at the U3A he also served as chair for three years. His main contribution to the U3A, however, was the management and development of a major extension for arts and sport facilities. Building upon his previous experience at NWIFHE, this was completed after much effort in 2012.

In the late 1990s he encouraged both his daughters, who had followed him into computing, to grab the chance of an IDB funded placement in California.

Aine returned after a few years but Irene stayed on marrying an Irish American and in time two American grandchildren (Thomas and Patrick) came along. This meant many trips to the States and equally many trips back for six week visits.

In the summer his house was filled with children and activity and this only increased when his last two grandchildren (Ciara and Matthew) came along. He and Ann thoroughly enjoyed picking them up from school and being immersed in their life and activity.

In 2006 Pat was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but it was caught early and after a period of radiotherapy he got the all-clear. He said that it made him suddenly aware of his own mortality.

When a different cancer appeared 13 years later and was shown to be terminal, he was philosophical and prepared. He felt that he had been given a life blessed by friends, family and stimulating challenge without too much tragedy. He couldn’t complain.

That didn’t stop him making the most of his remaining time, however, and given a new lease with steroids he embarked upon a hectic schedule of visiting friends, going out to events, reading and getting away for weekends, always with Ann by his side.

He enjoyed Christmas with his extended family and slowed only in the New Year. He took to regular walks around St Columb’s park, recording steps his with his iPhone.

As a mathematician to the end, this had to be calibrated and crossed checked via the loan of a pedometer.

Pat’s enthusiasm, life and good humour stayed with him to the very end, joking with Ann as she nursed him though his last illness.

He died on St Patrick's Day and will be hugely missed by all those who knew him.

Manus Deery

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Lives Remembered