Obituary: An appreciation of Hugh Joseph 'Whitey' O’Neill 1937 -  2018

Hugh (Whitey) O'Neill.
Hugh (Whitey) O'Neill.

There will never be another 'Whitey'.

He was the eldest of 14 children and after the early demise of his beloved mother 'Whitey' took it upon himself to help out in any way he could with the raising of the younger siblings.

He could not cook or clean but he could sure give orders. He always ensured that none of the younger ones wanted for money for school or treats.

Everyone knew they could go to 'Whitey' for a ‘loan’, which never had to be repaid and this continued into the present day with Alice’s children and grandchildren.

He began his working life in our father’s Bookies at the top of the Folly, where he shared his time between there and Wee Johnnie’s in Bishop Street. 'Whitey' and Johnny and his two brothers, Joe and Ernie were lifelong friends and many a Sarsaparilla was drank by 'Whitey' and his friends in wee Johnnie’s.

Their friendship continued for decades and to this day wee Johnny is fondly remembered by numerous people from all parts of Derry.

He left the bookies and worked in Corry’s scrapyard before setting up a stall in the Guildhall. He would stand under the sign at Character’s Corner’.

His brother-in-law took him under his wing and set him up with decent merchandise and indeed took 'Whitey' to many marketplaces as far away as Waterford and Limerick.

Many a story was told about him on the market stalls but the funniest one I heard recently was, when they went to Jonesboro Market outside of Belfast.

They were fully equipped with a van full of good merchandise and stalls etc. All traders did very well at this market except 'Whitey' and Spadge. Instead of setting up their stall the two boys took themselves off to Mass and when the other traders found them they were up on the alter with Spadge singing and 'Whitey' accompanying him, and of course, this was the best time for selling, so they had to return to Derry with the van still loaded with merchandise.

He had many interests which included running, both cross-country and marathons; music, which included playing the violin, guitar and the mandolin. He was a good singer and indeed, came first many times in the Boys solo at the local Feis winning the Gregorian Cup beating his, equally talented, brother Gerry into second place but they both went on to win the Boys Duet.

Gerry eventually started playing at the Derry Feis and accompanied the Little Gaelic singers on their many world tours whilst 'Whitey' went on to join a Skiffle group with the late Nellie Herron et al.

He also starred in local pantomimes and talent completions which were a source of great entertainment in the 50/60’s in St Columb’s Hall. Both 'Whitey' and Gerry got the lead parts in a pantomime Gerry playing the prince and Whitey playing the princess, and that is how he acquired the name ‘Whitey’ after the long white dress he had to wear.

The two of them were always squabbling with the result that our parents walked the floor until the last scene was played out each night.

His late mother Mary had a great vocation for 'Whitey' and indeed encouraged him to join the priesthood. He tells the story of getting it rough at the hands of the Christian Brothers so that was for him the ‘priesthood’ well and truly shelved.

The money saved for his vocation was then used to purchase a piano, which my late sister Myra played and often accompanied Whitey and Gerry at the frequent ‘Big Nights’ held in Ivy Terrace which was attended by some of the greatest music talents in Derry too numerous to mention.

'Whitey' was an avid runner and this led to him entering many competitions to raise money for different charities. He ran in four marathons and on his last he walked it with Danny Ogle at the age of 62, having to be nearly carried over the line.

He had a lot of money at stake as 'Whitey' knew most businessmen in the town and always had their backing in raising money for the Foyle Hospice and other charities.

He was very pious throughout his life and made many acquaintances with priests from Derry and afar. Indeed he regarded Bishop Daly as a personal friend and would call on him as and when he felt the need.

I just read a letter from Bishop Daly in which he mentioned the great nights they had in St Columb’s Hall and he always remembers the night 'Whitey' came on stage swinging from a rope during a talent competition in which he refused to give his name and was announced as Miss Concrete and Clay from Killea.

I remember that night also, my late father had bought about 20 tickets for the family to go and support him. He was heard to retort on the way out “And to think I spent a fortune getting that boy music tution”

But it didn’t stop with the Bishops. He wrote to Cardinal O’Fiach enquiring after his health. Eventually he ended up going to see Pope John Paul in Drogheda and had great devotion to him.

He sent monies frequently to the Foreign missions. He insisted on putting up candles for me at every Mass he attended because he thought I was a ‘lost’ soul.

He would come in and say ‘put up a candle for you and I would always reply “hope it doesn’t burn the place down’. Indeed at his wake one of his good friends up the street said that when they entered 'Whitey' for the ‘Person of the Year’ Award, one of his friends said that 'Whitey' was responsible for ‘global warming’ as he had put up that many candles.

'Whitey’s' great love was his music. He played in many local bands, joining the Derry City Showband at the age of 24. He has written a piece where he stated he played with the Bannermen, The Trade Winds as stand-in on occasions, The Imperial All Stars, The Internationals, The Woodchoppers, The Paul Anthony Showband, and lastly Tom and Gerry, a three piece, and he was the ‘And’. He played in Sharrocks Manchester in 1961 and the Tottenham Court Road. Later on, he joined Hair of the Dog.

He also toured Clydebank in Scotland so he had an interesting 44 years in showbiz and he said he enjoyed every minute if it.

He played regularly for charities and his great passion was playing for the Prisoners’ Dependant Fund. He had many friends interned and visited Long Kesh regularly.

His lifelong friend Willie (LT) was incarcerated in Portlaiose and he travelled to see him. Willie’s son is at present being unjustly interned and this bothered 'Whitey' greatly. He was always asking after him. He was honoured when he was asked to play Amhrán na bhFiann every Easter Sunday for Republican Sinn Féin.

Indeed he only stopped this when he developed a touch of arthritis is his fingers. The last time he played one of the strings broke on his fiddle so he calmly left it down and continued singing the anthem to the end.

He took part in many Civil Rights marches attending the one held at Magilligan Strand pre the Bloody Sunday march in Derry. He was greatly saddened by the events of Bloody Sunday, as were most of Derry people.

It was ironic he stood on the platform canvassing for John Hume, while my late father supported Eddie McAteer and I supported Eamon McCann, so once again we must have been the topic of conversation for the neighbours with the windows bedecked with three different candidates. 'Whitey' called us Liquorice Allsorts.

After my father’s death 'Whitey' came to Shantallow to live and it was not long before he had struck up friendships which were to last until the present. He spoke to every one he passed in the street and attended the wakes of everyone who died in Shantallow. He was as much at home here as he was at Ivy Terrace.

He always searched the papers daily for death notices to see if any one of his friends from around the Longtower had died.
Indeed he went to funerals in Tullyally and further afield of old neighbours of Ivy Terrace taking with him his customary Mass card irrespective of class or creed.

'Whitey’s' wake and funeral was conducted in a dignified manner and he would have been proud of the massive attendance both at the house and chapel.

His death has left a big hole in all our lives but secretly I think 'Whitey' mourned our youngest sister Petchie, who predeceased him five months earlier and he grieved sorely so was content that his time was nearly over and he would soon see her.

In death he has got his greatest wish. He united the remaining members of the family and bridged many gaps. I know he is now reunited with our mother and father and Myra, Junior and Petchie, and his thousands of friends who have passed on.