Gentle giant, loved by all

By Alice Fleming

It is with a heavy heart this Obituary is written on the sad passing of Desi O’Neill, a loving father, Grandfather, father-in-law, son, brother, nephew and cousin.

Desi passed away peacefully at Altnagelvin Hospital surrounded by his loving family, including some who travelled back from Canada, Los Angeles and Southampton

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Desi was out in the company of his daughter Rachel enjoying a meal when a piece of meat lodged in his throat. Despite the great efforts of staff and paramedics, Desi had to be resuscitated three times and the loss of oxygen to the brain resulted in him being on a life support machine which was switched off on Saturday.

Desi was born on the 15th July 1960, the eldest of a family of four children of the late Gerry O’Neill, {musician} who died recently and Susie O’Neill. He was a loving brother to Paula, Gerry and Ciaran, and a devoted father to Steve, Liam, Gerard, Rachel, Aiden and Feidhlim.

Desi was the eldest grandchild of the late Samuel and Mary O’Neill, late of Ivy Terrace, and the late Benny and Eileen McGrotty, of Strabane Old Road. His untimely death has come as a great shock to all his loving family and friends.

Desi was 14 when the family emigrated to Canada in June 1974. But within a matter of months Desi was back in Derry because he was homesick for his Great Granny Lizzie, his Granny Eileen and Granda Benny and all the McGrotty family. His mum arrived and took him back to Canada but Desi managed to make it back to Derry.

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The next time they tried to take him back he hid down at the Waterside Station and when they missed their flight they relented and let him remain in Derry, realising it was futile to force him to go back to Canada.

Desi was in the middle of college so after completing his studies he worked for some time in a video shop before securing employment at DuPont where he worked for many years until he was forced to take early retirement due to ongoing back problems.

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He then worked in the Shantallow Community Centre, as a caretaker for a number of years. He loved this type of work and interacted well with all the young people; he was a very fun-loving, easygoing person and related to young and old alike. Desi often let the young lads remain long after their allotted time and in doing so made many young friends.

Since his unfortunate accident many of these young people called to see how Desi was; they recalled many interesting stories about him.

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Desi worked as a despatcher for a taxi firm at the Top of the Hill and a taxi firm on the ‘Derry side’, and with his good-natured charm won many friends.

He was very obliging and would not think twice about helping anybody in need. Desi was a gentle giant with a large heart, loved by all who came in contact with him, and this was evident by the large volume of emails, texts, and phone calls received this week since his unfortunate accident.

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It was at an early age that the political situation happening in Derry, and throughout the North at this time, grabbed his attention, and it was inevitable Desi was going to end up in the ranks of the Republican Movement.

He was committed to the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation. Desi was an unwavering, traditional Republican and played an important role in keeping the struggle going. He divided his time between family commitments, work and the Republican Movement, never neglecting his children.

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He was loyal and dedicated within the movement.

He regularly took the children camping to all parts of Donegal and further afield but a large part of his vacations was spent in Fahan in the family holiday home. He was loved and admired by all his younger cousins who often addressed him as Uncle Desi or Uncle Buck. His love of life and family was witnessed in the efforts he put in to seeing all and sundry enjoying themselves. He was forever thinking up activities to keep all the boys amused.

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He took a particular interest in Gaelic Football and his sons played for St Mary’s Ardmore GAA. He followed their successes intently.

He also loved music, though unlike his father Gerry or Uncle Whitey (Hugh), he could not play an instrument. But his love of music resulted in his attendance at many music festivals throughout the country.

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In later years Desi battled mental health problems which effectually left him almost housebound. His loving mother Susie and sister Paula looked after him, ensuring his needs were catered for, as did his devoted sons.

During the recent pandemic and Lockdowns, he was completely housebound. His boys rallied round and saw to his every need, which they catered for as far as was humanly possible.

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All the love and attention Desi gave to his boys in earlier years was reciprocated. In the last year he saw two of his sons, Liam and Feidhlim, get married and was able to travel to Canada to see his other son, Stephen and brother Gerry, narrowly missing out on the ‘Celebration of Life’ festivities held at Glengarry, in July this year for his late father Gerry. His dad’s death affected him greatly, as did the death of his favorite Aunt, Kathleen McGrotty in such a short space of time.

Desi’s passing will leave a great void in many lives.

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He was dearly loved by his immediate family and his uncles, aunts and many cousins and indeed all the many people who came in contact with him over the years.

Desi was the big mannerly man who was on top of every situation. He took no prisoners when he came up against difficult customers.

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His funeral was attended by his three childhood friends, who as children had many escapades together and have remained firm friends until the present. They were often described around the Strathfoyle community as the Four Musketeers.

Desi was well respected by people from all walks of life and this was evidenced by the massive turnout at his funeral. A large number of Republicans attended his funeral and wake. Sympathy messages are flowing in from people the length and breadth of the country.

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Rest in peace now Desi. Your sacrifices for the Republican Movement will always be remembered by those who knew you well.