A County Kilkenny man who left Ireland half a century ago; but never lost touch with his beloved birthplace, has died in England at the age of 94. Christened William John Desmond Fitzgerald, everyone called him Des, including his brother Gerry and sisters Mary and Jean, and the customers at Hourigan’s pub in Callan, to which he called whenever he visited his relatives in the town on his annual trips back to Ireland.
Des was born in Aldershot on the 6th of December 1918, where his County Kilkenny father Jack Fitzgerald was stationed for a while after his return from the Western Front where he had served in the Great War. Jack and his wife, Emily Tuersley, brought Des back with them to Ireland where they settled in Bauntha, outside Callan. They later moved to a house at Prologue, at the top of the town, beside where a petrol station now stands. Des’s education began at the school in Kilvemnon, Mullinhaone, where one of his class mates was the mother of the present Bishop of Ossory. After that, he attended the Christian Brothers School in Callan. It was a tough time for school-goers, with a ferocious corporal punishment regime in place. Teachers of both the religious and lay variety enforced a merciless form of discipline. Though a star pupil, Des felt the sting of the leather strap, the bamboo cane, and the flying duster as often as any other pupil. Not that he complained about this treatment, as it was the norm in those days. Des excelled in all subjects and won a scholarship that secured him a place at Ballyhaise Agricultural College in County Cavan. He was accompanied to this renowned institution by schoolmate Jim Walton of Cappahayden.
He travelled back and forth between the college and his home town, where he hurled and played football with local teams. His love of sport he carried with him to the end. He played with a Ballyline team that won the junior county hurling championship in 1938. Though Des didn’t fancy himself as an especially competent hurler, he felt he had luck on his side that day.
The Kilkenny People report on the match hailed his performance on the field as “outstanding”, and “a credit to his team”, a fact which he related in many a retrospective yarn in the decades afterwards. During breaks in his studies, he worked with Callan Co-op, helping on the lorries and in the grain store. His studies completed, he worked in the food industry in a succession of meat-producing companies. Des married his sweetheart Nell, a Cork woman, in 1960 and they moved to Upton Park in East London, where their first and only son, Ronan, was born the following year. At that stage, he was working for Mattessons Meats and he stayed with that company until his retirement in 1984. In 1969, the family moved to Hornchurch, Essex, where Des lived until last year, when ill-health necessitated referral to a care home. Des was never idle. He was always either working or engaged in some form of voluntary or recreational endeavor. A deep religious devotion motivated his service to the local church and he was always to the fore in promoting the faith that was close to his heart. He had a natural aptitude for cooking, and professional chefs were left speechless at his culinary expertise.
He cooked as skillfully at home as for large assemblages at important charity fund-raisers. Word spread quickly of his flair for making the best brown bread in the district and another favorite was a special kind of upside-down cake that people couldn’t wait to get their teeth into. Sports of all kinds held an appeal for him. Apart from keeping up to date on hurling developments back in Ireland, Des loved horse racing and the odd flutter. This was partly inspired by his father’s own keen interest in the Sport of Kings, acquired during his days in war-time Belgium tending to horses. At the Funeral Mass Eulogy, his son Ronan recalled an episode that captured nicely this fondness for the racetrack. After his wife Nell passed away in 2004, Des had spent every Christmas with Ronan and his family in Lambour.
On one occasion, they went to Mass on Christmas morning and their most famous parishioner, the Champion Jockey AP McCoy, was also present. Ronan explained: “After Mass, my father went up to AP who was standing in the car park, shook hands with him, wished him a Happy Christmas and then proceeded to give the great man some advice for the big race the following day. AP was riding Exotic Dancer and was up against Kauto Star, whom he hadn’t yet managed to beat; my father thought that he’d give AP the benefit of his wisdom. I don’t know whether AP took my father’s advice or not but he didn’t beat Kauto Star next day!” During his time in Hornchurch, Des extended the house on several occasions, undertaking the bulk of the building work himself. As Ronan wryly observed, this was no mean feat for someone who could barely change the fuse in a plug when he first came to England! Des made a point of returning to Ireland whenever he could, and made frequent visits to his sisters Mary and Jean, and his brother Gerry. In his later years, the visits were less frequent due to health restrictions, but he still kept returning on an annual basis. He liked to have a drink at Hourigan’s pub in Callan, where he joined in the Sunday night musical sessions, and sang his favorite song, The Fields of Athenry. Shortly after his ninetieth birthday, he sang every verse of it in the pub, to warm applause. Whether on a visit to Ireland, or back in Hornchurch, the song was never far from his mind.
Des was a lifelong cigarette smoker and had made numerous unsuccessful attempts to give them up. A couple of weeks before he passed away, he talked about giving them up again, but decided that with so few pleasures left, it really didn’t seem worth it and that the smoking ban wasn’t for him! His last few months were spent in a care home in Marlborough, Wiltshire. This allowed the family to see him more often. He loved to see his grandchildren Tara and Alex, whose arrival into the world had been a source of immense joy to him. Sadly, in his final weeks on earth, his health deteriorated and he developed pneumonia. Though he survived this, other complications followed. Des died in Swindon on the 11th of April and his Funeral Mass was celebrated at the Church of Christ the Eternal High Priest in Gidea Park, Essex. The Entrance Music drew many a tear and provoked many a cheerful memory too: It was none other than his beloved Fields of Athenry. His remains lie in the South Essex Cemetery in Upminster, but, as anyone who knew him might tell you, Des himself is in “a world elsewhere”, reaping the rewards of an eminently decent and fulfilling life on both sides of the Irish Sea. Des is survived by his son Ronan, daughter-in-law Lisa, grandson Alex, Granddaughter Tara, and his sister, Mary Holden of Green Street, Callan. His wife Nell predeceased him, as did his brother Gerry, of Bridge Street, Callan, and sister, Jean Gillespie of James’s Green, Kilkenny.