'The Meath people welcomed us like one of their own'

Des Ferguson who was a lifelong Republican, a teacher, an ex-Dublin and Meath footballer and hurler in the 1950s and 1960s sadly passed away this week.

The proud clubman for St Vincent's Dublin and Colmcille's Gaeil's Kells will be laid to rest on Sunday at 1.15 to arrive at St Colmcille's Church Kells for Funeral Mass at 2pm followed by burial in St Colmcille's Cemetery. That service can be viewed here.

Four years ago Dessie and Maire sat down with Jimmy Geoghegan of the Meath Chronicle to talk about their lives and their journey together


It was at a dance in 1949 when it started. When Maire McDonnell and Dessie Ferguson became an item.

Five years later they got married and they're still together, the grandparents of 31 youngsters and two great-grandchildren. They're both 87 now and in their house near Kells one morning last week they sat side-by-side recalling moments from their eventful life together.

There were plenty of laughs too as they tracked back through the years - and invariably the question came up as to what is the glue that has helped to sustain what is clearly a watertight marriage? "You must have something in common, the more you have in common the better," said Dessie.

"We were GAA people and Republicans, we had all that in common, we were at ease with each other." While he said those words Maire nodded in agreement later pointing out that neither of them drank. That, she felt, is an important ingredient in the martial mix. Then Dessie made another contribution to the discussion, an assertion that would surely help to strengthen any union between any two people."There was never a boss. If there was something that needed to be discussed we discussed it as equals."

Devoted...Dessie and Maire Ferguson. Photo by Seamus Farrelly

Dessie Ferguson's family roots goes back to Co Down but it was from there his family moved to Dublin eventually settling in the Donacarney area. Dessie trained as a carpenter but he had other talents.

He was a superb Gaelic footballer and hurler. His talents ensured it wasn't long before he was selected for Dublin teams in both codes. He also played for St Vincent's who back in the 1950s and early '60s were the Real Madrid of the Dublin Gaelic football scene.

Ferguson also proved more than enough to be on the Dublin football teams that won the Sam Maguire in 1958 and 1963. He was also on the Dublin hurling team that lost the All-Ireland SHC final to Tipperary in 1961. No Dublin hurling selection has reached that exalted height since.

In an era when it was unusual for somebody NOT to have a nickname Dessie was given the monikor of 'Snitchie' The name derived from two characters in the then hugely popular comicbook 'The Beano' - 'Snitch and Snatch'.

While Dessie, who had a big head of blond hair, became known as 'Snitch' his brother Brian, who had black hair, was landed with 'Snatch'.

Dessie, who was one of a family of eight, never particularly liked the name but once commentators and journalists started using it he had no chance of shaking it off.

Maire McDonnell came from nearby Marino and was, like Dessie, steeped in the Republican tradition. Her father, John McDonnell, played an active role in the 1916 Rising. He was part of a contingent of rebels who occupied what was at that time a hotel located above Clery's on Dublin's O'Connell Street.

Members of the Ferguson clan at a family wedding (from left) back - Diarmuid, Orlaith (bride), Barry, Terry, Conor, Pearse, Rory; front - Des, Maire, Eimear, Des junior. Photo by Seamus Farrelly

John McDonnell, who worked as linotype operator at the Freeman's Journal, survived that tumultuous week eventually escaping from the fray as the British brought in the heavy artillary to root out the rebels. John McDonnell also played his part in the War of Independence as Ireland descended into chaos.

He didn't fight in the Civil War, added Maire who grew up to become a spirited, strong-minded Republican; something she clearly remains today.

During the 1940s she also became a big fan of 'the Vincent's' as the club blazed a trail of success on the playing fields of Dublin, helped along the way by talented players such as Ferguson and Kevin Heffernan or 'Heffo' as he became known; the man who did so much to revive the fortunes of Dublin football in the 1970s.

"St Vincent's were a very close knit community, they were like a typical parish club," recalls Dessie who had noticed this pretty young woman at games and club functions. At a club event in 1949 and Dessie and Maire became an item.

"St Vincent's used to run a weekly dance in Carlton Hall in Marino and that's where I met Maire." explains Dessie. "He was on the door taking the money and I didn't have to pay in," Maire quickly adds. Cue more laughter, something the couple have clearly shared plenty of over the years.

Chat...Jimmy Geoghegan with Dessie and Maire. Photo by Seamus Farrelly

She laughs too as she outlines how they picked a specific day for their wedding. "Des had matches every Sunday either with St Vincent's, one or other of the Dublin teams, Leinster, Ireland so we had to get married on a Monday and we had to be home by the following Saturday because there was a match. We went to London, it was a big deal to get away".

It hasn't been all plain sailing for the Fergusons down the years. They had 10 children but tragedy struck when one of their eight sons, Ronan, died from a brain tumour. He was just 16.

The family by then had settled in Kells via a couple of years in Oldcastle. "The Meath people welcomed us like one of their own," says Dessie who had also changed careers by the time they moved to the Royal County. He had passed the necessary exams to become a qualified teacher of construction studies, eventually landing a job in the old technical school in Athboy.

Life was good as the big Ferguson clan expanded but there were tough times too. Ronan's tragic passing cast a deep veil of sadness over what was generally a happy household. There were other challenging episodes to be tackled. In the mid 1970s Dessie was arrested and imprisoned on the charge of being a member of an illegal organisation.

There was no court case, no evidence presented insist the couple. The arrest was made under special powers then given to the Garda Siochana with Dessie's one-year sentence handed down by the Special Criminal Court.

"There was, and is, no animosity towards the Gardai," he now adds quickly. "They were just doing their job."

While Desse, who eventually served nine-months of his sentence as a guest of the nation in Portlaoise, Maire was at home looking after their big family but she didn't feel isolated.

"The support was amazing, from all over the world, from Australia and America. People ran dances for us, there was raffles, I was never as well off," she recalls with her customary laugh. "I think Maire was disappointed I didn't get another year," added Dessie his Dublin wit once more contributing to another humorous moment in the Ferguson household.

For a time while the Fergusons first moved to Meath, Dessie continued to stay involved with St Vincent's and Dublin. Eventually he threw his lot in with local club Gaeil Colmcille, helping them to Keegan Cup triumphs in the 1960s. He also had spells as manager of the Meath senior hurling and football teams. One of the players who served under him on the hurling team was Sean Boylan. "He was very committed, he is a hurler at heart," adds Dessie

One of the Ferguson clan, Terry, followed in Dessie's footsteps by playing in two All-Ireland SFC finals in 1987 and 1988, only this time in the green and gold of Meath during Boylan's reign as boss.

It was another chapter in the life of a family that owes its origins to a dance in 1949 when two love-struck youngsters met up and decided they wanted to be a couple - and clearly the sparkle they saw in each other's eyes remains; that sparkle immune to the passing of the years.


Des is survived by his loving wife Máire, children Des, Orlaith, Terry, Eimear, Conor, Pearse, Barry, Diarmuid, Rory, sisters Deirdre, Rita and brother Liam.

Des will be lovingly missed by his large family, his 30 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren, his in-laws and wide circle of Republican and Sporting friends.

May he rest in peace.