By Denis O’Hara
DESSIE O’NEILL, arguably one of Antrim and Ulster hurling’s greatest goalkeepers, has sadly passed away, he was 89.
A remarkable natural hurling talent he spent four years in the Antrim minor hurling team – and from 1951 until 1960 wore the number one jersey for the Saffrons.
O’Neill, a civil servant based for a time at Portadown, retired to Ballymena before recently returning to his family members in Belfast. He became a proficient golfer at Royal Protrush and took a proud interest in son Michael’s career as a professional soccer player and Northern Ireland team manager.
Born in October 1933, he once recalled the happiest occasion of his burgeoning hurling career happened when at primary school.
“That was on Sunday June 16, 1946, when I was picked as a 12 year old to be goalkeeper for the Belfast Schools team in an inter-city match at the Corrigan Park Carnival Week. For the first time, Belfast won (3-1 to 2-0) and then presented with gold medals by the legendary Fr Flanagan of Boys Town, USA. He was the Guest of Honour that year for the games at Corrigan. Our team included Pat ‘Battler’ Mullaney. Pat Gallagher, Brendan and Gerry Barry.”
O’Neill progressed to the Antrim Under-18 team, once playing a losing battle with Tipperary in the All-Ireland minor hurling semi-final at Croke Park.
Also in that 1949 team were cracking caman prospects – Robbie Elliott, Seamus Gallagher, Dermie Donnelly and Johnny Coyle.
Dessie is just to the right of the centre of the front row, the player who appears to be wearing a wristwatch
Dessie also featured in both hurling and football teams for his beloved St Gall’s, once reaching the Antrim SHC semi-final but eliminated after a rowdy game against Loughguile at Corrigan Park. O’Neill then was merely 16 years old.
In 1951, when 17, he was named in the Antrim senior hurling team, fronted by seasoned players like Billy Feeney, James McGarry, Barney McNally, Danny Kelly,the iconic Kevin Armstrong, Des Cormican, Robbie Elliott and Donough Forde.
He made his Railway Cup hurling debut with Ulster in 1952, alongside the likes of Colm Lynn, Jimmy Woods, Kevin Armstrong, Billy Feeney and Des Cormican.
O’Neill, always a fiercely competitive player, helped Antrin win the NHL Division Two title in 1956 and the All-Ireland Home JHC in 1959.
All the while he was a stalwart in the St Gall’s team, mostly playing in an outfield role – a side that featured Hugh and Pat Sheehan, Brendan and Gerry Barry, Frank Smyth, Owen Boyle and Liam Stewart.
His work move to Portadown meant a transfer to Armagh Cuchulians hurling team and then competing for Armagh in some NHL fixtures.
We at the Saffron Gael send our sincere condolences to the O’Neill family