Des Ryan was Chief Executive of Cyrenians for 25 years. He was a hero and inspiration to many people in the sector, using his many talents to enable the homeless and marginalised to turn their lives around. In this guest blog, Anna Durkacz-Ryan, Des’s widow, shares the story of how they met and of Des’s life before Cyrenians.
Anna worked for Craigmillar Books for Babies for many years. She plays fiddle in a ceilidh band and has turned her hand to singing and writing songs in the past few years, which have been performed by The Professors of Logic and Ravaged Hearts.
Late 1979, I had just arrived in London after having worked in a care home in Brighton for three months. Camberwell, the depths of South London: an alien place to me, a young lass from a comfy Edinburgh childhood, come to work as a volunteer at the St Giles Centre at Camberwell Green.
This is where I met Des Ryan, 21 year old manager of the day centre, in the crypt of a big Anglican church providing support, advice and company for the homeless. Des had started out working here as a volunteer, but had quickly proved his worth as an organiser and campaigner for social justice.
The hardship and poverty of the people who used the day centre, was a real eye-opener to me. Most of the day centre clients were rough sleepers, all were adults, many
were Scottish and Irish, and many had drink and drug problems. Des had already developed an understanding of the benefit system and local authority housing provision, and he worked tirelessly to support those who were ready to be rehoused. In those days, it seemed clear to me that councils had a duty of care to those in need, and that it was carried out. There were so many able young people out there, campaigning to make things better, and Des was one of them. It was in the years of Thatcher, and I had a naive optimism that things couldn’t get any worse.
I had full respect for such a young person taking such responsibility for people’s lives. But then, Des had always been a one for taking on mammoth tasks. Des’s parents had both come over from Ireland just after the Second World War, looking for work. His mother came to work in a hospital in Surrey as a nursing assistant and his father followed. They got married in London and settled in Redhill, where his father worked in a printing factory.
Des was the third of four children, a happy boy who loved football. Life changed immeasurably when his mother died suddenly of liver cancer and his father struggled to keep the family together. Des was only five years old when he first learned how cruel and unjust life can be. Maybe because of his early loss and hardship, early in his life he developed a social conscience. He told great stories about how at primary school he was taught to play football by a nun. He went on to organise charity fundraising events at high school, such as marathon 24 hour football matches.
As often happens when you are young, Des and I went our separate ways after meeting in London. He worked in Leeds for about 10 years, with a homelessness charity campaigning on benefit issues and the anti-poll tax campaign. We met up again and at the time he had just applied for the job of Co-ordinator at Edinburgh Cyrenians. I was planning to move back to Edinburgh, after living in London for several years. Total coincidence, but we never looked back, and as they say, the rest is history.
Although Cyrenians was a huge part of Des’s life, he was a devoted family man and had a lot of time for his children, supporting them in their interests. When our first daughter was born I remember visiting the Cyrenians office at Broughton Place and Des changing Sadie’s nappy on the floor. Later we would take the kids to the farm, and we have many wonderful memories of these visits. For many years, weekend mornings were spent watching kids’ football down at Leith Links and afternoons were spent orienteering and watching athletics. Sport was a major interest, and Des would have been delighted at the fund set up in his name.
When Des started work with Cyrenians, it was a small charity, with a wee bunch of employees. At first I don’t think he had any idea of expanding. It just happened, as the need became apparent. As each new project was planned, he would be totally immersed and hugely excited. Des certainly did not have a long-term plan for Cyrenians, other than that its services would not be needed in the future. He always described himself as an “ideas person” and he certainly came up with good ideas all the time. In another life he would have been a crazy inventor of weird but useful contraptions. As it was, he used his idea-generating abilities to improve the life of the homeless and marginalised.
27th July 2018
Photos: Des with his children and a portrait of Des by his daughter Sadie, then aged 5.