Billa O’Connell obituary: A staple of Cork’s theatrical scene

Veteran Cork entertainer ‘brought a ray of sunshine’ into lives of all who knew him

Billa O’Connell when he received the Freedom of Cork in 2013, in recognition of his cultural contribution. Photograph: Olivia Kelleher

Billa O'Connell
Born: December 25th, 1929
Died: September 23rd, 2021

Veteran Cork entertainer Billa O’Connell, who died recently at the age of 91, was, as his funeral mass celebrant Canon John Paul Hegarty observed, a man “who brought a ray of sunshine into all our lives” in a 70-year-long career treading the boards on Cork stages.

Variously described as Cork’s answer to Jimmy O’Dea or Maureen Potter, Billa, as he was known to all and sundry, was a staple of Cork’s theatrical scene for decades, performing year in, year out in the Cork Opera House panto and for more than two decades in the popular Summer Revels show.

Born in the Lough in Cork on Christmas Day 1929, the youngest of six children of William and Julia O’Connell, Billa had an early involvement in pantomime, selling programmes for the pantos at Fr O’Leary Hall at the age of 13 before graduating to play his first dame in Cinderella when just 19.

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As he later told The Irish Times: “There were seven or eight pantomimes every Christmas in Cork at that time and it was everyone’s ambition to make the Opera House. When I did get there, I was rehearsing for my first break when the Opera House burned down.

“That was 1955 and we were rehearsing The Sleeping Beauty, which was transferred to the AOH Hall, which went on fire as well . . . I remember it all too well because I was just after getting married, we hadn’t a bob and we were supposed to be furnishing the house out of the panto money!”

Every Christmas Day, just after the dinner, I'd be upstairs learning the lines

A rep with Beamish & Crawford, Billa combined the day job with a gruelling schedule when the panto season kicked in after Christmas and again six months later when Summer Revels would draw huge crowds to the Cork Opera House as his son Bill remembered at his funeral.

“He had some appetite for work – he would work in Beamish’s until six o’clock, come home, have his dinner, have a shave, take a nap for 20 minutes and then go out and come in again at 11 o’clock, and he would do that night after night for six or eight weeks on the trot – it was a vocation with him.”

That passion for panto was reflected in the tributes paid to him – producer Pat Talbot comparing him to Roy Keane in terms of his dedication to his craft, while the blurb for his 2000 autobiography Just Billa described him as “the Christy Ring of Cork comedy, the pantomime dame par excellence”.

Billa once spoke of his fastidious approach: “Every Christmas Day, just after the dinner, I’d be upstairs learning the lines. Then I’m a stickler for time. Every night of the show, I’ll get to the Opera House at quarter past seven. If I leave it later, I’m not at my ease and it upsets everything.”

His contribution to the theatrical life of Cork was first recognised in 1996 when he was conferred with an honorary Master’s from University College Cork. Almost two decades later, he was again formally recognised for his cultural contribution when he was granted the Freedom of Cork.

That award in 2013 came too late for his great friend and fellow panto star Paddy Comerford, who passed away in 2010, but also honoured with Billa that day with the Freedom of Cork were his fellow thespians and close friends Frank Duggan and Michael Twomey of Cha and Miah fame.

Pat Talbot described him as "astonishing reader of the mood of an audience" and Billa himself often spoke of the symbiotic relationship between actor and audience

A devoted family man, Billa met his wife, Nell Cotter, a dancer, in 1950 when she was playing the lead in Cinderella in Fr O’Leary Hall on Bandon Road. They wed in 1955 and had six children together, with Billa referring to Nell as “Mam” after he lost his own mother while still an infant.

Pat Talbot described him as “astonishing reader of the mood of an audience” and Billa himself often spoke of the symbiotic relationship between actor and audience, whether playing an ugly sister or a goodie, and how he thrived in particular on the response he got from children when performing.

He summed it up when talking to The Irish Times in 1996, ahead of that year’s Christmas panto, Cinderella: “With the children, there’s nothing better than being a granny for the show – you’re a goodie and the children are with you from the start. You wouldn’t swap with any man.”

Billa O’Connell is survived by his widow, Nell, daughters, Mary, Judith, Valerie, Carol Ann, and sons, Bill and Chris. and his 19 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.