Veteran Cork entertainer Billa O'Connell was on Saturday remembered as a man who brought joy to thousands throughout his long career treading the boards, as mourners gathered at his funeral to pay their final respects and sympathise with his family.
Funeral celebrant Canon John Paul Hegarty told mourners at Mr O'Connell's funeral that the popular entertainer and comedian, who died at the age of 91 at Marymount Hospice on Thursday, had touched the lives of so many Corkonians in his 70 years or more as a performer.
“Today is the day we gather to celebrate the life of a man who used his God-given talent to bring a ray of sunshine to all our lives. Not only was Billa, as he was affectionately known, a brilliant performer and a singer, but he was also a true and proud ambassador for Cork, both on and off the stage.
“The one great thing he brought to all of us was a sense of humour, a sense of laughter – peals of laughter were always heard when Billa was on stage and of course, he will be best remembered for his pantomimes, the joy of laughter he brought to so many people, both young and old alike.
"To say that Billa was a truly gifted man and a master of comedy would very inadequately describe him – it was fitting indeed that he was granted the Freedom of Our City in 2013 and he was a worthy recipient of an honorary doctorate from University College Cork. "
Born at the Lough on Cork’s southside on Christmas Day, 1929, Mr O’Connell got involved in Leeside pantomimes at an early age, first selling programmes for the pantos at Fr O’Leary Hall before graduating to performing, and he played his first dame in Cinderella at the age of 19.
He was rehearsing for the 1955 Christmas panto and about to make his debut at Cork Opera House when the opera house caught fire on December 12th that year, but the building was rebuilt and over the next 50 years he became a regular in both pantomimes and the annual Summer Revels show there.
A stalwart of the Leeside entertainment scene, Mr O’Connell was a gifted singer and was well known for his lovely tenor voice and his fine rendition of Beautiful City.
Canon Hegarty said: “Cork has lost a man who during his long life contributed hugely to the arts and the cultural life of our city – he will be fondly remembered by all who knew him and sadly missed by the people of our city and county and beyond.”
Canon Hegarty also noted how Mr O’Connell was deeply involved in the life of both St Finbarr’s Hurling and Football Club and the Lough parish, where he and his wife Nell were regular massgoers.
Mr O’Connell’s widow Nell, his adult children Mary, Judith, Valerie, Carol Ann, Bill and Chris, and his 19 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren were joined by other family and friends for the funeral Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at the Lough.
“Your loss is the loss of someone who shared the journey of life with you in such a very personal, intimate and loving way, your loss is personal to each and every one of you as you recall the memories of a loving dad and granddad, loving husband, friend and companion on the road of life,” the canon said.
Love and dedication
Mr O’Connell’s son Bill spoke of his father’s love for Nell and how the couple had recently marked 66 years of marriage together and he had remained devoted to her until his dying day, referring to her as “Mam” after he lost his own mother while still an infant.
Bill also recalled his father’s dedication to his craft as an entertainer and a performer, working as a rep for the Beamish and Crawford brewery by day for more than 30 years while performing at night for several months each year at Cork Opera House in both the Christmas pantomime and the Summer Revels.
“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.”
Noting that his father continued performing well into his 80s, Bill also recalled his father’s great love of sport and his pride in his beloved St Finbarr’s club, regularly attending games to cheer on the Barrs.
“He was the Lough born and bred and he was a proud Barrs’ man – his granduncle, Willie John O’Connell, was the first captain of the Barrs back in the 1880s and the holder of two All-Ireland medals, and 140 years later there is still a Willie O’Connell wearing that old blue jersey.”
Bill recalled how his father brought his quick wit to bear when he once found himself faced with a hurling conundrum.
“He was at a match in the early 1990s between the Glen and Blackrock – this fellow came up to him and said: ‘Well, Billa, who are you shouting for today?’ Now from a Barrs’ perspective, the Glen or Blackrock is a hard question and dad, quick as a flash, said: ‘I don’t care who beats the Glen, boy!’”
Among the mourners at Mr O'Connell's funeral were Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Lord Mayor of Cork Cllr Colm Kelleher, former bishop of Cork and Ross Dr John Buckley, Cork City Council chief executive Ann Doherty, and several other members of the city council, including Cllr Derry Canty, Cllr Dan Boyle, Cllr Mary Rose Desmond and Cllr Mick Nugent.
Many prominent figures from Cork GAA also attended the ceremony, including former Cork hurlers Charlie McCarthy, Denis Burns and Tony Maher, as well as former Cork footballer Paddy Hayes and former Cork GAA medic Dr Con Murphy.