Funeral arrangements for the late Billa O'Connell announced

Mr O'Connell, a pantomime stalwart, was best known for his performances in roles such as Dame and as one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.
Funeral arrangements for the late Billa O'Connell announced

Billa O'Connell pictured on the roof of the Cork Examiner offices in February 1967. Mr O'Connell, a pantomime stalwart, was best known for his performances in roles such as Dame and as one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.

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Legendary Cork entertainer and Freeman of Cork City, Billa O’Connell is to be laid to rest on Saturday.

Mr O’Connell, aged 91, died early on Thursday morning. 

The entertainer, who is survived by his wife Nell, their six children, 19 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, has been remembered as an “icon” who was a “master of comedy”.

The Cork man will be reposing at Wilton Funeral Home, Sarsfield Road on Friday, September 24 between 4pm and 6pm.

Just family and close friends are asked to attend.

On Saturday, September 25, at 10am, a requiem Mass is to be held in the church of the Immaculate Conception, The Lough with funeral afterwards to St Finbarr’s Cemetery.

The church will be limited to 50% capacity and the Requiem Mass will be live-streamed on https://www.churchservices.tv/thelough for those who are unable to attend.

Update: Cork City Council has opened an online Book of Condolences following the passing of legendary Cork entertainer and Freeman of Cork City, Billa O’Connell.

Mr O'Connell was granted the Freedom of Cork City in 2013, along with fellow Cork entertainment giants Frank Duggan and Michael Twomey.

Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr Colm Kelleher paid tribute to Mr O’Connell. 

"I’m deeply saddened to learn that Cork has lost another legend, a true ambassador for Cork, both on and off stage.

"Billa left a huge impression on generations of young Corkonians who remember him for his antics as the Dame in the Cork Opera House panto, and many more of us cannot hear the song 'Beautiful City' without hearing his voice. 

"He left an indelible mark on the civic and cultural fabric of our beautiful city. 

"On behalf of the people of Cork, I extend deepest condolences to his wife Nell and his family.”

Members of the public can express their sympathy via the council's website.

Earlier: Cork has lost one its favourite sons today, with the news that theatre legend Billa O’Connell has passed away. 

Mr O’Connell, aged 91, died early this morning. He has been remembered as an “icon” who was a “master of comedy”. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin extended his sympathies to Mr O'Connell's family.

In a tweet, Mr Martin lauded him as one of the country's "most iconic singers and entertainers".

"Billa O’Connell was quintessential Cork and we will miss him," he continued. 

Mr O'Connell, a pantomime stalwart, was best known for his performances in roles such as Dame and as one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.

Billa O'Connell as 'Dame Dolly' getting a nudge from Clarissa the cow on stage during the panto 'Jack and the beanstalk' in the Cork opera house.
Billa O'Connell as 'Dame Dolly' getting a nudge from Clarissa the cow on stage during the panto 'Jack and the beanstalk' in the Cork opera house.

Catherine Mahon-Buckley, of the Cork Academy of Dramatic Arts (CADA), said his ability to captivate audiences was something every performer in Cork hoped to emulate.

“You looked up to him. You thought could I ever be like him?

“I would call him the master of comedy in Cork and certainly my very first introduction to a Dame in the panto,” she told The Echo.

Adored by audiences 

Ms Mahon-Buckley spoke of how he was adored by audiences in Cork throughout his many decades on the stage.

“The roars of laughter in the Opera House when he was on stage was just incredible.

“There was never any smuttiness to his performance – he had no time for those types of jokes.

Billa O'Connell with Paddy Comerford, preparing for their roles as Ugly Sisters in panto at Cork Opera House. Picture: Maurice O'Mahony
Billa O'Connell with Paddy Comerford, preparing for their roles as Ugly Sisters in panto at Cork Opera House. Picture: Maurice O'Mahony

“To me, the crème de la crème of a comedian is if you can make people laugh without resorting to language that is distasteful."

An Echo review of a performance in 1955 captured the high regard in which Mr O'Connell was held by audiences.

“His type of comedy was neither silly nor of the slap-stick category but his simple acting and ‘serious’ humour in the much scripted Maggie (Dame) Murphy brought endless laughter.”

Patrick Talbot, producer, director, playwright, and former actor described Mr O’Connell as “a panto phenomenon”.

“He was to panto what Roy Keane was to soccer as a player: hugely motivated, amazing energy, and total focus on what he was doing in a show.

“And he was an astonishing reader of the mood of an audience and knew exactly what to do if an audience's mood needed boosting.

“I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with him many times and what was always unmistakeable was his sheer joy in performing and making audiences old and young laugh heartily and for as long as possible,” he continued.

Denis McSweeney, Chair of the Everyman Board said Mr O'Connell was, for many Corkonians, their "first experience of the magic of theatre".

"His career on the boards stretches over 70 years, including the old and new Opera House.

"Whether as a wit, a raconteur, a singer or a performer, he had that power to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, and to lead them through sadness, disappointment, shock, tears but above all laughter.

"Born on Christmas Day, 1929, it is plain that he made it a lifetime dedication to ensure that children would always enjoy that special time of year. 

"He inherited the mantle of dame from men like Ignatius Comerford; but he made it his own special role.

"He brought keen powers of observation of his native place and people to render a character that was universally recognisable. 

"The scope and range of his playing, with the odd giggle thrown in, was Shakespearean," he continued.

Mr McSweeney said Mr O'Connell was "generous to young, nervous actors" playing opposite him, "putting them at ease as well as in dread with his impromptu additions to scripts from night to night".

He also described him as a "consummate professional" and "a stickler for earnest work at rehearsal".

"The mantle now passes.

"The theatre in Cork is poorer for your passing, Billa," he added.

Mr O'Connell made his pantomime debut in 1947, performing on stages across Cork in the decades that followed. 

He also performed in Summer Revels at Cork Opera House annually for many years. 

In 2013 he was awarded the Freedom of Cork City.

Mr O'Connell also had an honorary degree from UCC. 

Billa O'Connell handing over a picture of the Old Opera house which was presented to him from the Flying Enterprise complex, to Pat Coughlan, manager The Lough credit union, with Fionnula O'Shea, proprietor Flying Enterprise. /Picture; Eddie O'Hare
Billa O'Connell handing over a picture of the Old Opera house which was presented to him from the Flying Enterprise complex, to Pat Coughlan, manager The Lough credit union, with Fionnula O'Shea, proprietor Flying Enterprise. /Picture; Eddie O'Hare

One of the best in the country 

Activist for the elderly Paddy O'Brien said Mr O'Connell was "one of the best comedians in the country". 

"I knew him for many, many, many years.

"He was a talented man and a natural performer. 

"Apart from his talents on stage he was a very charitable man and many of the charitable organisations in Cork benefited from his generosity."

Billa O'Connell (centre), pictured with Michael Twomey and Frank Duggan when they were were conferred with the Freedom of the City of Cork by Cork City council. 
Billa O'Connell (centre), pictured with Michael Twomey and Frank Duggan when they were were conferred with the Freedom of the City of Cork by Cork City council. 

Aside from his theatrical career, Mr O'Connell spent many years working as a sales rep for Beamish and Crawford.

Billa pictured with wife Nell. 
Billa pictured with wife Nell. 

"He was an excellent salesman with Beamish and Crawford. 

"Prior to that, he worked for Thompsons on MacCurtain Street. 

"He was a very hard-working man and I admired him very much."

Ms Mahon-Buckley also spoke of Mr O'Connell's great work ethic.

"He would go from Beamish and Crawford in to have his tea and then out again to entertain people. 

"He was extremely hard-working.

"What you have to remember too is that pantos and shows in Billa’s era would have been much longer. 

"People would have felt short-changed if they didn’t get three hours or three and a half hours of entertainment.

"You must applaud these people – the last of a breed.

"I’m very sad to learn of his passing– we’ve lost an icon."

Bishop of Cork and Ross, Fintan Gavin, said he is aware of the support given by Mr O'Connell to so many charitable events in the city and county over the many decades of his stage career.

“He was part of a generation that lit up the entertainment and social life of our community for many decades,” Bishop Gavin said.

“Many of our parishes also owe him a debt of gratitude for his support for fundraising for essential work like church maintenance."

Mr O'Connell is survived by his wife Nell, their six children, 19 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. 

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