“Everyone knew Billa, but we were absolutely privileged to know grandad. He was one of a kind and one in a million,” were the poignant words of Bill O’Connell as he paid tribute to his beloved father Billa O’Connell.
The people of Cork gathered this morning to bid a fond farewell to one of its favourite sons, who passed away on Thursday, at the age of 91.
Billa O’Connell left an indelible mark on the fabric of Cork and was best known for his performances in roles such as Dame and as one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.
The parish priest of The Lough, Canon John Paul Hegarty, presided over the funeral mass in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, The Lough, a church the late Billa visited on a daily basis. He was assisted by Canon Jim O’Donovan.
The funeral mass started with Canon John Paul Hegarty welcoming everyone, before symbols of Billa’s life were brought up by family members to the table at the foot of the altar.
The gifts included theatre masks which reflected his lifetime involvement in drama and the arts. Other gifts were a St Finbarr’s GAA jersey which reflected Billa’s passion for Gaelic Games and a family photograph that symbolised his love for his family.
Mr O’Connell’s son Chris and his daughter Carol Ann then performed the first and second readings respectively before Canon John Paul Hegarty gave a moving homily which focused on Billa’s 'God-given talent to bring a ray of sunshine to all our lives'.
"Billa was deeply loved and well respected by the people of Cork and beyond. His career stretched for 70 years. He brought a sense of humour when he was on stage. He will be best remembered for his pantomimes and the joy of laughter he brought to so many people, both young and old alike. To say Billa was a truly gifted man and a master of comedy would very inadequately describe him,” he said.
Canon Hegarty said he will be sorely missed by all who knew him.
“Cork has lost a man who contributed hugely to the arts and culture of our city.
“The people of the Lough Parish will miss Billa. He was a deeply religious man and a man of faith. The greatest loss is to his family. He shared a journey of life with them in a very personal, intimate and loving way,” he added.
The Prayers of the Faithful were then read by his granddaughters Aoife, Carol, Ciara, Amy and Lisa.
Following the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, Mr O’Connell’s son Bill recalled growing up in a household that was full of love and laughs.
“There were two sides to him, Billa who everyone knew, but to us, he was dad and latterly he was grandad.
He was fantastic with the grandchildren who have fantastic memories of him,” he said.
Bill praised his late father for the legacy he has left behind.
“He was a legend within the greater Cork area. He left a great legacy. The talent the man had is definitely legendary. He had some appetite for work. He worked morning and night. He was witty, very quick-witted and known for his caustic lines. His ability to entertain is legendary.”
Bill said his beloved father had four main passions in life, but family always came first.
“He had four passions in life. His family, his faith, entertainment, GAA and predominantly the Barrs. Family was always first. His family was everything to him. He was a proud Lough man and a proud Lough parish man. Everyone knew Billa, but we were absolutely privileged to know grandad. He was one of a kind and one in a million. May he rest in peace.”
The retired Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr John Buckley then said a prayer before Billa’s coffin was taken to St Finbarr’s Cemetery for burial.
The entertainer is survived by his wife Nell, their six children, 19 grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren.