Cork's beloved Billa remembered at Opera House 

Cork remembered panto legend Billa O’Connell this week, with the Lord Mayor leading the tributes at a special performance of Cork Opera House’s panto, Nanny Nellie’s Adventures in Pantoland.
Cork's beloved Billa remembered at Opera House 

Cllr Colm Kelleher presented Billa’s family with Cork City Council’s Book of Condolences. Picture: Mike McSweeney/Provision

The much-loved performer known affectionately throughout Cork as ‘Billa’, who passed away in September, was honoured in Cork Opera House last night. 

At a special pre-show gathering for the O’Connell family, Cork’s Lord Mayor, Cllr Colm Kelleher, presented Billa O'Connell’s family with Cork City Council’s book of condolences.

Tributes

Tributes were paid by the Lord Mayor, Cork Opera House CEO Eibhlin Gleeson, the chair of Cork Opera House’s board, Tim Healy, and journalist and playwright Declan Hassett.

The Wednesday evening performance closed with a fitting tribute by Cork Opera House’s current Panto Dame, Frank Mackey, and following the performance, members of Billa’s family, including his wife Nell, were invited to view a permanent display of images featuring highlights from Billa’s career over the years.

The late Billa O'Connell with his wife Nell after being conferred with the Freedom of the City of Cork by Cork City council.  Picture: Eddie O'Hare
The late Billa O'Connell with his wife Nell after being conferred with the Freedom of the City of Cork by Cork City council.  Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Billa began his long association with Cork Opera House in 1947 when he made his debut at that year’s panto.

Over the decades that followed, his name became synonymous with Cork panto, and generations of children grew up enraptured by his performances, which consistently drew enormous praise.

In later years, Billa was also conferred with Freedom of the City of Cork and an honorary degree from University College Cork.

Speaking at last night’s gathering, Cork’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Colm Kelleher, said he was privileged, on behalf of the people of Cork, to present Cork City Council’s book of condolences in memory of Billa O’Connell to the O’Connell family.

The late Billa Connell pictured in February 1967. 
The late Billa Connell pictured in February 1967. 

“The outpouring of affection, fond memories, humorous stories and nostalgia for his performances confirms Billa’s place as a most beloved performer and entertainer in Cork.

“I am really pleased that Cork Opera House celebrated his life and work through this exhibition, and pays tribute to him as Cork’s great entertainer and son,” the Lord Mayor said.

Cork Opera House CEO, Eibhlin Gleeson, who spoke on behalf of the venue’s staff, and panto performers both past and present, offer their sincerest sympathies to Nell and the O’Connell family.

“References to Billa have been frequent and fond during the production of this year’s panto, so much so that our wonderful cast have paid tribute in their own way by including a picture of Billa in character on the set,” Ms Gleeson said.

“Our celebrated panto is built on a long tradition, characterised from the late 1940s to the early 2000’s by Billa’s contribution, at the heart of the panto and his legacy is carried on today by our wonderful dame, Frank Mackey, known and loved as Nanny Nellie.” 

Wednesday evening’s performance finished with a standing ovation in Billa’s honour, following which Ms Gleeson concluded: “It was an honour for Cork Opera House to call him one of our own”.

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