John Arnold: What a character! Jer is long gone, but he isn’t forgotten...

On Friday June 11, a headstone to Jer O Connor and his family will be unveiled in Gortroe. John Arnold tells us more
John Arnold: What a character! Jer is long gone, but he isn’t forgotten...

A LIFE OF SONG AND LAUGHTER: Jer O’Connor with his mother, Nora. He died in 1969, but John Arnold has arranged for a new headstone on his grave

WHEN most people hear the song The Galway Shawl, they think of the singer Dermot O Brien, who made it famous with his lilting version of the old Irish classic.

O Brien was a brilliant Gaelic footballer, captaining his native Louth to an All Ireland Final win over Cork in 1957. When his sporting career ended he became one of Ireland’s leading Showband figures.

As well as being an outstanding vocalist, Dermot will also be remembered as the country’s leading accordion player for decades. He died in May, 2007, just a few months before the Golden Jubilee of Louth’s great win.

Dermot recorded The Galway Shawl in 1971, five years after his chart-topping hit The Merry Ploughboy. Strange then, isn’t it, that when I hear The Galway Shawl I immediately think not of the Ardee maestro but of a man buried in an unmarked grave in Gortroe cemetery.

Jeremiah O Connor was born at Ballinakilla, Bartlemy, in 1919, to Patrick O Connor and his wife Nora O Keeffe. He was always known as Jer, and mainly as Jer Connors.

He gave a few years in Bartlemy National School and then, as a teenager, he started working as a farm labourer like his father before him. He worked here and there around the parish but spent a long spell working at the Cross of Bartlemy for the Barry and Dooley families.

Jer was a real character and liked his porter at the weekends. Back then, farm labourers generally worked Monday to Friday and a half day on Saturday. Jer would often spend the weekend on the high stool in either Barrys or O Briens public houses at Bartlemy, or maybe at Connells of Leary’s Cross. I was told by several of the older generation around here that no matter what Jer drank of a Sunday, he never missed work bright and early every Monday morning.

It’s hard to define what makes a real character, but whatever are the required qualities, Jer had them in abundance! 

He always seemed to be in good humour and though his health was never the best he was a great worker. I recall here on our farm in the mid-1960s the two bogs we had were drained. McSweeneys of Cork did the scrub clearing with their big machines. They also dug the many drains which were needed to dry out the two fields. The job of placing the red clay drainage pipes had to be done by hand and it was completed by Jer and Paddy Geary who worked here with us.

Though Jer was only in his 40s then, his hair was white, always cocking out from under his cap. That same cap always seemed to be kind of thrown at an angle on Jer’s head.

I’m not sure how he earned the name ‘The Campaigner’ or ‘The Cam’, but that’s what generations of people in these parts called him. I suppose any auld campaign or session or gathering or hauling home, sure Jer would be in the middle of it and the name stuck.

The stories about Jer, his father and uncles, Bill and Tom, are many and varied. One time, maybe in the 1930s, his father, Patrick, applied for a job in Fords of Cork, who were recruiting at the time. Well, about a week later the postman Murley brought a rare letter to the O Connor household, addressed to Mr Patrick O Connor, Glenview Cottage, Ballinakilla, Bartlemy, Fermoy, Co. Cork.

Well, when the letter came, Pad, as he was called, was ecstatic and said to Nora, his wife: “Put on the kettle there, ‘tis a letter from Fords, surely with a job for me, we’ll be made for life, a job and a pension.”

He kept reading his name and address as the tay was made. He sat there admiring the envelope before Nora eventually made him open it. As he read, his jaw dropped: “Dear Patrick, meet me on Friday night by the Ash Tree near the Limekiln, signed, a girl from Glanworth.”

He was livid and went up to the bedroom where his son Patrick was still, asleep, dreaming of forthcoming romantic encounters. He fumed: “‘Meet me Friday night’ and I thinking I had a job in Fords... ‘meet me Friday night’.” 

Pad never did get the job in Fords.

Young Patrick and another brother, Jim, emigrated to England leaving Jer and his sister Bridget (Biddy) at home. Pad died in 1944 and Biddy got married in Cork city. Jer lived on in Ballinakilla with his mother. She died in 1956.

I can well remember Jer at some function in Bartlemy Hall and he giving a fine rendition of The Galway Shawl.

She worn no jewels, nor costly diamonds

No paint nor powder, no none at all

But she worn a bonnet with ribbons on it

And ‘round her shoulders was the Galway shawl

Jer always sang with passion, as we used to say ‘He gave it fong’. Now, maybe he sang other songs too, but ‘the Shawl’ was really his party piece.

Back in the 1960s, when hay was to be saved, different farm labourers would help out in various farms. I remember Paddy and Jer and Tom Cahill and Charlie Cullinane making up hay above in the Long Field one summer. Another year mam and Mrs Winnie Ryan fenced both sides of the Knoppoge river which divided our farms. For that job of work — driving stakes and putting up barbed wire — Paddy was aided and abetted by Jer and Dan Dooley. There was great fun and laughter along the Glen when that work was going on!

The week Jer died in June, 1969, Mrs Johannah Lynch also died in the parish — she was 98 and I couldn’t believe that Jer was only 50, he looked much older. Jer ‘The Campaigner’ O Connor was buried in Gortroe cemetery on Wednesday June, 11, 1969, all of 52 years ago.

No-one knows when the O Connor family first ‘took ground’ in Gortroe. Jer’s grandfather Tom died in 1899 and his son James, who was Jer’s grandfather, died in 1917. They could well all be buried in Gortroe but we don’t know and no records of these burials exist.

One way or another, there was never a headstone of any kind marking the O Connor grave. Luckily, the late Dan Lane, the caretaker of Gortroe, had shown me the grave and Paddy Geary had also pointed it out to me. 

So, on Friday of next week, June 11, a headstone to Jer and his family will be unveiled in Gortroe. After all these years, I felt ‘The Campaigner’s final resting place should be marked. Jer’s nephew was delighted to get involved in the project.

On the headstone is just Jer’s name. I have, however, added a little QR code on the headstone. Using modern technology, anyone with a Smart Phone — and I’m not yet in that cohort — will be able to scan the code and read all about the O Connor and O Keeffe families.

I have a few pictures of Jer, his Birth and Death Certs, a video clip of him at the opening of Bartlemy Hall in 1963 and a few yarns too! If more information comes to hand it can be added to the ‘file’ as time goes by.

Characters like Jer Connors were part and parcel of my youth — I think of Fagin and Dave Ryan and Jack Shea, ah yes we wont see their likes again. Yes, they are gone, but now, at last, we can say that Jer is not forgotten.

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