Billa: An icon, and Cork’s master of comedy

Cork pantomime supremo CATHERINE MAHON BUCKLEY pays tribute to Billa O’Connell, the legendary Cork panto and stage star, who died yesterday
Billa: An icon, and Cork’s master of comedy

LEGEND: Billa O’Connell with a sculpture of himself in The Crystal Bar, Gillabbey Street, Cork, in 2000

BILLA O’Connell, who died yesterday, was affectionately known to Cork audiences ‘Our Billa’. He was the Master of Comedy.

He was adored by audiences in Cork and beyond through his many characters on the stage.

The roar of laughter in the theatre when he was on stage was incredible. 

You had to salute him, there was never any smuttiness to his performance, he had no time for those types of jokes.

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

Billa’s type of comedy was neither silly nor of the slap-stick category, but his simple acting and serious humour brought endless laughter.

What I loved about him was the way he could come off script from the other actors while on stage and engage with the audience with great banter, particularly if he knew someone in the audience. Then he’d turn to his fellow actors and say “Where was I?” and carry on.

Everyone in the audience was waiting for that particular line and, would you believe it, it always ended with an applause.

Our Billa introduced generations to their first experience of the pure magic of theatre - the pantomime. He was known in the panto world as the Queen of Panto. His performances had the power to hold an audience in the palm of his hand and to lead them through the laughter and fun experience of “It’s behind you”.

I wonder had it to do with the fact Billa was born on Christmas Day in 1929, was it meant for him to make a lifetime’s dedication, to ensure that children would always enjoy that special time of year?

Oh yes it was!

We take our children to panto because our parents took us, and in this way we are sharing something of our childhood with them.

It is an artform not only enjoyed by children, but parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. ‘It’s Tradition’. Our Billa loved tradition.

He had the gift and observation of his native place and people that enabled him to create a character that was universally recognisable. We all in the community know a Dame character like our Billa.

Billa was very good and caring to young, eager actors too, the actors wondering “Could I ever be like him?” They constantly looked up to him, but Billa had a gift of putting them at ease.

As a young performer playing opposite him, you were in dread with his impromptu additions to the script from night to night.

One young person, and now professional actor, singer, and performer, Michael Sands, grew up in the panto world with Billa. Michael performed in the chorus with the Montfort Singers and under the direction of our great and wonderful Michael Twomey,

He then graduated to the Principal Boy. His last panto with Billa was Aladdin and he remembers with giggle and charm that Billa would say to him: “You remind me, Kid (Billa’s affectionate name for Michael) of a Cork Tony Kenny.”

Michael also described Billa as “great to work with but a stickler for hard work at rehearsals”. Michael was in absolute “awe” of how Billa could control the audience.

“Billa never lost his masculinity while playing the Dame character,” he said. “His make-up was blue eyeshadow, blusher on the cheeks but he always walked and talked like a male.”

The audience, from the young child to the pensioner, knew that he was a man dressed in women’s clothing. That was the art of pantomime, the fun of it all.

In Billa’s era, the pantomime opened on St Stephen’s Day and had a run of 6/8 weeks. The show would close on the second week of February. The dress rehearsal often took place on Christmas Day.

Such dedication to the theatre, but the good news was the St Stephen’s Day performances were booked out six months in advance.

One must salute the great performers who worked with Billa. A special mention to Michael Twomey, Frank Duggan (the great characters of Cha and Miah), Paddy Comerford, Noel Barrett and Pat Sullivan.

After a sell-out pantomime run, these performers would then begin the preparation for the wonderful variety show Summer Revels, which played for six to eight weeks in the summer - completely booked out. What an achievement!

One must remember, while Billa was performing at his best, he also worked full-time in the ‘day job’ at Beamish and Crawford, then go home to have to his tea, connect with the family and then out again to entertain people.

You must also remember that panto and other shows in Billa’s era would have been much longer. Panto would have felt short if they didn’t get three or four hours of entertainment.

We must applaud our wonderful performers of this era - the last of a breed.

Our Billa was part of this breed that brought laughter, hope, belief, love and great fun to our communities.

I am very sorry and extremely sad about Billa’s passing. We lost a unique, lovable, wonderful icon.

The Banks of my own Lovely Lee will never be the same again without our Billa.

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