Farewell Billa, but the show must go on at Cork theatres

In her weekly Theatre Nights column Jo Kerrigan salutes a theatrical great and looks ahead to 
Farewell Billa, but the show must go on at Cork theatres

Billa O’Connell at his beloved Lough.

WE have lost a great trouper in Billa O’Connell, whose memories of growing up in the theatrical tradition, and being involved in pantomimes all over the city, were unrivalled.

Back then, every local hall with some kind of a stage would enthusiastically stage a panto every Christmas, and every citizen with enough cash to spare for a couple of tickets, would attend the lot of them – St Francis’ Hall, the AOH, the CCYMS, Fr O’Leary Hall, and so many others.

Billa knew them all, watched his brothers and sisters head off to take part when he was a toddler, and in time trod those boards himself.

His years at the Opera House are fondly remembered, as are the joyous occasions when he spun yarns and told stories to enraptured audiences.

Here is an excerpt from an interview this writer did with him back in 2000, when he was at the height of his powers as the Opera House Dame.

“This Christmas Day, William Christopher O’Connell will celebrate his 70th birthday - ‘it’s a lovely day to have as your birthday, isn’t it?’

“He will spend it with wife Nell, six children and 17 grandchildren (‘I’ve every one of them spoiled, thank God’), opening presents, getting in the way in the kitchen, having a cheering glass or two, putting his slippers up on the coffee table, and generally enjoying himself in the way that gentlemen of his age are expected to do.

“But on St. Stephen’s Day, Mr O’Connell will slip into a vast and brightly-coloured dress, don an outrageous wig, and leap on stage at the Cork Opera House crying ‘Hallo boys and girls!’

“For William, better known as ‘Billa’, is once more playing Dame in the annual pantomime that is as much as part of the Irish Christmas as ‘Silent Night’. As he has been doing for an unbelievable 50 years.

“It was a passion that started early. ‘I was the youngest of six, three boys and three girls. My mother died when I was just six months old - and didn’t my father do a grand job on bringing us all up? The others were always in pantomimes down in the Father O’Leary Hall and the A.O.H. so the whole thing was familiar from babyhood.

“As soon as I was old enough, I was taken to see all the shows and then later on I’d go down on my own and I’d run messages or sell programmes or anything, just to be part of it. I thought it was the most wonderful world and I still do…’ “

Billa, we know you’re putting all Heaven in a roar right now, and schooling the cherubs in their routines. Down here, we will miss you sorely. Your like will not be seen again.

But the show goes on. The 42nd Cork Folk Festival is now in full swing, continuing right through to Sunday, October 3. Concerts at the Triskel, Folk Fest in the Park, sessions and films all over the place. Check www.corkfolkfestival.com for all the details.

Seamus O’Rourke in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come! at Cork Opera House.
Seamus O’Rourke in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come! at Cork Opera House.

Next Tuesday, October 5, is opening night for the major Opera House production of the autumn, Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come, directed by Patrick Talbot. You’ll already have your tickets secured for that, we hope. 021 427 0022 or www.corkoperahouse.ie if you haven’t.

Decadent Theatre Company is embarking on an ambitious national tour with a 20th anniversary production of Eden by Eugene O’Brien. It opens at the Everyman here on October 6, and at Siamsa Tire in Tralee on October 9, before heading up and around the country. More info on www.decadenttheatrecompany.ie

And finally, a very pleasant opportunity to hear beautiful music at the Glen Theatre in Banteer this Friday, October 1, with the Vanbrugh String Quartet. What better way to spend an evening?

That’s 8.30 pm start, tickets on 029 56239.

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