Communities gather together in an emotional tribute to Conor

Our man Frank on an emotional memorial service for Conor Connelly, two years on; More on Athleague footpath (plus carnival memories); and praising Justice Minister’s move on sentencing…

It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and, in common with hundreds of others, I find myself in the little Offaly village of Ballycumber, where a memorial service is taking place for the late Conor Connelly, a man whose untimely death two years ago shocked and stunned so many communities and sports clubs right across the whole country.

  March 28th, 2020, was a day a lot of us will never forget, when the news of his sudden passing began to filter through, and as Covid-19 was just beginning to take over and a full lockdown was in place, the fact that none of us could even go to his funeral was something that is still hard to come to terms with. The scene as we all lined the street of Creggs to try to pay our respects as the Connelly family left on their heartbreaking journey to Conor’s funeral will live long in our memories.

  And so, two years later, to finally be able to come together and give Conor the farewell he deserved was just so special. In my long time on this earth, I cannot remember or recall a more emotional, touching, or fitting memorial service. There were people there from all the Gaelic football clubs he played with during his long and distinguished playing career, and his intercounty career was acknowledged by the attendance of several of his former Roscommon county colleagues.

  However it wasn’t just as a footballer that Conor made his mark; his involvement in all types of community activities everywhere he went was acknowledged by the presence of people of all walks of life from Creggs, Ballinlough, Dublin, Ballycumber, and many other places. Above all, he was remembered as a wonderful husband, father, brother, son, and family man.

  There were speeches by his wife Claire, his friend Michael Ryan, and one of his work colleagues, whose name escapes me. All were beautiful tributes to a man who inspired and touched the lives of so many, but the delivery by his brother Darragh was one of the best I have ever heard. Every aspect of his and Conor’s lives together were touched upon, and again it will live long in the memories of those of us who were lucky enough to be there.

  The people of Ballycumber excelled themselves with Roscommon flags flying all around the parish, while the ceremony – with wonderful singing from Simon Casey and another singer – was just so beautiful. It made me realise just how much Covid has taken from us over the last two years.

  The crowd was so big that a large number of us couldn’t fit in to the actual church, but there were several chairs left outside for us to sit on and loudspeakers meant we didn’t miss any of the proceedings in the church, where three priests concelebrated the mass. After all was over, everyone (bar Carol and I) adjourned to the local Community Centre, where the very best of food and refreshments were laid on. The many stories about Conor were, I’m reliably informed, repeated over and over until all was finished.

  And so, two years after the sad event, we finally got the chance to bid farewell to our clubmate and good friend Conor. Even though we all still feel the sense of loss at his passing, somehow, as I write this on Monday afternoon, I feel a bit better that we at least finally got to say a proper goodbye.

  May he rest in peace.

More on Athleague footpath…and carnival memories

Two weeks ago, you may recall that I wrote about the new footpath in Athleague after being contacted with some concerns by a couple of readers of this column. Recently, I got a phone call from yet another man who was in total agreement with the sentiments expressed about the unnecessary size and width of the path.

  He also made the point that for years, the people of Athleague had campaigned to get the bridge on the Creggs road widened. Now, without as much as a word, this footpath has narrowed it again. Anyway it seems to be almost completed now, so I suppose whether the Athleague residents like it or not, it’s here to stay.

  Talking of Athleague, another local came across a poster for the 1980 Carnival, which ran from April 6th to 30th, which he forwarded to me. It’s hard to realise now how big an impact the carnival had on local communities.

  There were eleven dances in Athleague, and some of the biggest names in Irish music played there. Geraldine Brannigan, Roly Daniels, Gina, Dale Haze & the Champions, and the immortal Brush Shiels and Skid Row were among the eleven bands to feature that year, with older stalwarts like Maurice Mulcahy and Gene Stuart also strutting their stuff.

  Athleague prided itself on being the first carnival of the year, setting the standards for later carnivals like Ballygar and then Creggs. I can remember many a good night in Mae Fitz’s before heading almost straight across the road to the marquee. Many is the night that I headed straight back again to the warmth of Mae’s kitchen, but that’s a story for another time.

  Anyway, as this man reminded me, they were great days and nights, and whether you agree with the new path or not, I know you will agree that carnival time in Athleague was a very special time!

Getting tough on crime

For many years now, I (among many others) have been amazed, appalled and annoyed at sentences handed down by various judges in cases of domestic violence and even murder. I have often wondered how the judges arrived at their often ludicrous decisions.

  This week’s papers seem to suggest that Justice Minister Helen McEntee feels the same way, and is considering bringing in new powers that, among other things, will ensure that convicted murderers will serve a minimum of twenty years in jail. She is also considering major new sentencing measures for those guilty of domestic abuse and for those who groom children for crime.

  I, for one, applaud her for taking this stance, and hope she gets the necessary backing to implement a system where, as she says, the sentence matches the crime and where there will be a new zero tolerance national strategy on domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence. She also has several other welcome changes in her new justice plan, and all I can say is well done Helen. Maybe at last we have a Justice Minister who really will make a difference!

And finally…

Finally for this week…over there in West Virginia, Merrill Pittman Cooper, who had to drop out of High School in the 1930s, was presented with a diploma more than eighty years later, when he was the recipient of an honorary one last week at the age of 101.

  Cooper had expressed regret at never graduating, and so when his relatives contacted the school, they were only too happy to fulfil his dream, and he finally got his diploma in a ceremony attended by his family. It goes to show that one is never too old!

  Well done Merrill, and heartiest congratulations!