Kieran O’Connor and friends continue to battle... and inspire

Kieran O’Connor and friends continue to battle... and inspire
The GAA world has rallied around Kieran and his family. Photo: Stephen McCarthy, Sportsfile

A special bucket collection for a special Cork GAA talent takes place outside Pairc Ui Chaoimh on. It is worth your support. Now read on....

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
— Martin Luther King.

So Kieran O’Connor, the former Cork footballer, gets this nagging pain in his ankle. He goes through the ritual. It must be wear and tear, from all that twisting and turning and sprinting. Chasing Gooch and the others.

Rest it. Rub a few concoctions on it. It will be grand. But the pain doesn’t go away. It gets worse. Deep down he knows something else is wrong. Scans, doctors, and then not long before Christmas 2017, a devastating diagnosis. As the word spreads through the Aghada club and community, a hush descends.

Everyone is down. Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Rarer still in people of Kieran’s age. The place is flattened. Not for long. Word soon spreads that Kieran is in fighting mode.

There is a treatment plan in place and he is very positive. The treatment will be severe. Life and Kieran won’t be the same for a while, but if successful, life and Kieran can hopefully return to normal. The club rises again. Sure this is Kieran, he will definitely beat this.

And beat it he does. Eleven months on, the treatment and operations have eliminated the disease, and life has all the signs of returning to normal. Work, which has been very good to him throughout his illness, is looking forward to having him back.

The work van is parked outside his house ready for his return. After the previous Christmas was obliterated, Kieran and his wife Sinead are looking forward to this Christmas like no other.

This one will be special for them, for their three small children, for all the O’Connor family. But his ankle has been swollen of late and he has gone through the ritual. He tells himself he has done too much on it recently.

He’s been away for a weekend and probably damaged it there. More rest and it will be grand. But the pain and swelling isn’t going away and deep down he knows. More scans, doctors, and another devastating diagnosis.

It’s back.

Christmas is destroyed again. Kieran and family go down. So too does the club and community. People are horrified and frightened. Again not for long.

Word comes out from Kieran that lifts his club. Something he had done so many times in his playing days. He has beaten it once and he will do so again.

This time he is given a couple of treatment options. One is a very severe and drastic course. If pursued, life and Kieran will never go back to what he currently perceives as normal.

He is sent home to think it over. His two daughters Isabelle and Ava wrap themselves around his legs and hug his waist. They believe (maybe rightly so) that their Dad is the best Dad in the whole world.

Kieran O’Connor and friends continue to battle... and inspire

Baby James can only wrap his little hand around his Dad’s finger and present a smile that only babies can. The ones that makes a parent want to almost take a bite out of their child, such is the love they feel. Looking at the faces of his beautiful wife and three children, the decision is easy.

Sinead, who has been a rock, keeping the family going throughout this ordeal, isn’t blinking at this point either. Having her husband, her children having their father, albeit without part of his leg, is infinitely better than not having him at all.

The decision is made. Cut it off. The operation is kept quiet outside the family circle and when news spreads through the club that Kieran has had his leg amputated just below the knee, the community sinks again. Yet again it’s not for long.

Yet again it’s Kieran that lifts those around him. It’s a means to an end. His spirits are good. He’s going to overcome this setback as well.

Soon after he gets his prosthetic, he ventures out to his local to celebrate his good friend Anthony Connolly’s 40th birthday party. Being out helps Kieran feel normal, and seeing Kieran out like that again lifts his club. And the scans reveal the disease is beaten for the second time.

But all too soon afterwards, his back is sore. Very sore. He goes through the ritual. I had been lying down too long during recovery after the operation. I jarred it during a stumble getting used to my new situation. A bit of rest and physio and I’ll be grand. But the pain is getting worse, and deep down he knows. More scans, doctors and an even more devastating diagnosis.

It’s back.

For the third time.

And it’s spread to more than one area. This news hits the O’Connors and Kieran the hardest of all. All are down and again a sad silence hangs over the club and parish.

There is no quick bounce this time. Word has it that another good friend of Kieran’s, Willie O’Donoghue, calls but Kieran isn’t ready to see him. He isn’t ready to see anyone. The club remains flattened.

But then it comes. It’s as if Kieran, after staring down at the floor, lets out a long sigh, lifts his head and looks back at his consultants, and even beyond them into the eyes of his disease.

OK I’m ready, let’s dance.

What do I need to do to fight this thing again? He knows also that he now needs, for the first time, to reach out beyond his own close-knit incredible family unit. He needs more help for what is coming. He doesn’t have to reach far.

The Aghada club is mobilised with lifelong friends, forged in the GAA, heading up the charge of club members to form a Friends of Kieran committee. They are quickly joined by Sinead’s friends and extended O’Connor family members.

Charging down the road from Cork come Kieran’s former inter-county colleagues. All of them anxious and willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Kieran at this time of great need.

Graham Canty, of course, is slightly different. In that Cork football dressing room of extremely high achievers, there has always been something about Canty that set him slightly apart from his teammates.

A born leader, happy to be always the first one over the top into every battle, Canty doesn’t tend to stand shoulder to shoulder. He tends to stand one step in front. On this occasion, Graham goes first again.

He does something truly alien to him and opens up to the public at large in a heartfelt Irish Examiner article about his friend and team-mate and lets the public into the collective mindset of the Cork dressing room from that era.

Kieran O’Connor and friends continue to battle... and inspire

This article provokes an enormous response and gives the #friendsofKieran fundraising campaign a massive kick-start. A public 5k walk based in Aghada GAA grounds soon follows where an amazing crowd of over 4,000 people turn up to show their love and support for Kieran and his family. Kieran himself is there, and mingles happily with the crowd.

Now it is working both ways. Kieran’s spirit is again lifting his family, friends, club and community. But he is also being lifted by the incredible shows of support he’s been receiving.

Along with financial support, the well wishes, prayers, words of admiration, praise and love heaped upon him is truly moving. The GAA family countywide and beyond lead a monumental charge of support.

For the next few weeks all Aghada teams — adult, juvenile, camogie, and ladies football can’t play a game without their opponents presenting donations to the fund after the final whistle.

It is unbelievable and heartwarming to witness the GAA family rally together. The support comes from all areas of the country and not just from within the GAA. From groups and organisations and from individuals. And it comes in all shapes and sizes.

Kieran and his opponent continue to dance. Neither backing down. The treatment continues, so does Kieran’s fight. It’s a difficult ask. Very hard to defend. The odds are stacked against him. But hasn’t Kieran been here before...

Outside Páirc Ui Chaoimh tomorrow, before and after the Munster Hurling Championship opener between Cork and Tipperary, you will see the Friends of Kieran group continuing their fundraising effort. The committee, Kieran and his family, thank everyone from the bottom of their hearts for the support, in whatever shape and guise, that has manifested itself in recent months.

Thanks also to the Munster Council and Cork GAA for their support and facilitating this important bucket collection. The fight goes on.

The author is a friend, club colleague and #friendsofkieran committee member

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