'Cork will be a strange place without him' - Billa O'Connell dies

Legendary Cork singer and entertainer Billa O'Connell is survived by his wife, Nell, their six children, their 19 grandchildren, and their 10 great-grandchildren
'Cork will be a strange place without him' - Billa O'Connell dies

Billa O'Connell pictured on the roof of the Cork Examiner offices in February 1967. Picture: Archive

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is among those who have paid tribute to Legendary Cork singer and entertainer Billa O'Connell, who died this morning 

His family have confirmed that Mr O'Connell passed away peacefully at around 6.45am today. He was 91. 

In a statement, the Taoiseach said Billa O'Connell was "iconic" and "quintessential Cork."

"Deep sadness across the country today over the loss of one of our most iconic singers and entertainers.

"Billa O’Connell was quintessential Cork and we will miss him," Mr Martin said.

"My deepest sympathies to his wife Nell and all the family."

Born in the Lough area of Cork city on Christmas day in 1929, he made his debut in the Cork pantomime in 1947. His first performance at Cork Opera House was in 1955.

He later became involved in Summer Revels at Cork Opera House and performed there annually for several decades.

But Mr O'Connell entertained audiences and appeared on stages throughout the country during his career of more than 70 years. He was also a frequent guest on the Late Late Show. 

Billa met his wife, Nell, in 1950 in Fr O'Leary Hall in Shandon, where she had been playing the role of Cinderella in a show. 

The two were married 66 years last Monday, September 20. 

In 1996, he was conferred with an honorary MA from University College Cork (UCC). In June 2013, he was awarded the Freedom of Cork City by then-mayor, Cllr John Buttimer.

Speaking at that time, the Lord Mayor said Mr O'Connell and his co-awardees - Frank Duggan and Michael Twomey - had made "a lasting and indelible mark" on Cork theatre. 

He said the three men were "instantly recognisable" in their native city. "They are the essence of what it means to be Cork. The list of their endeavours is endless." 

'He will live on through his stories'

Billa O'Connell as 'Dame Dolly' getting a nudge from Clarissa the cow on stage during the panto 'Jack and the beanstalk' in the Cork opera house. Picture: Richard Mills
Billa O'Connell as 'Dame Dolly' getting a nudge from Clarissa the cow on stage during the panto 'Jack and the beanstalk' in the Cork opera house. Picture: Richard Mills

Billa O'Connell is survived by his wife, Nell, their six children, their 19 grandchildren, and their 10 great-grandchildren. 

"Cork will be a strange place without him," said James O'Sullivan, one of Billa's grandsons.

"He hung out with Taoisigh and stars, spent a life on stages from the tiniest halls in West Cork to the Late Late Show. 

"He told me once that his biggest regret in life was not taking a photo of Christy Ring and Jack Doyle the day he introduced them: 'I could have flogged it to every publican in Ireland,' he lamented.

"A long, long time ago he penned me a short message in the cover of a book: 'Always take pride in what's written.' 

"I've never really known what he meant, but I often think on it," James said.

"He'll live on through his stories. Please keep his crowd, especially my mother and grandmother, in your thoughts and prayers."

Cork entertainer Billa O'Connell with his wife Nell pictured on the night he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Cork. File Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork entertainer Billa O'Connell with his wife Nell pictured on the night he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Cork. File Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Cork Cllr Mick Finn said Billa was "the doyen of the Cork entertainment scene and had a magical presence on stage." 

"He had a fabulous singing voice and his version of Beautiful City, which was brought out on single, was definitive. 

"I also recall while working in Golden Discs in the early 90s the unmeetable demand for his eponymous album when it came out. His all singing and dancing performance on the Cork Late Late Show in the early 80s is still talked about."

Mr Finn said Billa was also "a mainstay of the Barrs Club and was famously involved with Street League team Croaghtamore for years along with Bro Somers of Sully’s Quay." 

"He will be sadly missed by all his friends in the Barrs and the Lough area - it’s said often but it’s entirely true so say in Billa’s case, ní bheidh a léithéid arís ann."

Paddy Comerford and Billa O'Connell as the Ugly Sisters in a Cork Opera House production of Cinderella. Archive Picture
Paddy Comerford and Billa O'Connell as the Ugly Sisters in a Cork Opera House production of Cinderella. Archive Picture

'He had the power to hold an audience in the palm of his hand'

"His name, just Billa, is sufficient to bring a smiling, maybe tearful memory to mind," said Chair of the Everyman Theatre Board, Denis McSweeney.

"He was, for many Corkonians, our first experience of the magic of theatre across the dazzle of the footlights."

"Whether as a wit, a raconteur, a singer, or a performer, he had that power to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, and to lead them through sadness, disappointment, shock, tears but above all laughter."

Mr McSweeney said Billa was very generous to the young actors with whom he so often shared the stage.

"The theatre in Cork is poorer for your passing, Billa. Thank you."

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