Larry Ryan: In Kieran O'Connor's life and death, we keep coming back to the power of community

Larry Ryan: In Kieran O'Connor's life and death, we keep coming back to the power of community
Former teammates lead the funeral cortege of the former Cork and Aghada player Kieran O'Connor through Aghada on Friday.Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“He was a tight corner-back and a good man.” 

Aghada chairman Jimmy O’Leary had pitched it simply, his personal tribute to Kieran O’Connor. The plain intimacy of friendship and community. An epitaph that will survive us all.

As we heard from St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, visible things last only for a time but the invisible are eternal. 

On the day GAA clubs returned to competition, there was this sad funeral of a countyman whose roots could never be pulled up. Long before the country saw Kieran O’Connor run out in Croke Park, his neighbours watched a four-year-old run around in the field in Rostellan.

His friend John Murphy expressed a place’s grief starkly last year when the Friends of Kieran group marshalled their forces to support Kieran in his illness. 

“The word spreads through the Aghada club and community, a hush descends. Everyone is down. The place is flattened.” 

It was Kieran’s own optimism and strength they rallied behind. “Word soon spreads that Kieran is in fighting mode. The club rises again. Sure this is Kieran, he will definitely beat this.” 

Even after his condition worsened, and Kieran lost part of his leg, he leaned on community. “Being out helps Kieran feel normal, and seeing Kieran out like that again lifts his club.” 

Reading it now, the interview for this paper two years ago when his situation became known, Kieran’s optimism is both heartbreaking and beautiful.

Eventually talk drifts past cancer to normality and hope for a Cork football revival. And Kieran’s belief in unity as a first principle.

“It’s still about getting 30 or 35 lads on a panel and getting them to buy into every single element. If you have five, even two, players who throw things out, then you are going the wrong way.” 

Graham Canty, the great captain of Kieran’s All-Ireland winning team, neatly summed up what that unity gave you. “A culture developed where lads craved each other’s respect within the group.” 

He numbered Kieran O’Connor among the ‘one-hundred percenters’ who set the direction in a Cork group that was “the tightest I’ve ever known”.

“He worked hard, was honest to a fault and would do anything for the group over the course of eight years.” 

When a person dies too young, we can’t help search for meaning. As we hug our own children tighter on days like this, you hope that one family’s grief somehow deepens the pool of love that we’re all drawing from.

"The more grace is multiplied among people, the more thanksgiving there will be." 

From the outside, we find our meanings. And in Kieran’s life and death, we keep coming back to unity.

When there has never seemed to be more to divide us, the outpouring of support for Kieran reminds us of the power of community to transcend competing interests.

They will be remembered longer than any trophy presentation, the many donations made by clubs after the final whistle in Aghada matches, when rivalry was instantly forgotten. Same goes for the buckets generously filled in grounds all over the country.

As his club colleague and Cork manager Conor Counihan put it, “one of the great learnings in life is when people are down others are invariably there to help them”.

But as Canty also reminded us, community is ours to build.

"He was someone you could really rely on, whether it was on the pitch or off the pitch. He was a go-to man. If you were in trouble you knew you could confide in him.” 

Reverend Patrick McCarthy, celebrant at the requiem Mass, summed up the community’s loss: “You could say a great violence has been done to us.” 

But he also remembered the famous day of the walk, when this East Cork community was embraced by a wider GAA family.

“He played a massive part in our community, bringing us joy, hope and inspiration. Even in his illness he helped bring out the best in our community and every one of us. The power of friendship and love.

“Our love for Kieran and his love for us has changed us all. He was a gift to us.” 

Clubmate and former Cork All-Ireland winning manager Conor Counihan at the funeral of Kieran O'Connor in Aghada.Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Clubmate and former Cork All-Ireland winning manager Conor Counihan at the funeral of Kieran O'Connor in Aghada.Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The green of his club dotted the church. Canty was inside to pay last respects. How much easier to surmount the problems we encounter as a society if a culture developed where all we craved was each other’s respect.

But football was only one part of this rich, short life.

Kieran’s sister Aisling remembered good times and bad, his great pal Willie O’Donoghue read a poem for a fallen friend. And Kieran’s wife Sinéad spoke of her luck to meet and marry the man she asked to her debs 22 years ago, because he was “sound and I knew you could look after yourself”.

“You loved football and I loved that you loved football, but it never defined you. Great times. Your spirit for Aghada was always so deep in your core. You loved your club and always gave your best. An engine that would run forever.” 

It was a sporting life that bought into every single element.

“Your persistence made your dream of winning an All-Ireland a possibility. You trained so hard, enjoyed the highs and bounced back after the knocks. Best of friends with such a special group with a deep bond. And ultimately you won your own Celtic Cross. Well done you.” 

At the graveyard, a great hush descended. A place was flattened but it was rallying.

The Aghada flag was draped on Kieran’s coffin, his children carried balloons in red and green and white. His Cork colleagues formed a guard of honour.

Kieran’s old Cork teammate Owen Sexton delivered a powerful rendition of the Labi Siffre song, 'Something Inside So Strong'. For a man who became taller, the higher the barriers.

And Aghada stalwart Donal Walsh sang Kieran home.

“And let me tell you that I love you. That I think about you all the time. Aghada you are calling me now. I’m going home.”

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