Conor Counihan has led the tributes to his friend and fellow Aghada clubman Kieran O’Connor who sadly passed away on Wednesday after a long illness.
O’Connor, 41, died following a three-year battle with cancer, which first emerged when he was diagnosed with a rare bone tumour, Ewing’s sarcoma.
As the 2010 All-Ireland winner fought a third bout of the disease last year, a Friends of Kieran group was established and raised over €300,000 to help cover medical costs.
Counihan, who was manager for O’Connor’s last four years with Cork, commended the dignity with which O’Connor battled cancer.
“The test of any fella is when you’re in your darkest hour. All-Irelands and things like that pale into insignificance. He just managed himself so well over the last two and a half years. He never stopped being out there. Most of the time you met him, you wouldn’t have known there was a whole pile wrong.
“We knew he was suffering physical pain never mind anything else but he was just strong for himself, his wife Sinead and his family (children Isabelle, Ava and James).”
Counihan remembers O’Connor as a ferocious competitor on the field and an unassuming but sociable man off it.
“When the kids came along, he put a massive focus on them. Sinead and them, that’s what it was all about for him. He’d be fairly laid-back outside sport and great company. As a father and a husband, you couldn’t say enough about him.
“He might have got to Cheltenham in November for the craic and there was a few of us involved in an auld horse and he used to get great enjoyment out of that as well. But family was everything for him.
“His family and Sinead’s family have been massively supportive throughout it all. In the context of the GAA, its sense of community and what it can do, one of the positive things that came out of it was how the whole fundraising element developed. What people did for him, he was blown away by that.
“It’s Kieran on this occasion but many families get hit by it. People just rallied around him at the time and one of the great learnings in life is when people are down others are invariably there to help them. There were so many people who wouldn’t be associated with the GAA who lent their support and that meant an awful lot to him.”
Having made his senior Cork debut under Billy Morgan in 2004, O’Connor cemented his position in defence the following season. He was a member of the panel that Counihan led to an All-Ireland title 10 years ago. He started both the 2007 and ‘09 finals as well as claiming three Munster SFC medals, three Division 1 titles and a Division 2 honour.
“He would have been a bit of a rogue growing up,” smiles Counihan. “He was ultra-competitive and crossed the line a bit but that’s what made him, as the fella said. He was just good company, very ordinary, very quiet but he’d fight his corner when he had to.
“He just had speed, that competitive edge that’s essential for a good corner-back. He’d be cocky enough when it came to it. He could burst up the field and get the odd score but it was the speed and aggression that stood to him. He had those qualities in abundance and that’s what made him,
“In the club here, when the going got tough you’d put him on one of the other team’s good forwards and you’d know that was it. The sheer competitiveness he brought every time he went on the field, you knew he would give his all.”
O’Connor and Pearse O’Neill followed Counihan in bringing the Sam Maguire Cup back to the small parish of Aghada and that connection will forever be special.
“You knew their parents growing up and having played yourself and seeing the fellas carry on that tradition that was great to see,” says Counihan. “They brought huge pride to the club.”
Former Down forward Danny Hughes, who faced O’Connor and Cork in the 2010 All-Ireland final, posted on Twitter: “Sincere condolences to Cork GAA, Aghada GAA, his family, friends and team-mates. His achievements were wonderful and his family should be very proud. Rest in peace.”
Ex-Tyrone player Joe McMahon, who would have also lined out against O’Connor, tweeted: “Very sad news. Thoughts and prayers to the O'Connor family. Rest in peace Kieran.”
The Gaelic Players Association posted: “Our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Kieran O’Connor and all within Aghada and Cork. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.”
Funeral arrangements, which will be impacted by coronavirus restrictions, are expected to be confirmed on Thursday.