August 31, 2003
The late Sean O'Connell
The legendary Sean O'Connell was laid to rest beneath leaden skies in St Mary's Churchyard, Limavady. His funeral mass was said in the Church of Christ The King nearby by his brother Fr Seamus O'Connell.
The retired Principal of St Patrick's High School, Dungiven had battled cancer for three years but after a brave struggle, he passed away.
Throughout his life he was a man of great dignity and he bore his illness with the same dignity until the end, cared and loved by his wife Margaret and his four children.
The large congregation mirrored his life, family and friends were joined in mourning by large numbers from the worlds of Gaelic Games and education. Teachers, who had worked with him in his thirty plus years in St Patrick's came together to pay their respects to a colleague and friend.
Bishop Lagan and retired Bishop Daly joined with about fifty priests from the diocese for the funeral Mass. The parish priest of Limavady, Fr Michael Collins, a colleague of Sean at St Columb's College from 1949 and a class mate of Fr Seamus, gave a moving panegyric that was also spiced with the humour that Sean would have loved.
The GAA fraternity turned out en masse, players from all decades from the Forties joining with players of the current era in paying their last respects. Among this throng was another Derry legend from the past. John Eddie Mullan who played in the 1947 National League winning team. I noted many of his playing colleagues from the great 1958 team, the great Gribben family all present at the Mass.
Sean was also an accomplished basketball player and also a noted soccer player. It was his ability in the latter sport that saw him fall foul of the 'ban'! He was also a fine golfer and many of his golfing friends were in the congregation.
However, it was his prowess on the GAA field of Ireland that brought Sean the legendary status, not only in his native Derry but also throughout the land. As county chairman Gerard O'Kane said "everyone growing up when Sean O'Connell was playing wanted to be Sean O'Connell."
He began his inter county career with the Derry minors in 1955. Two years later he made his debut at minor level winning Ulster medal in 1958, 1970, 1975 and 1976. He was the top scorer on the 1971 Ulster championship with 1-18. He captained Derry to the Ulster title in 1970 against Antrim and was again the skipper when they lost the following year to Down.
He achieved hero status in 1958 when he scored the winning goal in the All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park against Kerry that took them to the first final. Derry lost that decider to Dublin. In his championship career he scored 11-118 and is Derry's leading scorer in championship football. He was a replacement All Star in 1976.
He won his first Railway Cup medal in 1965 and was successful again in 1966, 1968, 1970 and 1971 when he captained the Ulster team to glory. He played for Ulster on ten occasions on a glittering inter provincial career. In 1972 he helped Derry to beat Galway at Wembley and then Cork in the Whit final at New Eltham.
In Centenary Year he was named on a team of the fifteen greatest footballers never to
have won an All-Ireland medal.
He was on the management team when Derry won the 1965 minor and 1968 U21 All-Ireland titles.
With his club Ballerin the graceful and stylish footballer had a wonderful playing record. He won county medals in 1957 and 1976. In the later years he scored three points in the 3-08 to 2-06 victory over a Ballymaguigan team that had another Derry great Jim McKeever among its stars. The former Derry chairman led the tributes to the Ballerin man when he said "Sean will be remembered as long as Gaelic Games are played in Derry. He was a very classy and excellent player and a personal friend. He was an all time great."
In 1976 Ballerin came very close to lifting the All-Ireland club title. The Sarsfield beat Armagh's Clann na nGael to lift the Ulster title and then Galway's Killererin to reach the All-Ireland final. Two goals from Gerard O'Connell, a brother of Sean and Jimmy Scullen, his brother in law, gave Ballerin a 2-05 to 0-03 lead, but the famed Austin Stacks from Kerry, with John and Ger O'Keeffe, Mickey Sheehy, Ger Power and Cork's Denis Long came back to win by 1-13 to 2-07. Sean had been denied an All-Ireland once again.
After the final Ballerin post Charlie O'Kane penned these lines in his eulogy to the team: 'His name is Sean O'Connell, a famous man is he, He's Ballerin's living legend and the proof is there to see."
Sean had gone to his eternal reward. A fitting tribute was provided some years ago by a young Ballerin contestant in Scor quiz. He replied to the question 'who in history is known as the big fellow?' with the answer 'Please, sir, Sean O'Connell.'
He is survived by his wife Margaret and children, Joanne, James, Marie and Sean. Also mourning his passing are brothers, Rev, Seamus Cahir, Paddy, Gerard, sisters, Marie, Mairead. The funeral took place from the O'Connell family home at Rathmore Road, Limavady, to the Church of Christ the King where Requiem Mass was celebrated in a packed church. Internment followed in St Mary's Cemetery, Limavady.
Go ndearna Dia trocaire ar a anam.
Courtesy fo the Mid Ulster Observer
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