Conor Connelly with his wife Claire at Ballycumber GAA Club's dinner dance in 2018. Pic: Tom O'Hanlon
HIS adopted home and county of Ballycumber and Offaly and home of origin in Creggs, Roscommon were plunged into overwhelming grief last weekend with the sudden death of Conor Connelly.
Just 44 years of age (he celebrated his 44th birthday in January), Conor died while out jogging near his home in Moorock, Ballycumber. A larger than life character with a great personality, he was particularly well known in GAA circles.
A former Roscommon and Connacht footballer, he won a Connacht Senior Football Championship medal in 2001. He also got trials for Ireland for the International Rules series against Australia that year. Ironically, the Leinster squad that beat Connacht in that 2001 Railway Cup semi-final included future brother in law, Colm Quinn.
He was an excellent footballer – distinctive in his younger days with his black hair, he was a flying wing forward with a great work rate on and off the ball, a fearless competitor who would put his head in where it hurt and never held back.
A solicitor, he worked for Hussey Fraser Solicitors in Ballsbridge at the time of his death and he moved to Ballycumber in the 2000s after marrying Claire Quinn, a sister of 1990s Offaly football hero, Colm – he is survived by Claire, their three children, Caragh (11), Rossa (9) and Owen (6), his parents Jimmy and Nora; brothers, Robert, James and Darragh, his sister, Sharon; their wives and partners; parents in law, Stephen and Aggie; brothers in law Colm and Stevie, sisters in law Magali and Amy along with extended family and a wide circle of friends.
After moving to Ballycumber near the end of the 2000s, he immersed himself in his local community, particularly in the GAA but also in other organisations and groups – he was a director of the Ballycumber Leamonaghan Community Developments, who are based in the Barracks in the village, and a member of the Boher National School board of management.
He was assistant secretary of Ballycumber GAA Club at the time of his death and was their manager when they won the Senior “B” Football Championship in 2015.
He had transferred from his home club of Creggs to St Jude's in Dublin when living there and he gave fantastic service to Ballycumber after moving to them in 2007. He was a key member of their team from then into the 2010s as they competed very well in the Senior Football Championship, reaching the semi-finals and putting it up to some of the big guns on several occasions before relegation. He continued playing into his 40s and won a Division 5 Football League medal with Ballycumber last year, coming on as a sub in the final win over Gracefield.
He played in the half forward line and midfield and games he lined out in always made compelling viewing. You just never knew what was going to happen when he was near the ball – he was an excellent runner with the ball in hand and he was teak tough.
Before moving away, he gave vast loyal service to Creggs, starring on successful underage and adult sides with his club or the various amalgamations they formed part of over the years. He also played minor and U-21 football for Roscommon, winning a Connacht minor medal in the early 1990s.
He could also be a controversial character in GAA terms. He played football right on the edge and there were plenty of occasions when he stepped the wrong side of that mark. He would hit opponents hard and he got into his share of scrapes over the years – because of the way he played football, he also took a larger degree of punishment, both physical and verbal, than many quieter players would receive. It meant that he was very much a marked man, both for referees and opponents and he got plenty of provocation.
His football reflected his personality. He was a flamboyant footballer and wore his heart of his sleeve with his focus on winning. Above everything else, he was an immensely likeable person. He was a unique character, full of life and vitality, engaging, compelling company. He was knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects and gave valuable advice to many people in his job as a solicitor.
His football did get him into bother over the years: there were suspensions, plenty of sending offs while he paid a dear price for an incident with Edenderry and Offaly footballer, Sean Doyle at a senior football game in Mucklagh some years ago – a topic he addressed when I interviewed him before Ballycumber's success in the Senior “B” Football Championship in 2015, holding his hands up and apologising publically for his actions.
He made a huge indelible contribution to life in a variety of ways. I did not know him well but always enjoyed watching games of football that he played in.
I have two particularly abiding memories of him:
One was a senior football game in Ferbane in 2008 against Erin Rovers when he could have been sent off half a dozen times but somehow stayed on the field.
I also have vivid memories of that interview when the Ballycumber team he managed got to and won the SFC B final in 2015. I was struck by his openness, his honesty, his wit and his passion. He did not shy away from the hard subjects and his past. It was one of my more enjoyable interviews. He opened up which some people don't really do, talking with great enthusiasm about football and life.
I was in two minds about bringing up a delicate subject such as the Sean Doyle incident myself (knowing that it was part of his story but somewhat nervous about the reaction to a question being asked) but without any prompting he delved straight into it and spoke openly about it. He admitted that he had got sent off more than he would have liked in football, done things he was not proud of doing. I was very impressed by his qualities. I found him to be absolutely captivating company, full of chat, open and easy to listen to with very interesting opinions on football and life in general.
The game in Ferbane mentioned above was refereed by the late Eddie Dunne and he got plenty of stick from friends for a good few months after it, a type of banter that the Ballinagar man gloried in. It was one of the funniest games I was at – I will try and find the match report on it when the Covid-19 restrictions are over but I remember that he could have got a handful plus of cards that evening, both red and yellow as he put himself about all over the place.
Beyond that aspect of his game, however, he was a very good footballer and playing on the edge was probably key to him being so effective. He would galvanise and inspire his team mates with his seemingly boundless energy, antagnoise opponents and his importance to what was a very good few years for Ballycumber has to be acknowledged.
His death was so sad and tributes have flown in for him this week, from Offaly and Roscommon, and St Mel's in Longford, where he was a past student – he won a Leinster Colleges Senior Football Championship medal at midfield with them in 1994 (he is the second member of that side to pass away, along with Leitrim man, Shane McGettigan).
That was an excellent St Mel's team and his midfield partner was former Westmeath footballer, Martin Flanagan from Tyrrellspass. He initially went to Roscommon CBS and moved to St Mel's after getting a scholarship to go there as a boarder. St Mel's were beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final by a star packed St Jarlath's of Tuam side that featured such future household names as Padraic Joyce, John Divilly, Declan Meehan and Michael Donnellan.
He went to UCD in 1994, qualifying in law in 2000 and he made their Sigerson Cup team, playing alongside a future opponent in Offaly's Ciaran McManus, Meath's Trevor Giles, Brian Dooher of Tyrone, Galway's Derek Savage and Mayo's David Nestor. Creggs was a junior club (they had played senior as United Stars with Oran in his early days in adult ranks) and he transferred to Michael Glavey's in 1995 after his father bought a pub in Ballinlough, lining out for them in their defeat in the 1996 Roscommon senior football final. Having got player of the year in Roscommon in 1999, he won a New Engand championship with Boston's Shannon Blues in 1999.
In 2000, he moved to St Jude's in Dublin, playing for them for five years, winning a Dublin Blue Star and senior league medal as well as playing in two championship semi-finals. He had qualified in law at that time and worked for a practice in Dublin for the next decade plus while he spent time in London in 1998, lining out for Western Exiles as they got to the London Intermediate Football Championship final. He finished playing for Roscommon in 2003 and returned to play for Creggs before his final transfer to Ballycumber after he fell in love with and married Claire Quinn.
While he was a proud adopted son of Ballycumber and Offaly and was accepted as one of their own in his new home, his love of his native area and county never left him and remained very much a part of who he was. He was also a very good rugby player in his youth.
In Ballycumber, he immersed himself in every aspect of club life – he was an active committee member, a diligent worker even though he had a hugely busy life between commuting to work in Dublin and his family commitments. He was master of ceremonies at the recent Ballycumber GAA dinner dance where they remembered a Ballycumber intermediate winning side and beaten minor finalists from 25 years ago. His knowledge of those teams and games impressed all on the night. He helped with the formation of St Manchan's Gaels – an underage amalgamation of Ballycumber, Doon, Erin Rovers and Tubber and was a passionate advocate of this set up. He possessed a fine intellect and a sharp legal mind – and he used this to advice the GAA Club when needed, other organisations and individuals who sought guidance on various matters.
His death was a hugely emotive occasion for all who loved and knew him. The Covid-19 restrcitions meant that a private family funeral has to take place but there would have been a “small million” there had it been a normal public one. However, people will have a chance to pay their respects at a special memorial Mass when restrictions are lifted.
The Ballycumber village and surrounding areas was a mass of colour, flags and bunting after the weekend as they paid their own tribute to Conor – fittingly, their blue and yellow colours are very similar to Roscommon's. Locals are also being invited to line the route as the funeral makes its way to Boher Church on Wednesday for 12.00 noon Mass - the cortege will leave his home at Moorock Lodge on Wednesday morning at 11.25 am. They will turn right and travel over the Railway Bridge before turning right again towards Bellair. They will turn left at Devery’s and travel through Killaghantubber, Boher, Liss and Grogan and passing through the Village will turn left to the Moate Road. At Ballycumber Railway Station the cortege will turn left and travel by the GAA pitch and Community Centre before turning right to make its way to Boher Church for Mass at 12 o’clock.
Ballycumber GAA Club urged: “Because of the restrictions imposed because of the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic it is essential that people would show their respect by standing alone outside their property or at a safe location and maintain at least 2 metre distance from everyone else. The Quinn family have requested that the Church Grounds and Graveyard are reserved for immediate family only.”