Welcome to the “John O’Connor Writing School” .Please note that the site is currently under construction as of March 2016 . More details for booking various specific events and classes will follow soon.
Portrait , website design and all exhibition and display artwork newly painted and created specifically for the John O’ Connor Exhibition and Celebration of 2015 and the John O’Connor Writing school
John O’Connor 1920-1959:
A personal remembrance of the life and work of the Armagh author of
“Come Day – Go Day”
Fionnuala Gough (née O’Connor)
“He raised himself onto his elbow, and in a sudden, awful, heart-searing flash he knew that … he was never going to see him again.”
Prophetic words from my uncle, the late John O’Connor, in describing the leave-taking of his Uncle Pachy on the train from Armagh en route to London in the 1920s. One can only wonder if John felt that same heart-searing flash, when aged thirty two, he waved goodbye to his father and his brother, on that very same platform- to travel to England, then onto to Queensland and the South Pacific where he tragically died in 1959 from a perforated stomach ulcer, alone, aged 39 in a boarding house in Ayr, never to return to his beloved Armagh again.
John’s family were notified of his death six months later. My cousin Cathy ,who was living in the family home in Banbrook at that time, writes, ‘My abiding memory is knowing something terrible had happened when he died, I just recall someone coming to the door in Banbrook, hushed tones, silence, shock. No talking. No Tears.’
John’s Early Life and Come Day – Go Day
1948 First edition
On the outskirts of Armagh, on the Loughall road, there was a little hamlet of 50-odd little houses built for the workers of Drumcairn Spinning Mill. It was in the Mill Row that John O’Connor was born on 4th April 1920 and here that he lived with his family. His father Johnny was a First World War veteran with shrapnel injuries in his leg and head who worked as a cobbler. They eked out a decent living with John’s mother Kitty running a little shop from her kitchen, selling sweets, tobacco, cigarettes, headache powders and what not. It was a life dictated by the working mill, the river floods and the beauty and simplicity of the lives lived there. The family moved from the Row in 1932, first to the Folly and then to a grand house at 94 Banbrook Hill.
The Mill Row…always prone to flooding.
John left school in the mid 1930s and from then onward he was a prolific writer, producing pieces for local newspapers, a large number of short stories, several documentary programmes for the BBC under the helpful eye of his friend Sam Hanna Bell and his one and only novel Come Day – Go Day. This gentle, evocative novel was first published by Golden Eagle Books Limited in Dublin in 1948 and charts the intricate relationships of the Coyle family, the parents, Johnny and Kitty, and brothers, Eugene, Neilly and Shemie. The Coyles are in fact John O’Connor’s own family with parents Johnny, Kitty, John and his two younger brothers Tommy and Pat. It is the story of a family in a poor but close knit community, in the Mill Row, Armagh. It captures, through Neilly’s eyes, the wonder, danger and magic in ordinary days. Come Day – Go Day is not so much a novel as a series of episodes within the life of a family. And many chapters in the book are actually based on individual short stories of John’s. For example chapter vi and ‘Neilly and the Fir Tree’, likewise chapter viii and ‘The Key of the House’, chapter iv and ‘The Bullet Match’, chapter vi and ‘The Drowning’, and the opening paragraphs of chapter xi and ‘Sticks’.
Soon after the novel was published Benedict Kiely, in his survey Modern Irish Fiction, was already describing it as a ‘marvellous little book that could be classed among the minor masterpieces.’ Also, Sam Hanna Bell wrote:
Old women gathering kindling, men, young and old at a procession or a bullet match, small boys plunging in a quarry hole……The characters and scenes were drawn from the immediacy of observation, not nostalgia. O’Connor never reached the time when he had to fabricate his work. He was forever writing out of himself, out of his secret knowledge.
To illustrate Hanna Bell’s point the novel contains a wonderful depiction of a ‘bullet match’ – from that herculean sport of road bowls – between the Mill Row’s own Jimmy ‘Toots’ Macklin and Quinn the Hammerman from Ligoniel in Belfast:
“The bullet struck the kerbstone and glanced into the centre of the road again. It was still travelling very fast but the crossroads seemed a long, long way off. Yet the bullet clung to the road and, in the heart of Macklin’s supporters, a faint hope began to flutter.
Then came a great gasp as the bullet sank, striking the kerb again. Then a great roar as it once more ran out into the road. The roar increased, swelling like thunder from hundreds of parched throats. Everyone surged towards the crossroads.
Still in the centre of the road, the bullet swept along but it was weakening now. The roar burst into even greater volume. It became a frenzied howl, tearing its way from hundreds of aching, burning hearts.”
John manages to draw us into the crowd – as he does in all his stories – and the reader becomes a silent observer in the corner, there almost in person, so much so that one can strongly feel the emotions of the characters. The novel was republished by Blackstaff Press in 1984 with John Luke’s portrait of the Callan Bridge as its front cover. At the launching of the reprint John Boyd, playwriter and former B.B.C. producer, declared it to be a ‘full blown masterpiece’, while Sam Hanna Bell said ‘We’ve had to wait 36 years for the reappearance of this gallery of beautifully drawn characters.’
The family of John O’Connor are delighted that “Come Day – Go Day” is to be republished by Liberties Press Dublin in November 2016. The book will be launched at the inaugural John O’Connor Winter Writing School, introducing John’s writing to a new generation of readers.
JOHN THE MAN
John, who was the character Eugene in his novel, was a dreamer. He left Banbrook school in the early 1930’s to begin a short-lived career as an unconventional telegram boy and postman in the local post office. Rumour has it that bags of mail were undelivered and there were sightings of errant delivery men, one in particular, chewing grass while drying out from midsummer lunchtime swims in his beloved River Callan. There were also tales of illicit death-defying bike rides, with enough passengers to justify a circus career, sometimes even down the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, buckling wheels and wrecking Post Office bicycles! These and many more misdemeanours, such as being caught going in at night to sit under a lamp in the Post Office to enhance his suntan, resulted in John eventually being sacked, though I am not quite sure how historically accurate that particular story is!
One of John’s many stories, an unpublished one entitled ‘Do or Die!’ gives an endearing idea of his character:
“When I was a boy I had very definite ideas on what I wanted to be when I grew up. Well, so had most of the boys I ran about with. Some wanted to be cowboys; some pirates; some explorers. One even had ambitions to become a school-teacher. We thought he was a bit queer in the nut! I, though, wanted to be none of these things. I wanted to be a stuntman.“
As Sam Hanna Bell affectionately wrote, ‘The memory of that broad shouldered young man with his gay smile still warms the hearts of those who were fortunate to know him.’
John was a boy scout, captain of the Armagh Harriers athletics club in 1937 and keen swimmer. Water featured strongly in his life and his stories, from Mill Row floods, fetching water for the house, swimming in the River Callan, diving in the local quarry, and creating waves in the then new swimming pool. His was a life of dreaming, wandering, writing – the pencil and paper never far from his grip. He started writing in his teens and won a best story competition for ‘The Boy and the Stone’ in the famous Dublin literary journal, The Bell, then edited by Sean Ó Faolain. His stories were published in The Bell, Argosy, The City, Within Our Province (a collection edited by Sam Hanna Bell) and The Irish Digest.
He was also a keen cyclist and with another Armagh man, Billy Irwin, set off on a cycling trip around Europe in 1950. Here he combined adventure and writing, sending back ten weekly articles which were published in the Armagh Guardian between 5 May and 30 June 1950. The articles were entitled ‘O’Connor on The Continent’ and John, always the story teller, also captured the delights of this trip in his story :
‘Madrid – By Bike’
“Another week and we were in Rome. So far, we had spent five pounds each – well over our budget, but we had now eliminated certain ’unessentials’ from our diet, such as sugar, bacon, eggs. If we were ever to see Madrid we should have to go very carefully. We spent four days in Rome, with free board and lodging at the Pilgrim Centre on the Via Aurelia. We met pilgrims there from all over the world. One old man of seventy-five had cycled all the way from Belgium. We saw the Holy Father in St. Peter’s in general audience, and then on the following day, we hit the road again. We were feeling actually homesick at leaving Rome, for there is in that wonderful city, something which takes the stranger immediately to his heart.”
John writes that when sailing for the Island of Capri he and Billy met a lady who mistook them for Germans because of their sun bleached blond hair and John’s blue eyes!
The Rainbow Cafe and Armagh in the 1940’s
John cut quite a dash on his return to Armagh with great attention from the females of the town. This entitled him to free ice creams for himself and his sister-in-law, my mother Phil, from the love struck waitresses in the Rainbow Cafe. ‘Sun bleached blonde hair, always tanned, very handsome, intelligent, great sense of humour, great fun, everyone liked him, easy going’ – a beautiful image of the boy from Banbrook at that time.
Not only did John receive free ice creams in the Rainbow but the cafe also provided a meeting place for himself and his friends. It was there they met, chatted, laughed, loved and planned their escapades. It was probably there that his friend, Gerald Rafferty, made the offer to type up all of John’s stories and most of his novel on an old 30 bob Empire typewriter, which he had bought from Jim Jameson of Vicar’s Hill. Gerry, who later worked as a journalist with the Belfast Telegraph lived at Reilly’s Rock, on the Loughall Road, which at that time had no electricity so the typing was done by paraffin oil lamp or more often by candle light. It was also in the Rainbow that the plans were hatched with Billy Irwin for their continental trip. And it was there John and his friends decided to print their own local literary Armagh magazine –
The Reader Magazine.
John wrote, in the first editorial:
“Reader Magazine should be of very particular interest to the people of Armagh. It is being published in their town and some of our first contributors are young Armagh writers themselves. But we desire to throw our pages open in welcome to every writer, wherever he might be – Armagh, Dublin or Timbuctoo. We have no political, religious or social axes to grind. We are only interested in one thing – good writing.”
On reading the ‘mag’ the family strongly feel that the pen-name, ‘The Third Man’ (perhaps taken from the Orson Welles film of 1949), is John’s as the style and language are definitely his. Three other stories, one in the name of Peter O’Hare and two under the name of Gerald Wilson, are in John’s own handwriting, suggesting that these too are also John’s stories. Why he used other names we can only guess, modesty perhaps.
John was only one of many of the gifted writers who contributed to the ‘mag’, including Liam O’Flaherty, Michael J.Murphy, Jack Kelly, Sam Hanna Bell, Gerald Rafferty, Bill Naughton, Richard Prytherch, Henry Mackle, Richard Courtney, Maurice Farley, Leslie Morrow, and Olive Shapley. However, John was central to the Reader Magazine. His editorials, like his jokes at the end of each story, epitomise his humour, his skill, his intellect, his knowledge of life, his natural attention/awareness to every nuance of emotion and soul of each of his subjects, from a glance to a sigh to a turn of the head to a purse of the lips. John seemed to have a keen awareness of what each of these outward signs signified inwardly and their impact on those close by. A watchful eye, a listening ear, a soul tautly strung detecting miniscule vibrations, a pen stabbing into our innards like a surgeon’s knife. Such was John’s talent – not bad for a boy from Banbook who left school at fourteen! He had the ‘gamut’ as they said around the Mill Row.
John did not have the opportunity to attend grammar school, as it was an expense the family could never have afforded. But he did visit St Patrick’s College in 1945 or 1946 to mentor and inspire the English language students. This visit is recalled by one of those boys, a now-retired priest from the Armagh Diocese, Fr John Bradley:
When some time ago I saw that John O’Connor’s work was to be revisited I recalled a visit he made to my English class when I was a pupil in St.Patrick’s College, Armagh. I think it was 1945 or 1946 – I went there in 1944.
The visit was arranged by the late Gerry Hicks, our excellent English teacher. Mr Hicks was highly motivated and … wanted to show his admiration for the talented young local writer, and to encourage him. He wanted his pupils to see a real live short-story writer – up to that we had been studying the works of long dead writers.
“I remember John O’Connor was a courteous young man – in his twenties. He read some of his work for us and he gave us some tips on short story writing and encouraged us to write.
John O’Connor’s visit to our class was for me a memorable occasion – I still remember it with pleasure after nearly 70 years.”
Father Bradley concluded his letter to the author in February 2015: ‘I do hope a worthy tribute can be paid to this gifted writer and that he receives the recognition and acclaim he deserves.’
I can only imagine that John felt keenly that day how different his life might have been if he had entered those doors as a student not as a visitor.
The eight surviving letters to Sam Hanna Bell make interesting reading and give us other little insights to John’s nature but also the seriousness with which he took his writing. In one letter, perhaps from August 1950, he tells Hanna Bell that :
‘A few bright boys down here are getting up a little magazine. It’s only an experiment: nothing ambitious, just a local effort mainly. We were wondering if you would give us permission to use ‘This We Shall Maintain’? With this story safe within our covers, we feel we could face the public with a lot more confidence.”
The reply came back saying that the requested story had been sent to Hanna Bell’s agent but sending another, ‘Narcissi’, for use in the magazine if John wished.
In September 1950 John wrote with :
‘Heartiest congratulations on the good news about your novel. 500 dollars! Nice going! At last December Bride is coming into it’s own. I think it’s going to be a great success when it appears. We certainly have got plenty of excuses for having a few pints when I see you again.’ He thanked his fellow author for offering to write to an agent and hoped he might be able to do something with Come Day – Go Day. John then referred to the new Reader Magazine which was due to appear and joked ‘Ryan and I may have to lay low for a few weeks. Do you know any good hide-outs?’
A month later, the Reader Magazine was out and John apologised for missing an appointment the previous Sunday with Hanna Bell:
‘ I’m sorry I couldn’t show up on Sunday. I was waiting on a suit I’d ordered as I hadn’t anything really decent to wear. But it didn’t come in time.’
He also asked for a copy of a script of the Armagh ‘Apple Industry’ which he wrote for Within our Province (a BBC series) as he had been asked to write a piece for the Sunday Independent.
One other letter shows John’s love of fun where he tells Sam Hanna Bell that he has been ‘down South’ and ‘thought that Mrs. Bell mightn’t say no to a little bacon and butter. Could you persuade her to accept it with my very best regards?’
The Urge to Fly Away
John left Armagh for London, then Australia in 1952. One may wonder why he left at a time when his literary career was developing with the help of his friends and mentors, Sam Hanna Bell and John Boyd, and the many literary friends in Dublin and Belfast. His friend Gerry Rafferty wrote, ‘John…was I suppose a bit of a loner…at times his thoughts seemed to be far away….a dreamer? Perhaps.’ He was thirty-two and unmarried when he left. He had once been in love as he wrote in the story ‘Christmases Remembered’ penned under the name of ‘Third Man’ in the first issue of the Reader Magazine:
“It was at Christmas time, too, when I first fell in love. I was about 18 at the time and every Christmas since, always brings back to me, like a whiff of perfume, the glamour of that first amour of mine.
I remember the desperate scraping together of enough money to buy a suitable Christmas box for my beloved. I remember what the present was too, a gold, heart-shaped locket I spotted in the window of a local jewellers. Its cost I think, was £2 10s 0d. I didn’t have enough nerve to go to the jeweller and ask him to keep it for me. So while I scraped and saved, every day, a half-a-dozen times I’d stop outside the jeweller’s window to make sure my treasure was still there.
I sometimes wonder about my locket even to this day. The girl I loved and gave it to, does she still wear it? How sentimental of me! Perhaps I am still in love with her? But she is alas, many, many miles away, and the locket (it’s slender, golden chain now probably broken) lies, without a doubt, at the bottom of some untidy drawer, lost and forgotten to everything but my memory.”
At this stage John was living at home with his parents Johnny and Kitty, a recipe for domestic disaster. His preference to write and dream than have what Johnny and Kitty called ‘a good job’ (which he had had at one point and then lost) and be settled down may have made him an embarrassment. John used to visit my mother and father, who at that stage were living in the Folly in Armagh, and enjoy the luxuries of cooking and making endless cups of tea and using actual toilet roll, rather than the “Irish News” cut up in strips! However, the decision was taken, the plans were set, and the bag was packed. The leave-taking saw Kitty and her daughter-in-law, Phil, watch the three men – the father, the brother (my father Pat) and the dreamer – disappear over Banbrook Hill enroute for the train.
The Australian Link
John travelled, via London, to Queensland, Australia. There were many letters sent home during that time, notably one, from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, to Sam Hanna Bell and John Boyd in 1957:
“I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear from me again after such a long silence, but I haven’t yet been eaten by the Kukukukus – as you thought I might be in your last letter. However, quite a number of things, almost as exciting has happened to me since I last wrote and I hope that you’ll be able to read about it sometime between cardboard covers. It might make a good feature programme too, though the sound effects might be a bit of a problem……
I hope that you are both well and I presume you are still with the old firm churning out masterpieces to rival “It’s a Brave Step” and “My County”.
I wonder Sam if you would do me a big favour. You remember the reference you wrote for me a few years back. You’ll never know how it helped me but I lost it some time ago and ever since I have been meaning to write and ask you for a copy. I have got something coming up in the near future and it would be more help than ever. You could mention the work I did for the B.B.C., my magazine stories and also my book “Come Day – Go Day”. The B.B.C. has got a lot of standing out here and any proof of connection with it cuts a lot of ice. If you would do this Sam & send it to me by air mail as it is rather urgent, I would appreciate it very much.”
John wished the two men well and apologised ‘but things are in an awful rush at the moment.’
We know that John spent time in Cairns, Townsville and Ayr, all in Queensland. It is not clear how John ended up in Port Moresby, New Guinea, in early 1957 but a map showing shipping lines at that time showed a direct link between Cairns and Port Moresby. Perhaps John worked as a cargo hand, but he certainly seemed to be moving around. Given the places John lived and his migrant lifestyle we were advised that he may well have been employed as a labourer in the sugar cane industry. We can only wonder if that was the case and if so, during that backbreaking labour under a hot Australian sun, did John wish for the meadows and hedgerows of Armagh? Did he hum silently any verses from his favourite song:
“But oh! the ache that´s in my heart
For the spot where I was born.
My weary hands are blistered
Through work in cold and heat!
And oh! to swing a scythe once more
Through a field of Irish wheat.
Had I the chance to wander back,
Or own a king´s abode.
I’d sooner see the hawthorn tree
By the Old Bog Road.”
Armagh was stunned to learn, six months after the event in December 1959, of the untimely and tragic death of this much loved, handsome and talented young man. My mother, now age 92 (married to John’s brother Pat) remembers that ‘Banbrook was in uproar when the news came through……your father rushed down from the Post Office…..everyone was in an awful state’. One of Armagh’s beloved sons was never going to whistle along the Loughall Road again.
did fragrance from Appled Eamhain
steal away on the breath of a breeze
that caught you unawares out foreign
and brought the Loughall Road
in apple blossom time
before your eyes
and tightened a noose on your heart”
(Extract from “Heirméas Ard-Mhachach”, poem by Armagh poet Nuala Reilly in memory of John O’Connor, in her collection of poetry in Irish, Magus Ballyrath, which was published by Coiscéim, Dublin, in 2008.)
John’s death was notified to the authorities by a J.J.W.Jorgensen from 108 Graham Street Ayr. The burial registers starkly records the facts that he, John Vincent O’Connor, was aged 36 and was buried in Ayr Cemetery at 9am on Christmas Eve, 1959, two days after he died. The gaps in the information are striking and sad. John may have been in Ayr for a while but had only been in the Cabassis Boarding House, 105 Munro Street, Ayr for three days when he was found dead. The death register, in the Sacred Heart Church, Ayr, records that no priest was available and no last sacraments given or funeral mass said and that he had no relatives in Australia. Knowing the people of Armagh and, in particular, his own people I am sure many masses have been offered for John’s soul in the intervening period. John’s brother, Jimmy, on behalf of the family, when visiting Australia in the 1980’s, found John’s grave and erected a headstone. The death certificate revealed he had died from ‘shock and toxaemia untreated’, a perforated, chronic duodenal ulcer.
There are two errors in the above records. John was 39, not 36, when he died, and his second name was Joseph, not Vincent. These errors were rectified on the death certificate. Although, given John’s sense of fun, he may well have found those errors comical. Sure maybe he might have preferred not to have to lived to an auld fella of 39 and sure isn’t Vincent a grand name anyway!
Strangely no stories or articles were published either in Ireland or Australia during that period of 1952-1959. No writings were returned with his possessions after the shocking news of his death reached home. It is hard to believe that John never wrote a single story during his time in Australia given his prolific story writing at home in Armagh. However, searches of the Australian online newspaper archives only revealed one article, a positive review of Come Day – Go Day in the Catholic Weekly, published in Sydney, in 1949:
“RAIN forms the back ground to the action of almost the whole of the first part of this novel; and the inclemency of the weather seems to have its effect on the tempers of the people. We are introduced to the Coyle family, and some few of their relatives and acquaintances. It is a circle in which tongues lend themselves more readily to invective than to endearment, and where hands are more often raised to strike than to caress. Delineation of character is powerful, even though a striving after ‘realism’ makes the portraits unnecessarily harsh. John O’Connor is well known as a writer of short stories, and many episodes of this tale have the qualities of a well-told short story. From one aspect the novel is little more than a series of episodes having no necessary connection with each other. Yet from another point of view, each episode brings to light some new trait of character, while all together succeed in building up a vivid picture of life among the workers in a small town in Ulster during a stop at the local mill on which most of them depend for their livelihood. During the second part of the novel the rain that cast its gloom over the first part is relieved by occasional spells of hot June sun shine. Quarrels and bickering are still rife among the inhabitants of the row; but, in spite of all, we begin to see something of the warm human sympathy that underlies the harsh exteriors. Neilly Coyle, constantly at war with his younger brother, full of threats for his playmates, yet touchingly devoted to his grandmother, is the central figure, and one who will hold your sympathy from beginning to end. Nor can you fall to appreciate Johnny Kelly and Pachy, two lovable, good for nothing vagabonds, who, unlike the rest of the characters, have only one quarrel and that is with the Orangemen on St. Patrick’s Day. The idiom throughout is Irish, not the stage Irish with which we are unfortunately only too familiar, but the authentic vigorous language of the people. The book does not paint a flattering picture of Ireland or of the Irish people, nor does it make fun of them. But it does speak of them with sympathy, and the result is a memorable picture of the life of a poor Catholic family in the Protestant and industrial North.”
Not a flattering view of provincial Irish catholic life!
Others were interested in what stories might have been in John’s possessions in Ayr when he passed away. John Boyd, producer at the BBC, wrote asking about such stories and my father Pat replied in September 1961:
“Please excuse the delay in answering it, but I was waiting on John’s possessions coming from the authorities in Queensland and I wanted to see if he had any stories when he died.
Unfortunately he hadn’t, only a few roughs, and I’m enclosing the stories my Mother managed to resurrect at home, hoping you may be able to use some of them.”
The Search for the Missing Stories
Sadly John’s parents, Johnny and Kitty, have long since passed away as have his siblings. These included Tommy (Buster), a cabinet maker by trade who later became a manager with Enterprise Ulster, who was Neilly in the novel. Pat, who was Shemie in Come Day – Go Day, was my father and also left school at fourteen. He stayed in the Post Office, progressed from telegram boy to Head Post Master in Newry, and married Philomena Steele. Another brother, Jimmy, also entered the Post Office and later married Bernie Foy. One sister, Ann, married John Duffy, founder member of the S.D.L.P., while Margaret married Joe McCullough. Margaret stayed closest to the Mill and actually worked across from it, becoming a manager in the laundry in St. Luke’s Hospital, which featured in John’s novel and several short stories.
John’s five nieces, in 2011, began to try and do something about his unpublished work. This began by collecting those stories on loan to a family friend, Paul McAvinchey, who had looked after them like a brooding tiger, and those kept by this author in my kitchen cupboard behind the biscuit tin! We put these together and then began searching for others. With the help of staff in the Irish and Local Studies Library, Armagh County Museum, and many friends and lovers of the arts in Armagh, a collection of 39 short stories written by John O’Connor has been assembled, many still in his own handwriting. We have two other incomplete stories, two incomplete plays and believe there are three other ‘missing’ stories. These are listed in Appendix One.
Given the support for John’s work from Sam Hanna Bell and John Boyd at the BBC there are also recordings of some of his stories. Recordings of John’s work, produced by both John Boyd and Paul Muldoon and held in the archives of the B.B.C. in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra are listed in Appendix Two.
The family are delighted that the B.B.C. kindly passed over copies of these recordings for inclusion in the John Hewitt Society Summer School, held in Armagh in July 2015. It was poignant and appropriate to have the recording of John Hewitt reading John’s story ‘The Rock’. And fitting also that Paul Muldoon, B.B.C. producer of John’s work, also contributed to the event.
Sadly, not all the transmissions have been saved. There was a recording of ‘Neilly and the Fir Tree’, transmitted on 30 January 1976, which cannot be found. The reader was Mark Mulholland and the producer, again, Paul Muldoon.
Celebrating John O’Connor at the John Hewitt Society Summer School in July 2015
While the John Hewitt International Summer School celebrates the life and work of one of Northern Ireland’s best-known and most prestigious poets, John O’Connor was remembered in a very special presentation, ‘John O’Connor: A Celebration, at The Market Place Theatre, Armagh, on Wednesday 29 July 2015.
At the invitation of John’s family, Armagh-born writer Daragh Carville agreed to put together and present a programme of readings based on John’s stories and life and following the success in 2008 of a similar programme of readings, ‘The Books of Armagh’, in 2008. The John Hewitt Society was also pleased that a number of well-known County Armagh writers and actors – Pulitzer prizewinning poet, Paul Muldoon, and John Paul Connolly and Karl O’Neill – agreed to return to the city to join Daragh Carville and two of John’s nieces, Cathy McCullough Jayat and myself for the event.
Brought up on Armagh’s Cathedral Road, Daragh Carville, is now based in England and is an award-winning playwright whose plays, such as ‘Language Roulette’, ’Observatory”, ‘This Other City’ and ‘The Life and Times of Mitchell & Kenyon’, have been widely produced in Britain, Ireland, and the U.S.A. He has also written screenplays for film (‘Middletown’ which was directed by fellow Armagh man, Brian Kirk) and television (episodes of BBC 3’s award-winning ‘Being Human’, BBC’s student drama, ‘6 Degrees’ and the first series of ‘The Smoke’ for Sky One). Paul Muldoon, also born in the county but now in Princeton, USA, once produced radio programmes for the BBC but is also a prize-winning author of twelve major collections of poetry and a former Chair of Poetry at the University of Oxford.
The two very experienced and successful actors involved, John Paul Connolly and Karl O’Neill, are both from Armagh and delighted to be involved in the celebration. The event was very close to John Paul’s heart as he said: ‘John O’Connor’s wonderful novel, Come Day Go Day, is particularly pertinent for me as my father’s family also lived in the Mill Row and, indeed, are mentioned in the book.’ A portrait of John O’Connor, painted by his John Paul’s late father, Jackie Connolly, was also exhibited in the John O’Connor exhibition. Karl O’Neill has the connection of being a published author, of a children’s book The Most Beautiful Letter In The World, writer of several plays for RTE Radio and currently writing both a radio and a stage play about Bellina Prior, the notorious Green Lady of Vicars’ Hill, Armagh.
A second and parallel event in the celebration was the John O’Connor Exhibition, which took place as part of the John Hewitt International Summer School. The exhibition opened in the Upper Foyer of the Market Place Theatre on 27 July and ran daily until Saturday 15 August. Finally, the celebration of John O’Connor’s life and work was marked by a concert on Thursday 30 July. It was night of memorable, unique music making as poet Paul Muldoon strapped on a guitar to play with some Horslips, Paddy Goodwin’s ‘Holy Ghosts’ and Paul Brady. The proceeds of the concert will be used, by very kind and generous donation of the artists, to promote and raise awareness of John O’Connor;s life and work. The family are extremely grateful and appreciative.
The Armagh County Museum, in November 2015, was once again the venue for an important event connected with O’Connor’s literary legacy when it became the proud custodian of the “John O’ Connor Collection” kindly donated by John’s nieces. The collection comprises dozens of O’Connor’s personal manuscripts, many of which are handwritten. Armagh County Museum is delighted to be able to acquire such an important archive of original manuscripts of John O’Connor’s short stories as well as a wealth of personal papers
John’s family are very grateful to Armagh and it’s people for the warmth with which they have embraced this revival of interest in John’s work and the family hope the people of Armagh and beyond have many hours of enjoyment visiting the John O’Connor Collection in Armagh County Museum.
John’s friend, Gerry Rafferty, wrote, ‘O’Connor peoples his world of mill houses, rivers, trees, hedgerows and meadows in all seasons of the year with human beings in all seasons of life…’. Certainly John’s Armagh was an Armagh of the past and the future, full of literature and drama, bullet throwers and ale plant brewers, woodbine and snuff. It was an Armagh brimming with life and love, smells and bells. It was an Armagh much loved by John’s parents Johnny and Kitty, his siblings Tommy, Pat, Jimmy, Maggie and Dolly.
The candle which burned as Gerry Rafferty typed John’s stories burns no longer. The paraffin lamps are long extinguished. The Mill Row is gone, not a stone upon a stone remains. John may be buried in far away Queensland but the memories of his Armagh and the people of his time are still alive, immortalised by his words, by his novel and his stories. As Sam Hanna Bell wrote in The Belfast Telegraph on 8 September 1962:
Perhaps someday some far-sighted publisher will gather together his delightful short stories between cardboard covers. With his novel they will win for John O’Connor his merited place in Irish Letters … as his claim (or rather the claim entered on his behalf by others, for he was a modest man) to be considered one of the most talented and delightful of our writers is as substantial as the cathedrals above his native city.
Appendix One: Collection of stories by John O’Connor
The Bullet Match
The Snuff Box
Neilly and The Fir Tree
O’Neill in Love
Fate and Tony
Beauty in the Sun
A Touch of the Sun
Murder in the Orchard
The Last Letter
Summers I remember
Madrid – 3 Months on an open bicycle
Do or Die
The Wooden Man
Timeless and Happy
A Hundred Thousand Dollars for a Thread
Key of the House
Old Rainey -Story of a Naughty Cloud
Billy Bikes Broadcasts
The Talking Goat
Red Fins Story
The Shaggawaggra Stick
The Inferno Express
The Little Boy Who Loved Birds
The Boy and the Stone
I Live down There
Incident on a Street Corner
Topsy and the Tiger
2 Incomplete Plays
Appendix Two: BBC recordings
John O Connor – Museum 2210 – BBC 14OU 790. This CD includes a reading of The Rock read by John Hewitt, with an introduction about John O’Connor by Sam Hanna Bell.
File 847 ( 80005510) UUTI 40U790 which contains the notes and the script for the show – produced by Paul Muldoon
Museum 938 BBC 051Y770 Morning Story. This is a reading of Neilly and the Fir Tree.
Museum 215 BBC UT942 Morning Story which is a reading of The Bullet Match
Museum 1671 BBC110W861U Morning Story, which is a reading of The Rock
File 80005101 which contains programme notes on The Bullet Match read by Michael Duffy