OBITUARY: Alfred O’Connor, Co Kerry Orangeman, cleric and rugby player

Canon Alfred O'Connor and his wife Eileen in 1996
Canon Alfred O'Connor and his wife Eileen in 1996

Canon Alfred Stanley O’Connor combined a career of service to his faith with a passion for rugby and a flair for animal breeding.

The Kerry-born, Irish-speaking Orangeman who played for Ulster and eventually settled in Co Tyrone, died at the age of 94 last month in the wake of a small stroke.

Canon Alfred O'Connor and his wife

Canon Alfred O'Connor and his wife

Born on March 23, 1920 in the rural village of Ventry in the extreme south-west of Ireland, he was the sixth of seven children in a farming family.

Their Protestant background was unusual for the area, and family lore has it that their ancestors had converted to try and win better treatment during the Famine.

He was initially schooled in Ventry (where he would ride a pony to class), before going on to the comparatively urbane Mountjoy College in Kilkenny, and then earned a scholarship to Trinity College in the Irish capital.

There he studied Irish (a language in which he and his family were natively fluent) and divinity.

After graduating, his first clerical posting was to St Michael’s parish church on Belfast’s Shankill Road in 1943, where he remained for three years.

During his time in education he had played both hockey and rugby, and on moving to Belfast the latter became a central pastime.

He played full-back for both Malone and Ulster, where he would have encountered rugby greats including Jack Kyle.

He was also selected for Ireland too, but only got as far as the substitutes’ bench.

As daughter Susan explained, during the 1940s it was not common for subs to be brought on unless one of the 15 players was too badly injured to continue.

His career might yet have taken off if he had not been moved to Cavan in 1946.

There, his new rector barred him from taking part in a new trial for the Ireland squad because it clashed with a Sunday school party.

It was also while based at the Cavan parish that he married his wife Eileen (nee Ebbitt) in 1947, and he remained there for another two years.

There then followed stints at Florencecourt until 1954; Co Tipperary until 1962; Bessbrook until 1965, and finally in St Anne’s, Dungannon where he remained until his retirement in 1985.

Described by Susan as traditional in outlook, she said “the focus of his ministry was always people”.

She said: “He tramped the streets and visited all the time. When he had curates he made them do the same. He had 850 families in Dungannon, and would have personally visited each at least once a year.”

During the Troubles, the church was not spared the ravages of violence.

It stood just off a square where there were a number of bombings, which would seem to shake the whole of the building.

“I stood with him many times in church and it was like being in a pea-soup fog,” said Susan.

“It was just the dust. It was as if the building lifted up every time there was a bomb...

“So many beautiful stained-glass windows were lost because of the bombs.”

Even today, she said, draughts can be felt in the church as a result of small bits of dislodged building.

In addition to his commitment to his spiritual flock, he also bred animals, beginning with horses before moving on to working dogs and later to Hereford Cattle in his retirement years.

He would show animals at Balmoral and Susan recalled that on six different occasions (each with different animals) he was championship winner in the young stock ponies category – a feat which she believes may be a record.

He was also a member of Dungannon Volunteer LOL 178, and had been District Chaplain of Killyman District LOL No 1 for many years.

As years progressed, he had a knee replacement and a number of hip replacements, all of which slowed him down.

From roughly age 90 he was effectively bed-bound at his home in Stewartstown.

He had suffered a number of TIAs (essentially small strokes) and it was the effects of the last of these that caused a terminal decline in his health.

He died on January 12.

His funeral was two days later in St Patrick’s, Donaghendry. He is buried in the nearby churchyard.

He chose the readings and hymns himself, including Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord.

His wife predeceased him and he is survived by daughter Susan Stewart, her husband Ramsey, four grandchildren and one great grand-child.