I want to commend The Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund Group which comprises soccer fans from Ireland, Scotland, England and Spain
Féile an Phobail is the largest community festival on these islands – and the best in the world. This year it celebrated its 27th birthday. It was born in 1988 at a time of great hurt and conflict. It was one response by the people of west Belfast to efforts by the British government, and others to demonise this community.
It was evidence of our collective determination to demonstrate to the world that the people of west Belfast are a generous, humourous, talented, gifted and inclusive community.
Notwithstanding the concerns raised about the Frankie Boyle event the Féile was a huge success. For 11 days west Belfast resounded to the sound of ceol and comedy and craic. There were plays, exhibitions, sport, walks, and debates and discussions. West Belfast Talks Back in St Louise’s saw British Labour leader contender Jeremy Corbyn take part. The Ballymurphy Massacre families again organised a series of events highlighting their case and this year there was a focus on the next generation – the grandchildren of those who were killed – and impact of August 1971 and the actions of the Paras, on them. Once again Féile succeeded in showcasing the talent and genius of the people of this part of the city. It is has now become after almost three decades a vital part of the social fabric of Belfast with something for everyone.
Despite a painful back I managed to get to quite a few events over its ten days. I would like to thank and to extend my congratulations to all of the staff, at all of the events, and to all of the participants, past and present who have contributed to the growth of the festival from its relatively small beginnings in 1988 to the massive community and international Féile it is today. Finally, one event that I spoke at and found very interesting was the unveiling last Friday of the memorial mural to Patrick O’Connell on the wall of Sean Graham’s bookies at the junction of the Whiterock and Falls Road.
I had never heard of this remarkable Irishman until a few months ago when Danny Devenny told me that he and Marty Lyons were painting the mural.
Unfortunately on the day of the unveiling Danny couldn’t be present as he took ill several weeks ago but best wishes to him for a speedy recovery.
Patrick O’Connell, who captained Ireland and Manchester United in his soccer playing career and later, as a manager, famously saved FC Barcelona from extinction during the Spanish Civil War, was a truly extraordinary individual.
Despite his achievements, and more than half a century after he died, O’Connell is better remembered in Spain where he earned the affectionate nickname Don Patricio. His remains currently rest in an unmarked grave in Kilburn, London where he died destitute in 1959 aged 72.
Patrick was born in 1887 and grew up in Drumcondra, Dublin beside Croke Park. He was one of 11 children. He secured his first professional soccer contract with Belfast Celtic in the early 1900s in the Irish League, which was then a 32-county league and included Shelbourne and Bohemians.
This was Ireland before Partition. There was one Irish national team and in February 1912, O’Connell was called up for the first time. He was a centre-half. Ireland played England – at Dalymount Park. England won 6-1.
Like many Irishmen since he later went on to play professional soccer in England. But it was in Spain that Patrick wrote probably the most heroic chapter in his sporting story. He guided the Real Betis club to their only title in ‘La Liga’ and it remains a miracle how he transformed the second-biggest team in Seville into the best side in the whole of Spain.
And when FC Barcelona’s very existence was threatened, after club president Josep Sunyol was murdered by General Franco’s assassins in the descent towards civil war, O’Connell rescued the players by leading them into exile in Mexico.
The money which O’Connell’s side generated by playing exhibition matches on their extended tour was lodged in a Swiss bank account, beyond the clutches of Franco’s fascists, ensuring Barcelona would survive to become the biggest club in Europe.
Sadly, Patrick died penniless in London in 1959 and for 56 years his remains have lain in an unmarked grave there.
The mural tells Patrick’s story of heroism from his time of Belfast Celtic to FC Barcelona. It features ‘Celtic Park’ which is now the site of the Park Centre on the Donegal Road and shows Patrick in his Belfast Celtic kit. Importantly the mural also reflects Patrick’s courage during the Spanish Civil War at FC Barcelona. So if you get a chance stop off and take a closer look.
I want to commend The Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund Group which comprises soccer fans from Ireland, Scotland, England and Spain. It includes Mike O’Connell, Patrick’s grandson, and Mike’s wife Sue who have spent many years researching Patrick’ history. I also want to thank Belfast Mayor Arder Carson, Maureen O’Sullivan TD, and Cork Mayor Chris O Leary, Brian Wilson of Celtic, Fergus Dowd of the Memorial Fund, and all of those who contributed to the event.
The main aim of the Fund is to raise money to build a memorial at the London cemetery befitting Patrick’s achievements. I also want to thank them for giving Patrick’s story a new life. His story in part of the history of Dublin, of Belfast, of Barcelona and indeed of soccer in Ireland and Britain. It is right and fitting that we remember and retell that story and that we honour this outstanding Irishman.