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The Late John O’ Connell, Cloonbiggen, Claregalway

John O’Connell’s untimely death before Christmas at the age of fifty years of age comes at a great loss not just to his family but to the many people who worked with him in his life long commitment to vindicating the essential humanity of those marginalised and discriminated against by societies all over the world.

President of Ireland Mary McAleese, who was a personal friend of John and called to him during his illness. Her ADC, Commdt. Dermot O’Connor, represented her at his funeral. President McAleese in a tribute to John said:

“He worked tirelessly for a more compassionate, caring society in which travelling people could live and thrive. He campaigned for rights for this significant section of our population who have hitherto been neglected and socially excluded”.

President McAleese added:

“I also knew John as a good friend. I am just one of a huge number who will miss him greatly”.

John O’Connell was the youngest son of James and Margaret O’Connell, born in September 1949. He attended Claregalway National School and later attended St. Mary’s College, Galway. During his younger years John spent many summers at the homes of relatives in the Connemara Gaeltacht where Irish was always spoken.

In 1967 John joined the Columban Fathers in Dalgan Park, Navan and attended UCD from 1968–71 where he studied Economics & Politics. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1975 and shortly after his ordination went to the Philippines, to Ginoog City in the island of Mindanao, sharing responsibility for thirty eight chapels and 50,000 Catholics with two other Columban priests. John was always described as a good organiser, with energy and ideas, who was always portrayed as very intelligent, instead of being just a problem solver, would empower people to solve problems themselves.

In 1980 John went to New York to study at the New School at post graduate level, and in 1982 returned to Ireland as Justice and Faith co-ordinator of the Columbans. Shortly afterwards he became involved in Traveller issues. Central to this was the founding of Pavee Point in North Great Charles Street in Dublin, which offers education and development to Travellers. At the same time John decided to leave the Columban Order but remained a good friend with the Order.

John was instrumental in getting Travellers into third level education for the first time and leaves a legacy with his work to win recognition for the culture, dignity and human rights for the Traveller.

Despite John’s illness with a brain tumour that was diagnosed over a year ago, he continued with his works. It was during his early years in Pavee Point that John met Anastasia Crickley, a lecturer in applied social work in Maynooth. They married in December 1987 and their son Cóilín was born in 1990.

His remains were removed from his native home at Cloonbiggen to the Church of the Assumption and St. James, Claregalway. Hundreds of people attended. Fr Bobby Gilmore of the Columban Order was joined by Canon Noel Mullin (PP Claregalway) and Columban priests Fr Eamon O’Brien and Fr Ollie McCrossan, Fr Padraig Kelly (SMA), Fr Liam Ryan & Dr Enda McDonagh (Maynooth), Fr Willie Commins (PP Mervue) along with several other priests.

Music at the ceremony included sections of the O’Riada Mass sung by Liam Ó Maonlaí accompanied by organist Aodhan Glynn. Colleagues and friends of John brought offerings to the altar from the various campaigns in which he was involved.

His wife Anastasia, in a personal tribute to her husband, said that John was her best friend and partner on everything she did. Their son Cóilín read poetry to end the service and as the remains were taken from the Church, over one hundred Travellers from Pavee Point, formed a guard of honour outside the church.

Our sympathy is extended to his wife Anastasia, son Cóilín, mother Margaret, brothers Seamus, Martin and Michael, sisters Brigid and Mary, in-laws, nephews, nieces and a very large circle of relatives and friends.