Saturday, July 30, 2022

By Anthony Hennigan

Mayo lost a good one last week. A real good one. One of the best.

Everything about Paddy Connor was big. His smile. His personality. His heart. His voice. Oh that big deep booming voice. And, of course, his physique. As broad as a door with shovels for hands that would shake you like a pneumatic drill. He’d be the sort could put manners on a bull. Or a bull of a full-back.

The late Paddy Connor pictured last year in the clubhouse of Lacken GAA Club where he served as chairman. Picture: David Farrell Photography

One of my earliest memories of Paddy – not my first, but definitely one of the most vivid – was of him togging out in the green and gold of Dr Crokes, a club that was based in Harrow on the outskirts of Northwest London. I can’t say I remember his togging in; I suspect the kit may have needed scissoring off. I was young yet old enough to recognise that Paddy was probably making a return from a long retirement. Any maybe not his first.

Depressingly, I also realise he had to have been much younger then than I am now, and yet here I am still having notions on a football pitch (Dads and Lads I should add) that I couldn’t fulfil when I was 24 let alone 44.

The game was in Oxhey, out near Watford, and the Crokes were probably under a bit of heat. I can still see Paddy and his giant frame trotting in from the sideline towards the opposition’s goal-mouth with all the intent of a fox approaching the henhouse. I can’t say with any certainty it was my dad – the manager of the Crokes at the time – who had sent Paddy into battle, more likely that Paddy had turned to PJ and said ‘write that slip, I’m going in’. He wasn’t the type you’d say no to.

For anyone who knew Paddy lately, he looked just the same those 30-odd years ago only that his locks and that majestic, drooped moustache were coal dark. In fact, if those Netflix movies about Mexican or Colombian drug cartels that are all the rage now had been filming back then, Paddy would have looked the part. And he’d have sorted a few of them boyos out too.

None of which is to suggest that I ever saw a side to Paddy other than that of a true gentleman. And if there’s a full-back or five still limping around London who’d be inclined to disagree with that, well, you can be sure that if they got it, they had given it too. That’s just the way the game was played over there back then. Pints on a Sunday morning to cure the pints from the night before and off then in the back of a Bedford to sweat it all off between (and occasionally outside) the lines at the Scrubs, New Eltham or Ruislip.

In later years Paddy and his wife Breege, who is originally from Belderrig, were to leave the UK and return to Carrowcullen, the Lacken side of Ballycastle. And you’d never meet him but come away with a sense that your day was all the brighter for it – and that despite the tremendous personal tragedy Paddy and Breege had endured some years earlier with the sudden death of their son Raymond. But be it after a match that he might have umpired, like the senior league clash of Belmullet and Davitts just two days before his sad and sudden passing last Monday week, or after a County Board meeting in MacHale Park, there was forever a glint in Paddy Connor’s eye that could light a room.

Our last encounter was as recent as Heritage Day in Ballina and don’t you know it was full of miserable chat, like about Mayo losing the All-Ireland minor final, like about the prospect of watching Galway win the senior, and about who would or wouldn’t be the new manager that might finally lead Mayo to the Promised Land. Amid the scent of roasted pig-on-a-spit and the din of distant set-dancers, little did either of us know that he was going to beat the lot of us there.

Lacken’s Paddy Connor, extreme left on the back row, with some of his teammates at Dr Crokes GAA Club in London. Second and fourth from left are brothers Padraig and Seamus Hennigan from Foxford. Pictured on the front row include Bernie McManamon from Burrishoole, second from left, and John Moore from Kilmeena, extreme right.

But it was a chat full of optimism and about the future too. Paddy had told me to warn my dad that he’d be calling for another visit soon, that he had a “few more bits from the old days” he wanted to show him. We’re only left to wonder now.

Last year, Paddy’s beloved Lacken GAA Club had placed him in the spotlight for unfortunate reasons. A 9-23 to 0-0 (50 points) defeat at home to Kilmovee Shamrocks in the opening round of the Mayo junior football championship left the club of which he was chairman on the brink of total collapse.

“We’re in a bad way. We had only 16 lads togged out on Sunday and we picked up a number of injuries so it’s hard to see how we can continue.” he told The Mayo News. “We just haven’t enough players. It’s as simple as that. We have lads all around the world working and there’s only a handful at home here. There’s nothing to keep them here. There’s no jobs, there’s nothing.”

It came as no surprise that the team didn’t fulfil another fixture for the rest of the year. It simply wasn’t able. But you can be sure Paddy Connor’s passion was a big part of the reason why Lacken this year have not only fulfilled all five of their games in Division 4B of the Mayo Senior Football League, but that the players have even won one game and drawn another.

His may have flickered its last but its owed to Paddy that Lacken keep their own flame burning because he was a good one. A real good one. One of the best.

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