by Fiona O’Brien
Catalan giants FC Barcelona have officially inducted legendary Dubliner Patrick O’Connell into their ‘Hall of Fame’, making him the first ever Irishman to have had the privilege
O’Connell coached Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and was honoured on December 30 prior to the La Liga tie against Real Betis, another club he is famous for managing. It is a journey that has taken over 18 months by the organisers of the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund, and chairman Fergus Dowd, along with O’Connell’s grandson Mike and his wife Sue, attended the ceremony, along with Dublin Central TD Maureen O’Sullivan.
Dowd called it a ‘fabulous occasion’ and ‘unbelievable’ to have arguably the world’s biggest club honour the footballer in front of another team he had a great affinity towards. O’Connell was born in Drumcondra in 1887, and started his professional career with Belfast Celtic before moving on to Sheffield Wednesday, Hull and Manchester United. He had a successful international career, captaining the pre-partition Ireland side to a win in the 1914 British Home Championship, before relocating to Spain where he managed Betis and led them to their sole La Liga title in 1935.
Following this win Barcelona FC invited Patrick to become the manager and in his first season managing the club he led them to win the Catalan Championship and they were runners up to Real Madrid in the Spanish Cup.During the Spanish Civil War, when Barcelona FC was on the brink of bankruptcy, a Catalan businessman who had emigrated to Mexico asked the club to tour the country in 1937. Patrick rounded up the players and staff and sailed to Mexico. They played six matches before carrying on to New York for four more exhibition games.
The tour cost the team most of their players, as only four travelled with O’Connell back to Barcelona, the rest either seeking asylum in Mexico or jumping out in France on the way back. The money made from the expedition saved Barcelona and although Patrick returned to Ireland shortly afterwards he had ensured Barcelona’s future and his own enduring memory. However, Patrick sadly died destitute in London in 1959, and it was his story that caught the eye of Dubliner Dowd who wanted to honour his memory.
“I had a good friend Scott Bell who played nonleague football in Northumbria, who sadly passed away with Motor Neurone Disease in 2013,” says Fergus, a political analyst.
Reconeixement del club a Patrick O’Connell by fcbarcelona
“We held a fundraiser in his name and being football fans we invited Mike and Sue to talk. It was the first time I had properly heard of Patrick’s story and I was shocked to learn that he was laying in an unmarked grave for the past 55 years. “I just felt then that something had to be done, as it seemed to be an insult to the man’s memory. “So by August 2014 we launched the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund at the Belfast Celtic museum. It seemed fitting as that was where he started his professional career.”
The fund’s initial aim was to raise money to put a fitting memorial to Patrick, first of all working towards finally getting him a headstone at his place of rest in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in London’s Kensal Green.
“But on top of that it has been about raising awareness of Patrick’s unbelievable story. “I think it’s one that is an inspiration to kids who harbour any sporting interest themselves.”
Since its launch the memorial fund have managed to organise many events to honour the footballer. A plaque was unveiled at his Dublin address, 87 Fitzroy Avenue in Drumcondra, just across from Croke Park last June as part of Dublin City Council’s new Commemorative Plaque Scheme. In August a colourful mural was unveiled in Belfast to honour the footballer, painted by award-winning artist Danny Devenney and sponsored by Crown Paints.
It is located on the famous Falls Road, near to the home of Belfast Celtic, and in the past few months the Memorial Fund have found out is about three minutes away from Patrick’s Belfast residence. And this was all before last week’s huge event, where Manchester-Irish artist Tony Denton was also in attendance to present the club with his painting of the hero. Maureen O’Sullivan TD said: “I was invited to attend the match between Barca and Real Betis where Patrick’s great achievements will be honoured by the iconic club he saved during the Spanish Civil War.
“The football landscape throughout the world would be quite different today without the famous Barcelona and it is only fitting that this north innercity Dublin native should be remembered for his work. “What started as a group supporting a gravestone for Patrick who died desolate in London has now turned into a much bigger project to bring this forgotten man to life.”
While in Spain they also managed to find O’Connell’s Spanish address with help from British Consulate records, who tracked down a letter sent from his wife to see if he was safe during the Civil War.But now the club are preparing to fulfil their biggest aim by unveiling a new headstone on his Kensal Green grave.
“We are travelling to unveil it on April 28, which is the 81st anniversary of his La Liga win with Betis. “It is coming down from Aberdeen where we have been in contact with a stonemason at Granite City, and it will be at his Plot (261).
“Then we are working with the FAI for an alcove in Abbetstown, as well as attending the return home Betis La Liga fixture against Barcelona and a book is to be released in June.”
To find out more visit www.pocfund.com He then took over FC Barcelona and in 1937 took the team on tour of Mexico, Cuba and the USA, raising a vital $12,900 which kept the famous club afloat. However, the father-offour himself died penniless and destitute in London in 1959 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
The Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund was set up in recent years in a bid to raise money for a more fitting memorial to the forgotten sporting hero. Described by some as one of Ireland’s most gifted managers, a mural in his memory was painted by artist Danny Devenney and unveiled in the Whiterock area of west Belfast in August.