In March 1887 in Dublin, against the backdrop of the ‘Piggott Papers’ purporting that Charles Stewart Parnell had supported the Phoenix Park murders of British government representatives, Patrick O’Connell Snr. and his wife Emily welcomed their first son into the world.
‘Don Patricio’, as he would become known in Seville, was born into a land reeling from famine, a land under British rule, and a Dublin where daily life was a struggle.
At 11 Jones Terrace, as Patrick senior toasted his first son, he could not have imagined that this young boy would go on to have one of the greatest sporting careers as a footballer and manager in Irish sporting history.
O’Connell honed his football skills on the streets of North Dublin and in the Athletics Ground of Croke Park, playing the garrison game; football the game introduced by the ruling British.
By the age of nineteen, Patrick O’Connell showed his future leadership skills working as a foreman in Bolands Mills on the southside of Dublin.
In such a place, it wasn’t common for workers to lose arms or legs; children were hired as ‘scavengers’ to clear away dust and dirt.
The mills would become synonymous with the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, where a garrison of hundred and seventy-nine men took on the might of the British Empire.
Patrick’s daily fear was of contracting the deadly ‘mill fever’, which was prevalent from the air’s pollution and dust; his escape route away from this daily grind was football.
In 1907 Patrick O’Connell and his Liffey Wanderers teammates won the Empire Cup for a third consecutive season.
The Empire Cup was then the biggest youth football tournament in Ireland, and the club would be given the trophy to keep.
Within seven years, O’Connell would become the first Irish thousand-pound player arriving at Old Trafford for £1,000 from Hull City; it was such an astronomical fee Manchester United paid it in installments.
O’Connell and his wife Ellen, who had then two children, only received four pounds and would live in one-room digs in Blackley in Manchester.
Patrick would work in the Ford Factory Motor company in Manchester during the summers as footballers did not get paid during the offseason.
In Manchester, O’Connell would join the players union founded by Charlie Roberts and Billy Meredith; the union had come about after the death of Thomas Blackstock of Manchester City, who had collapsed on the pitch while heading the ball.
The English Football Association initially frowned at such a union banning all members from playing, and Manchester United became known as the ‘Outcasts’ by the outraged British media – O’Connell would become the first Irishman to captain the club.
By 1935 O’Connell was a manager at Real Betis, leading them to their one and only La Liga title; his team was built on a foundation of solid defence and quick attack.
O’Connell had arrived in Spain in 1923 and was a founding member of La Liga in 1929; he had become the first manager at Betis to ban his players from smoking, even though he himself was a chain smoker.
In 1954 when O’Connell fell on hard times in London, the club organised a testimonial in Seville; the city came together to salute the one they called ‘Don Patricio’.
By 1959 O’Connell was dead, spending his last years drawing national assistance and living in poverty in London buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Kensal Green.
On the 28th of April 2016, eighty-one years after he won La Liga with Betis, Patrick O’Connell finally got a headstone after the Patrick O’Connell Memorial Fund raised the money.
In Dublin today on the same streets, Patrick O’Connell played his football: Linda Carroll leaves her house near Jones Terrace at 5:15 am; the November sky is dark and bleary.
Linda has been taking the same route for months, which leads her to the Debenhams store on Henry Street, where she stands in the bay with her colleague Suzanne Sherry and other former employees blocking the removal of stock by liquidators KPMG on a six-hour shift.
In her 60’s, Linda has worked at the Henry Street store for nineteen years; it was previously Roches Stores.
Linda’s grandfather Christopher Duffy was shot in the neck as a fifteen-year-old on Bloody Sunday in Croke Park on November 21st, 1920 when British forces opened fire indiscriminately at a GAA match between Tipperary and Dublin.
Patrick O’Connell’s son, who had traveled home from Manchester, attended this match, which saw fourteen civilians murdered by the occupying forces.
Duffy himself would survive and go on to captain St. Josephs and don the blue of his county Dublin winning two Leinster championships in 1932 and 1933.
O’Connell’s son would befriend John William Scott on the same streets his father played football on, John lived at no. 15 Fitzroy Avenue.
Many years later Nell O’Connell would sit in the front room in Fitzroy Avenue and relay to family members the terrible day Patrick Jnr. came home with blood on his shoes and how he screamed ‘his new friend had been shot…’ – John William Scott was carried to Mrs. Colmans house on St. James Avenue; he perished on her table.
In Cork where O’Connell holidayed after his La Liga success in 1935, former Debenhams employee Claire O’Leary has been standing outside the Patrick Street branch eight months pregnant fighting for a just redundancy.
Los Beticos have been supportive across social media platforms, fans such as Jorge P. Martin, historian Alfonso Del Castillo, and the many Penya’s have supported the Irish workers.
Betis are the workers club, their green and white jersey hails from Glasgow where one of their founders Manuel Asensio Ramos took home a Celtic shirt.
In 1940 after Franco had won the civil war O’Connell returned to Seville to manage the ‘VerdeBlanco’ for a second stint.
Betis had been relegated to the second division within a year under the maestro they were back in the top flight.
During that season down the road from the Estadio Benito Villamarín many who supported O’Connell’s La Liga victory in 1935 were spending their days in a concentration camp, in total there were one hundred and eighty camps up until 1947 dotted across Spain under the control of Franco’s army.
The Debenhams workers have recently taken their cause to the Irish parliament’s steps, two hundred and twenty-two days after they began their just fight for a proper redundancy, the ball is firmly in the government’s court.
In solidarity with the Real Betis supporters, Cllr Kieran Mahon from Tallaght, Dublin, brought a ‘Verde Blanco’ shirt the colours of Real Betis to the demonstration, as the workers turned their attention to the Irish government for a just settlement.
For many years during his football career, Patrick O’Connell had to fight for his rights. Today, his fellow Irish are on the same road.