Linehan pays tribute to ‘absolute gent’
PANTO legend John Linehan has paid a moving tribute to comedian Tom O’Connor, who defied IRA bombers to ensure that the show went on at Christmas in Belfast 30 years ago.
The Liverpool funnyman died in hospital last week aged 81 after a 14-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
The maths teacher turned entertainer was hailed a hero in Belfast in December 1991 after a Provo bomb badly damaged the Grand Opera House, where he and John, aka May McFettridge, were due to appear in Babes in the Wood.
The 1,000lb bomb also wrecked part of the Europa Hotel and the headquarters of the Ulster Unionist Party.
The device exploded in Glengall Street 25 minutes after a telephone warning, with the security forces having to evacuate hundreds from the area beforehand
Twenty-three people, including 13 police officers, were hurt by the blast.
It was quickly apparent that the devastation to the Grand Opera House was so severe that it would not be possible for the pantomime to go ahead.
However, rather than heading back home, Tom stayed on in Belfast and, along with John, resolved to search for an alternative venue to stage the panto, which also starred Downtown Radio’s Candy Devine and the late actor John Hewitt.
The management at the La Mon Hotel in Castlereagh, which had been the scene of one of Northern Ireland’s worst terrorist outrages in 1978 when 12 people were killed, offered their facilities.
While they were unable to stage Babes in the Wood, the actors went ahead with a scaled-down version of Aladdin that played in front of packed houses after opening on Christmas Eve and ran for four weeks.
“Tom could easily have done what others did and got out of Belfast, but he didn’t want to let people here down, so we set about finding a new way to stage a panto,” John said.
“Aladdin was all very hastily put together, but the audiences seemed to enjoy it and there was a deep sense of gratitude that a show did go on.
“We even ensured that disabled children, who always loved the pantomimes, were able to see the show at La Mon.
“It wasn’t quite the spectacular that audiences were used to at the Opera House and there wasn’t quite as big a band, but Tom pulled out all the stops to make sure that the panto was entertaining from start to finish.
“That was typical of him. He was a complete professional and an absolute and genuine gentleman as well.
“There were no airs and graces about him and he always took the time to meet and greet people after the show. He had a smile and a special word for everyone. On a personal level, Tom and I got on really well and every year he sent a Christmas card to the Opera House.
“There just seemed to be more and more names on the Christmas card every year.”
The English entertainer rose to fame on the talent show Opportunity Knocks, which he won three times before going on to host quizzes including Name That Tune.
He leaves a wife, four children, 16 grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
O’Connor’s daughter-in-law Denise Lewis, the former gold medal Olympian, said his “whole mantra was about making people laugh”.
She added: “He lived with Parkinson’s for about 14 years and we saw him coping very well, [but] in the latter couple of years, it really started to take a hold. It’s tragic, but without a doubt, Tom always tried to make light of it.
“Even at the end, when he [was losing] his battle with the disease, you could see that spark in his eyes, that humour still coming through those eyes of his right to the end.”