On the outskirts of Armagh on the Loughall road there was a small hamlet of fifty tiny houses built for the workers of the Duncairne Spinning Mill. It was here that John O’Connor was born on 4th April 1920 and here that he lived with his family. His father, Johnny, was a First World War Somme veteran who returned in 1916 with shrapnel injuries to his leg and head. He was a cobbler by trade and he eked out a modest living with his wife Kitty by running a little shop from their tiny kitchen in the Mill Row.
It was a simple life, dictated by the working mill, the river floods and the simplicity of the lives lived there.
The family moved from the Mill Row in 1932, to a ‘grand’ house by comparison, at St. Columba’s Terrace, Banbrook Hill. A blue plaque in honour of O’Connor has been erected at the house.
John O’Connor left school in the mid 1930s and worked, briefly, as a telegram boy. His career with the post office was short-lived as he much preferred lying on the banks of the Callan River dreaming and crafting his stories. He became a prolific writer, producing pieces for local newspapers, a large number of short stories and several documentary programmes for the BBC under the encouraging eye of his close friend and mentor, Sam Hanna Bell.
His only novel, Come Day – Go Day, was described by Benedict Kiely as a ‘masterpiece’ beautifully capturing the ‘wonder, danger and magic of ordinary days’.
In the early 1950s John O’Connor travelled to Papua New Guinea and then Australia, where he died suddenly from peritonitis in Ayr, near Townsville, in December 1959.
His emergence as a storyteller of genius did not happen in a vacuum.
His immersion in the cultural and literary traditions of his native city in particular, and County Armagh in general, is evident in his work. The people and environment were his material; local schools and institutions fed his creativity.
Come Day – Go Day was first published by Golden Eagle Books Limited in Dublin in 1948, then republished by Blackstaff Press in 1984.
In 1984 Sam Hanna Bell said, ‘We’ve had to wait 36 years for the reappearance of this gallery of beautifully drawn characters.’ Pioneered by Sam Hanna Bell and John Boyd, and more recently by Paul Muldoon, he is described as ‘Armagh’s lost literary great’ (Culture NI, 2016).
The next edition of Come Day – Go Day was published by The John O’Connor Writing School in November 2016, with the assistance of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
This recent publication will help bring the work of this important author to the wider audience that it – and he – deserves.
Now, a new generation of writers, poets, playwrights, songwriters, film-makers and their audiences will gather again in Armagh to celebrate and enjoy the beauty of language in all its forms, to revisit the work of John O’Connor, and to take inspiration from his beautiful city, and from each other.