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'He's always been a fighter' - Clubmates in awe of Cork All-Ireland winner battling cancer for a third time

Conor Counihan and Pearse O’Neill speak to The42 about Aghada’s Kieran O’Connor who is fighting cancer again.

THE BATTLER

Kieran O'Connor Kieran O'Connor is battling cancer for a third time since 2017. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

FORMER CORK DEFENDER Kieran O’Connor went out for a walk just a few days after recently having part of his leg amputated. 

Kieran enjoyed an exceptional football career with the Rebel county and the Aghada club. He started for Cork in two All-Ireland finals and was part of the panel that ended a 20-year wait to lift the Sam Maguire in 2010.

A distinguished man-marker, he was regularly assigned the job of marshalling some of the best forwards in the country, including Kerry legends Colm Cooper and Declan O’Sullivan.

Kieran was never daunted by those challenges. He savoured the opportunity to face down players of that quality.

And as Kieran remarked in an interview with the Irish Examiner last November, “two different Cork managers on two different teams asked me to mark those players, so I had to be showing something”.

He reached the pinnacle of his sport, but now he was battling cancer for a third time and part of his leg needed to be removed.

This was a different challenge to the ones he experienced in a Cork jersey.

But when his former Cork manager — and local Aghada man — Conor Counihan came to visit him a few days after the amputation, the same irrepressible spirit that carried Kieran throughout his football career was evident once again.

Counihan was inspired by Kieran’s character in the face of yet another setback.

Conor Counihan Conor Counihan has emphasised the positive attitude that O'Connor has shown. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Unfortunately, his leg had to be amputated below the knee but he was still very positive and that,” Counihan tells The42.

“I met him I’d say a couple of days after that, he had been fitted with a prosthetic and he had been out on the road walking up and down.

“He was very, very positive and then the news broke last week. But again, having talked to him, he’s been quite positive. Everyone around the place is very positive. Obviously, it’s a tough story but I think everyone in the community has been amazed at the level of support that he has got.

That was only a couple of days after and he was out on the road. He was progressing in terms of all he could do as opposed to what limitations that might cause for him.

“It’s incredible, it’s the attitude you want everyone to have but I don’t know could everyone produce it to the extent that Kieran does.”

Kieran and his clubmate Pearse O’Neill have grown up together in Aghada and the pair are heading for their 40th birthday this year. 

Along with Counihan, Aghada had three representatives in the Cork squad who were victorious in 2010. Counihan managed the side to glory, while O’Neill played a key role in their attack as they edged out Down in the All-Ireland final.

Pearse O'Neill Pearse O'Neill has been playing alongside O'Connor since they were young. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

O’Neill reflects on the fond memories they all shared when they brought the Sam Maguire Cup to their home parish that year, and in the three decades he soldiered alongside Kieran, he can’t remember the defender ever having a bad game.

Kieran was an excellent back and an excellent defender. It’s easy to say it now but I don’t remember Kieran ever getting roasted or cleaned out in a game. And he has played a lot of games for us.

“Any time there was a marquee forward against us at U21 or senior or whatever grade, Kieran was the man for him. He’s always delivered. He’s a tremendous man-marker and one of these lads who will always be up for the battle.

“He relished the bigger names and never let us down.”

Writing in the Irish Examiner last weekend, Cork’s 2010 captain Graham Canty referred to Kieran as one of Cork’s “100 percenters”. 

O’Neill often experienced that quality in Kieran when they were paired together for drills at Aghada training, and he always found him to be a tricky opponent.

You’d be doing the drills in training with Aghada maybe doing one-on-one stuff and you’d look across the line. If you saw Kieran next up, you might slip down a bit.

“Even in training he was a competitor. You’d never get anything easy off him.”

RALLYING SUPPORT

Kieran was first struck with cancer when a type of bone tumour called Ewing’s sarcoma was discovered in 2017. The diagnosis stemmed from a pain in his right ankle, which Kieran mistook as the long-term effects of racing around after the likes of Cooper and O’Sullivan.

Colm Cooper and Kieran O'Connor O'Connor in action against Kerry great Colm Cooper. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

After shrinking some of the tumour, Kieran had surgery to shave off part of the bone. He underwent chemotherapy while also having scans and blood tests carried out as part of his treatment.

Kieran came through all that and was already looking to the future just before Christmas 2018 when he embarked on a charity calendar idea called the ‘Local Bulls Calendar’.

A number of willing locals rallied alongside him to put their skin on display in the photos for the fundraiser, with all the proceeds going towards Pieta House and Mercy Hospital for mental health and cancer awareness. 

Counihan “shied away” from the venture, but he wasn’t surprised to see Kieran making such a gesture so quickly after his own illness. 

That would be Kieran. At the time, he had got the all clear and was very positive about things. That’d be him, he wanted to highlight the thing and give support to it which would be natural enough coming from him.

“He’d be a great community person and great to give time to other people. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

Local support rushed to Kieran’s aid once more when he was struck with cancer again recently. People have come together to organise fundraisers to help Kieran and his family cover his medical costs.

Aghada GAA and the ‘Friends of Kieran’ group have organised a walk which will take place later today, while a Go Fund Me Page has also been set-up for him.

At time of publication, the amount raised stood at over €292,000 although that figure is likely to keep rising.

“The family is going to need as much [help] as they can get,” says O’Neill of the ongoing fundraising efforts for Kieran.

“We’re not stopping with that and we’re gonna push it as hard as we can. There’s going to be some significant costs coming down the road for Kieran and the family so we’ll keep that motoring as much as we can both through Go Fund Me and other fundraising initiatives.”

David Geaney and Donnacha Walsh tackle Kieran O'Connor The Go Fund Me Page has raised over €292,000 for O'Connor. Source: Cathal Noonan

Canty’s article about Kieran’s health battle has brought his story to a national audience in the last week, and several people have reached out to the Aghada club looking to offer whatever help they can in Kieran’s time of need.

Counihan acknowledges that while revealing his story to the public can be somewhat exposing for Kieran, he reiterates that the former defender has maintained a positive outlook throughout.

And the wider support is greatly received.

That’s probably the biggest challenge facing people locally at the minute, trying to handle all the requests in terms of people wanting to help.

“Look it’s some story to have in the Ireland we live today. We all complain about it, but look, this is really the positive side of it.

“He’s turned that into a positive, the idea that so many people would be concerned and [would] contribute.

“I suppose it does put you in a very special place, that so many people would take time out to send you a message or whatever it is. I suppose that’s very powerful in itself in terms of ‘look, people really care.’”

BY HIS SIDE

kieran james sinead isabelle ava Kieran, Sinéad and their three children. Source: Anthony Connolly/Aghada GAA.

Kieran’s wife Sinéad went to primary school in Aghada, while Kieran attended a different school nearby.

O’Neill, who was in the same class as Sinéad, reckons the pair met and became an item when they were around 18. From then on, it was Kieran and Sinéad together for life.

“They’re literally tied at the hip for so many years,” says O’Neill.

Sinéad was due to have a baby when Kieran was first diagnosed with cancer and Kieran has previously highlighted the strength she showed to take care of their children at home while he was receiving treatment in hospital.

O’Neill echoes Kieran’s words about the woman who has always been by his side.

“She’s a really amazing woman.

They’ve three young kids and she’s with Kieran every step of the way. She’s battling for Kieran and her support is so invaluable.”

Counihan adds:

“In fairness to Kieran and Sinéad’s families, they’ve been marvelous. It’s all been very quiet for them in the last 12 months, they’ve supported one another and the strength of both families has been incredible through this.

“I think this has helped Kieran in a major way.”

THE BATTLE AHEAD

image0024 A huge crowd is expected at today's walk for O'Connor. Source: Anthony Connolly/Aghada GAA

Both O’Neill and Counihan have been in regular contact with Kieran throughout this ordeal. His resolve has surely been tested since his illness was first discovered, but his enthusiasm in the face of despair continues to reassure everyone that he’s ready for another battle.

The O’Connor family have a longstanding history in the Aghada GAA club, and O’Neill notes that they come from a tight-knit community where everyone is happy to lend a hand when a crisis strikes in their locality.

“Kieran is tough, competitive and he’s always been a fighter,” says the former Cork forward.

“I’m playing with Kieran 30 years and that’s the one overriding thing I would say about Kieran. He’s a competitor and the bigger the better.

“He’s as tough as it gets, a real hard kind of character.”

Kieran will hopefully be able to attend today’s walk where a big crowd is expected to turn out and pledge their support.

Counihan explains that Kieran’s story has resonated with people around the country, particularly those with links to the GAA.

And the former defender can take some encouragement from the number of people who want to help him overcome the biggest fight of his life.

Kieran is very upbeat,” says Counihan. “He knows he has a battle on but he’s a battler, he’s been a battler through all this. He’s very positive.

“He’s taken an awful lot from the support he’s got, not just financially but emotionally [as well]. People sending texts. There’s so much good will out there, it’s just hard to imagine.

“People just want to do something and I’ve no doubt we’ll get a phenomenal turnout. Hopefully it gives heart to other people who are in difficult situations that people really do care out there.” 

The #FriendsOfKieran are organising a 5km ‘Walk for Kieran’ today at 2pm to raise much needed funds for Kieran’s ongoing treatment for a rare form of bone cancer.

The walk begins at the Aghada GAA Grounds and people are encouraged to arrive from 12.30pm.

The event will be attended by a host of Kieran’s former team mates as well as a number Cork GAA stars from across the last three decades. Refreshments will be served at the clubhouse afterwards.

You can make a donation to Kieran’s Go Fund Me Page here.

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