Written by Lt Col Zac Stenning (H. 1985-90) MBE
Saturday, 14 January 2012

"On behalf of the wider O’Connell family, especially Shirley and Doreen I would like to wish you all a very warm welcome and thank you for attending today, to celebrate the life of Sergeant Major Chris O’Connell BEM. This large gathering clearly reflects the love and status with which Chris was undoubtedly held.

The purpose of today is very much to celebrate Chris’s life.  As I know many of you in this room will agree, he was and will remain a true legend; admired and loved by so many.  As ever with Chris – humour will of course feature.  It is of note that since his passing away Chris remains well travelled – the girls (Shirley and Doreen) managed to smuggle Chris’s ashes into Ireland and through the judicious use of shopping carrier bags and the help of some wonderful Irish people have scattered some of his ashes across the length and breadth of Dublin.  Everywhere from Chris’s mother’s grave, Phoenix Park, Western Road Boys School, Pro-Cathedral, Saint Stephen’s Green, Ha’penny Bridge (where sadly the tide was out on the River Liffey and the ashes stuck to the wall!), his cousin’s garden and finally O’Connell Street of course! It is apposite that the Chapel is today festooned with sunflowers – Chris’s favourite flower.  But what else of Chris – he was a Ballykissangel fan, the best raconteur many of us have ever know, the greatest smoker of golden Virginia and finally, probably the only man turned away from the Blarney stone in Ireland, for having quite literally ‘too much Blarney’!  He passed away just over a year ago today on the 7th Jan 2011 aged 85 – an incredible innings.

So what of Chris?  I wish to celebrate his life today by looking through 4 prisms – Chris the soldier, Chris Brighton College CCF RSM, Chris the mentor and inspirer and finally Chris the family man.  I will as I do, unashamedly ad lib from the fine tribute in last year’s Pelican, written by Antony Whitestone and Chris Alderson and others and must formally record here, the further help I have received from many in the audience including Chris’s family, John Page, David Heaver and so many others.  Whilst I may not cover everything I hope to spike in your minds some of your favourite memories, so that as we continue afterwards in the Ginger Dog (what used to be The Wellie!) with a glass of wine, the celebration of Chris’s great life continues.

Early Days
Chris was born in Dublin 4 June 1926 – his father a builder and his mother (Rose) a busy housewife.  He had a 3 siblings; 2 brothers Paul and John (John who sadly predeceased him aged 4) and a sister, Teresa.

Chris the Soldier
Aged just 16, Chris lied about his age to join the Army.  We can I am sure all imagine Chris’s likely confidence and swagger in the Drill hall as he was medically checked and attested into the Army. Not many 16 year olds would have gotten through – but who is not surprised that Chris did! His chosen Regiment was the legendary Irish Guards. With the fabled motto of Quis separabit? (Who will separate us?) his early days of training were swift and hard and it was not long before Chris found himself with his Battalion as part of the The Guards Armoured Division. Chris remained in the United Kingdom, training, until late 1944, when he landed in Normandy to join his Battalion.  One of the first major actions that Chris was involved in was Operation Market Garden, where Chris’s Battalion was part of the ground forces' advance to relieve airborne troops aiming to seize the bridges up to Arnhem.  His Regiment directly assisted in the capturing of Nijmegen bridge in conjunction with American paratroopers – fabled in the book and film by Cornelius Ryan ‘A Bridge Too Far.’ It is of note that Chris like so many of his generation, spoke very little of his active service during the War.  I tried a few times to draw him as a young school boy – but he was always to my surprise, somewhat hazy on the details.  Now as a serving Officer, I recognize and respect why the memory of what you see and experience can sometimes be so purposefully forgotten.

Post war Chris did not demob, but volunteered for full Regular Service.  He enjoyed a lively career serving with his beloved late wife Marion in Germany where Shirley was born, and later in ceremonial duties at Windsor – where Doreen was born.  Interestingly his daughters remember fondly whilst on Royal Duties at Windsor Castle, Chris introducing them to the then young Prince Charles and Princess Anne. But life was not all drill and ceremony for the by then young Lance Sergeant O’Connell – he deployed in the late 50’s to Cyprus during the EOKA emergency, the scene of bitter fighting which claimed some 371 servicemens lives, and where we know Chris acquitted himself with great bravery and leadership.

In the late 1960’s, Chris finished his regular service in Northern Ireland – setting up the Youth Team in Ballymena and across NI.  Upon leaving the Army he applied somewhat surprisingly for the post of senior Golf steward at the Port Stewart Golf Club….however fate intervened and an offer from Brighton College brought him here. I am not sure of how the offer to be RSM at Brighton College came about, but it is important to record that Chris’s Adjutant in 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards during the War had been Guy Head, younger son of Commander Head (Bursar 1949-63) who I am sure would have looked out for him when he applied and guided Peter Points in his selection.  At this stage I wish to formally record and thank 1st Battalion Irish Guards only recently back from another tour in Afghanistan, represented here today by the Battalion Second in Command, Major Gareth Lightfoot and the Regimental Bugler.  They have of course attended the Service to celebrate the life of one of their own and I thought it worthy of reading a short poem, which captures the powerful bond that exists within the Irish Guards:

Have you ever met the Micks me lads, when wandering round the town,
They are the crowd of Irishmen, whose fame is renown.
There's Alexander, Mungo Park and O’Connel too,
But these names I state to you me lads, are merely just a few.

Now once you join the Irish Guards, then you're a Mick for life,
They'll stand by you, through thick and thin, through every kind of strife.
And should you ever be in a fight, with your back against the door,
Just holler 'UP THE MICKS' me lads, for that's their call for war.

They've been in many battles, and you'll find they always win,
For you'll never meet a Mick me lads, who says 'Well I'll give in'
They'll do or die, they're trained that way, they think the life is grand,
And heaven help old England, if they all came to Ireland.

Each one of you went through the mill, your life was made real hard,
But every single one of you, became an Irish Guard.
Those days are gone 'tis sad to say, but memories fondly cling,
And the Devil who chased the most of you, was known as Pokey Flynn.

The pride he took in his uniform, they still speak of today,
And if your cap peak was a fraction out, my god, there was hell to pay,
I'll make a Mick of you me lad, or die in the attempt,
There's many often wished he would, tho' it really was not meant.

As time goes by, old Micks pass on, but their names are ne'er forgot,
For they helped to rewrite history, tho' it may not be a lot,
And as Peter greets them at the gates, with a smile upon his lips,
The Angels all in chorus sing welcome 'UP THE MICKS'

And so to life at Brighton College…

Chris the CCF RSM
Although not a member of the Common Room as such, Chris O’Connell became in his thirty-year career at the College a truly legendary figure and, as one previous Headmaster has said, ‘simply the best Housemaster that convention prevented me from appointing’. Chris soon restored a pride in the Corps in the heady socially adjusting days of the late 60’s, the impeccable drill and turnout, especially among the Cadre, became objects of admiration and pride for the College. It was therefore quite fitting and a mark of the high reputation that Chris had within the Army, that the College Cadet Force was chosen to represent the more than 200 CCFs in the UK at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Review of her Reserve and Cadet Forces at (the old) Wembley Stadium on June 30th 1977. In recognition of this and his services to youth, Chris was awarded the Jubilee Medal and, later, the B.E.M (comparable to the MBE in today’s parlance) both presented to him on memorable occasions at the school as well as the Lord Lieutenant’s Award ‘for meritorious service’.

While not a man for service bureaucracy, Chris certainly knew how the system worked, and it was a point of honour for him that the contingent should always leave camp with if not more, then at least better, kit and equipment than when it arrived! His understanding of procedures left him unequalled at Annual Camp especially when it came to taking and handing over accommodation, for only an eye like his could detect a 'window that was cracked both sides', so that the record could be annotated accordingly to the Colleges advantage of course! His annual camps across the UK and weekends on the Mourne Mountains or in Pippingford Park were legendary – albeit I doubt they would survive today’s health and safety scrutiny! There must be scores if not hundreds who still regale their children with stories from their time in the CCF under Chris.

Perhaps some of the most special words have come from Chris Alderson who e-mailed me last week and who sadly cannot be here today.  These words capture the special relationships which exist between Officer and SNCO, which I know Chris enjoyed and I suspect so many staff enjoyed as well:
‘For me, what made his contribution so valuable was that ours remained a professional relationship, where individual responsibility was never shirked and mistakes, on both sides I have to say, were properly acknowledged. I enjoyed his friendship and his company but I was always the 'Major' and later the 'Colonel' and he 'Sgt Major'. Ours was a strong working relationship based on mutual respect which enabled us to work together in a common cause without becoming lost in familiarity.’
Chris Alderson

Another quote that I often heard about Chris’s time at Brighton College was that ‘he would always do something for everyone’ – the perfect quote – be it minibuses for sports trips, errands for the Headmaster or Housemaster, extra duties for the School Party evening, mentoring pupils and staff alike (of which more later),  Chris truly would ‘always do something for everyone.’

And so to Chris the Family man.
Chris as we all well know was the most wonderful brother, husband to Marian, father to Doreen and Shirley and of course grandfather to his grand children Francis and Sarah.  He will, I know, have been delighted that his recently born great grandson has been christened Charlie Christopher.  Family life for Chris was so important and be it walks with the dogs (Flynn, Sean and then Lizzie) or camping in the New Forest, Chris would always make family life so much fun.  Perhaps Marian had him best figured out when she wryly observed one day that if Chris were to ever have an affair – ‘it would be with Brighton College!’

Chris the Inspirer
One cannot do justice to the memory of Chris O’Connell without recalling the wider pastoral role he played within the College. It is in this role as an inspirer not only to those who went on to join the Armed Forces but to so many others, that his memory deserves a special place in the annals of the College.  The point is that his role received only infrequent publicity. Yes, on parade days he could be seen if you knew when and where to look, at AGI he was on show and rightly so, but in general, much of his best work was out of the public eye as he helped errant pupils and, dare I say it troubled staff, to wake up to themselves, to life and to their responsibilities. His may have been a listening ear, a sympathetic ear but his counsel was forthright, direct and if need be uncompromising. In my own case, cajoling me to get through my GCSEs and A levels, mentoring me in all things ‘life’ (most of which should remain secret) and introducing me to Irish humour and dryness…that utter honesty of the Irish that can be both crushing yet character building, in equal measure.  Chris’s aim was always to help those who came to see him to grow up, and in this there can be no doubting his success.  As a loyal servant, a great supporter and a successful manager of students and staff he has richly deserved his day in the sun today.

In conclusion I have no doubt that Chris has mentored and inspired countless generations.  I notice that some 700 people have already looked at the web page for the memorial service on the College website. I have no doubt whatsoever that around the world and for the rest of our adult lifetimes, there will be people who often recall the wisdom, guidance and compassion shown by the legendary and only Sergeant Major Chris O’Connell British Empire Medal (BEM), late Irish Guards, RSM Brighton College CCF, father and mentor to so many."

Sgt. Major Chris O'Connell Memorial Service report >>

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