My Dad: James O’Connell


….and when Peace here does house,

He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,

He comes to brood and sit.

Peace by Gerard Manley Hopkins 

Image 4

On the 8 September 2013, my Dad, James O’Connell, died at the age of 87. I miss him sorely.

Dad had an unusual life: he was born in Cork in 1925; he and his brother, Eddie, were orphaned at a young age. He was taught in Gaelic, studied for his PhD in Belgium, became a Catholic priest and worked as both a priest and an academic in Nigeria, spending 20 years altogether in Africa. It was there that he met me and my mother, Rosemary O’Connell.

James, Sanjida, Sheila1977


Dad left the priesthood and married my Mum the year he turned 50 and I turned 5. He then went on to have a quite different life. He had three children, Sheila, Deirdre and Patrick, and an outstandingly successful career as the head of the Peace Studies Department at Bradford University. He believed peace to be an academic subject that could be studied rigorously. After his retirement, he continued to work, writing, travelling, lecturing and was the longest serving board member for the British American Security Information Council. To the end of his life Dad was a formidable intellect who never knew where the jam was kept.


Dad has influenced me profoundly. He always encouraged my love of the natural world, as well as my writing. Without him my work would not be interwoven with the rhythms and language of Hopkins’ poetry, or incorporate my skewed slant on Catholicism. My third and favourite novel, The Naked Name of Love, is inspired by and dedicated to him. The title I wanted for the book was, The Priest and the Lily.  It’s about a priest who falls in love with a woman who has a small child. It’s set in Outer Mongolia in 1859. Dad’s comment was: ‘I wish you’d write about something  you know about that’s closer to home.’


It was Dad I always turned to for guidance on politics and how to deal with difficult people. Now I have no idea what to think about the middle east conflict but I hope I treat others as he taught me to: fairly and, above all, compassionately. My most vivid memories are of him laughing or giving one of his wry smiles that meant, I know I’m right!


BASIC Board member, Joanna Spear, wrote of him as a colleague; her words could easily be applied to how he was as a father:


He could be tough when necessary but was unfailingly fair and considered. He always had a good story and a sense of mischief about him. He was a gem and we are sad he is gone.


Above all, though, I am touched how he brought me up as if I were his own child, making no distinction in his love for me and his own children, and yet he also managed to make me feel special and celebrate my differences. Right from the start he said it was a package deal: my mother and me. He always said that I was very similar to him. I think, thanks to him, I share some of his outlook on life: kindness, I hope, and a certain steely determination. I don’t harbour his enduring desire to eat vanilla ice cream every day of one’s life: that trait is shared with my daughter, and his youngest granddaughter.


Obituaries about Dad:

The Guardian

Bradford University Peace Studies Department

Hackney Gazette

My sister, Sheila, has set up two donation pages in his memory. One is for Water Aid; thanks to Dad’s experience in Africa, he always said, ‘Without water you cannot have life’. The other is for St Joseph’s Hospice, where the staff cared for him with kindness and dignity during the last few days of his life.