Tears flowed at the funeral of an Irish soldier who died in a skydiving accident in Spain – months before he was to be married.
Acting Sergeant Major Declan ‘Doc’ O’Connell, 54, died near Seville on February 12 during an off-duty parachuting tragedy after 33 years in the Defences Forces, which he joined on February 14, 1990.
His devastated loved ones, including fiancée Audrey O’Grady, their 14-year-old daughter Niamh, and his parents Mary and Iggy led mourners yesterday into St Brigid’s Church at The Curragh, Kildare, for his military funeral.
Mourners heard that Sgt Maj O’Connell and Audrey were due to marry in May and were told he was like a comet that blazed through the sky and lit up life.
His coffin was draped in the flag of Ireland, while his mother Mary wiped away tears as her only son’s coffin was placed at the altar and close friends carried forward gifts to represent his life.
These included his military medals, his Sgt Maj drill stick, his army dog tags, a guitar, and his sports jerseys for Sarsfields, Newbridge Town, Leinster, and Liverpool.
Military chaplain Fr PJ McEvoy paid tribute to Sgt Maj O’Connell, saying he was a devoted family man whose priority was fiancée Audrey, daughter Niamh, and his second family which was the Defence Forces.
Fr McEvoy told mourners: “Over the last 18 years here at The Curragh, I got to know Declan. Sometimes we’d meet at the side of the mountain and we had numerous conversations.
“One conversation stands out. He was telling me how he was deeply impressed by some words and how they changed his life.
“These words were spoken by a late Lt Gen who gave five points for life: prioritise family, work hard, exercise, give back to the community, have faith.
“Declan’s life was centred on his family. It was of supreme importance to him. Audrey and Declan had so many plans.
“Their love for each other was deep and they had plans to marry in May. Niamh was the apple of Declan’s eye.
“There was never a day went by that he didn’t think of her. He was so proud of her and her achievements.
“Iggy and Mary, Declan’s parents, loved him to the moon and back. He was the centre of their world. Declan was a loving and caring son.”
He added: “He was a rock. Declan’s second family was the Defence Forces. He was a highly trained, accomplished, professional soldier and was very proud of his overseas service.
“He was always firm and fair and led a very active lifestyle. He played football and soccer and loved his rugby and was an active member of the Black Knights, the Defence Force’s parachute club.
“When I think of Declan, I think of a comet, this blazing star that goes across the dark night, lighting up everything; a huge ball of fire and energy.
“Then, all of a sudden, it’s burnt out and it’s gone.
“And that is the case of Declan. All of a sudden, tragically, he’s gone and his loved ones are plunged into darkness.”
Family friend Eamon Lawlor read out a letter of sympathy from President Michael D Higgins and said on behalf of the family that it has been a “traumatic and stressful time” and thanked everyone who helped to repatriate Declan’s body.
President Higgins wrote: “May I say how deeply saddened I was to hear of the tragic and untimely death of your fiancé, Acting Sgt Maj Declan O’Connell.
“He exemplified the moral fortitude, courage and integrity and deep selflessness that personifies the Defence Forces.”
Liverpool FC’s You’ll Never Walk Alone anthem rang out and bagpipes were played after Communion before Sgt Maj O’Connell was laid to rest at St Conleth’s Cemetery in Newbridge.
Authorities in Spain stated that Sgt Maj O’Connell died in a tragedy “during his landing” near La Juliana aerodrome in Bollullos de la Mitacion, a town near Seville.
He attended Patrician Brothers school before he joined the army and led an active life, playing football for Newbridge Sarsfields and soccer for Newbridge Town.
He began skydiving in the army in 2004 and had travelled to Russia and Spain to pursue his hobby.
In 2016, he was part of the first Irish group to make the podium at the World Indoor Sky Dive Championship, where they won gold.
Doc, who had nearly 700 jumps under his belt, said at the time: “Winning gold was a tremendous feeling.”
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