William O’Donnell was born on the 24th January 1919 in Main Street, Cappoquin, County Waterford, Ireland. He died on 14th November 1992 in Charing Cross Hospital, London. He had come to London in 1952 and was to spend the rest of his life in Chiswick where he was laid to rest.
William (known to most as Bill) was born the fourth child in a family consisting of four brothers (Lawrence, Francis and Patrick) and three sisters (Eileen, Josephine and Kate).
His father, also William O’Donnell, was born in 1887. William (Senior) hailed from Monalour, near the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains. He had worked at the Mount Melleray Abbey for some twenty seven years (a letter detailing this can be found here) and then moved into the town having previously purchased a farm at Kilbree about 2 miles away.
William’s mother Hannah Heelan was born in 1882 and came from Glenshask, a rural area 3 miles from Lismore where her people had farmed for many years.
William and Hannah met and married between 1901 and 1911 (the 1911 census shows them as living in Cappoquin, Main Street.) William’s parents were farming folk who had set up a public house and grocery store in the town and were determined to progress in business and to give the large family a good start in life. The public house in question is the Central Bar, Main Street, Cappoquin, Co. Waterford – still there today.
William grew up in the Central Bar and has many interesting and amusing stories of this period of his life in addition to the poems- see ‘I’ll Tell My Story’, ‘The Money Makers’, The Mystery of the Missing Postman’ and ‘Strong Men of Cappoquin in Years Gone By.’
He was also a keen Hurling player representing Cappoquin on many occasions, a photograph can be found here.
Irish Rebellion / World War Two
During this turbulent historical period William moved to Leicester, England in 1943. Perturbed by fighting both within Ireland and outside and concerned about the Irish government of the time and the clash for independence he felt he could no longer remain in his motherland. This is beautifully summed up in one of his finest works ‘The Roving Irish Race’.
During the war William worked as at the No.62 Aircraft Factory in Coventry as an Inspector – a report of his work can be found here.
Throughout his time in Leicester, William continued to document his life through the written word and now gives us an important perspective of what life was like during this period for an Irish exile living in England during the war. It is also gratifying to see that Irish humour and wit was not lost however hard life became.
After meeting in Leicester, on the 30th August 1948 William married another Irish exile – Hannah Ward from Tuberkeen, County Donegal, and they lived in Teddington, London before setting up home in Chiswick, London in 1952.
Carefully selected for its important historical note and the home of the late William Hogarth, this London suburb was the base from which William would write and fight tirelessly for the Irish cause.
William moved to 62 Fielding Road, Chiswick in 1952 where he remained for the rest of his life. His family expanded and his son William was born in 1950 and twins followed in 1953 – Moira and Dermot. The family grew up in the London home where they were constantly reminded of their rich Irish heritage and Catholic faith – a good example of this are the letters that William sent and recieved from the Taoiseach which hung on the wall for many years.
There were many Irish people living in Chiswick at this time including Hannah’s sister Bridget, husband Philip and two children Maria and Elizabeth who were regulars in the audience of Bill’s home performances. There was always a convivial atmosphere at family events.
During this stage of his life William worked as a manager in the civil engineering and construction industry, mainly at sites in London, and a large part of this time was with the Rom River Company which was involved in supplying steel reinforcements for concrete work.
Having not been given the opportunity to study in Ireland for a degree, and clearly possessing the capability to excel, William was determined that, at the age of 60, he would prove to the world that Irish people were of intelligence. He started a 3-year course at the Open University in English Literature and Drama. Despite suffering a number of heart attacks along the way, at the age of 64 William achieved that degree. He was congratulated far and wide – reported in many papers with the headline ‘Great academic achievement by Cappoquin born exile’ copies of which can be found here.
Throughout his life William continued to document his journey and had hundreds of poems and articles published in both the UK, Ireland and USA. He was influenced by the anti-Irish articles he read, important historical events (most notably the death of John. F. Kennedy in 1963) and thoughts of home.
William passed away from a stroke on the 14th November 1992 leaving behind his wife Hannah, 3 children and 9 grandchildren.
He was buried in Chiswick where he had lived since 1952 – but his memory lives on immortalised in word forever.