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Behind the Scenes: Our colleague, Gregory O’Connor

At the closing of 2020 on December 31st this grim and traumatic year confirmed its character when our beloved colleague, archivist, Gregory O’Connor, died suddenly.

To be honest with you while writing this it can still seem unreal. We hadn’t seen Gregory in person since lockdown in March. Weekly team Zoom meetings are one thing but there was nothing quite like seeing Gregory come along with his distinctive gait (which remained unaltered despite a hip operation), his flapping coat and his briefcase. Gregory served in Public Services and our team is small, every staff member is hugely important to the running of the service but even more so when the staff member is like Gregory, one with – this is no exaggeration- an encyclopaedic knowledge of archive sources and Irish history and, most importantly, a limitless generosity in sharing that knowledge.

Gregory leaves behind a family and one can’t compare our loss to the O’Connor’s, our condolences extend to his children and his wife, Pauline. However, it is no understatement to say that his loss has been extremely painful and will come further into focus when ‘business as usual’ resumes at Bishop Street.  A few of his closest colleagues who worked with him in Public Services pay tribute to him below.

First, Head of Public Services, and a close personal friend of Gregory as well as a long standing colleague, Brian Donnelly:

When the sad news reached the existing staff in the National Archives and retired staff too, there was shock, disbelief, sadness and more than a few tears were shed.

Gregory was an institution in the National Archives and an irreplaceable one.

I remember him telling me that his grandfather was born in the 1830s and his father in the 1890s. I’m sure that this coloured his view of the passage of time. A sense of history and curiosity was certainly stimulated by his father, who had attended the founding of the Irish Volunteers and the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. He worked in the Land Commission and Gregory was delighted to find him identified, in one of the police files in the archives, as a particularly dangerous man. But he was a man with moral scruples and declined to take part in the War of Independence as he was opposed to the taking of human life.

Gregory started his civil service career in the Department of Finance, and kept in contact with many friends there.  He joined the National Archives during a period of great change. His interest in the archives gave him an unprecedented knowledge of sources and made him the authority on our holdings. In the reading room he was generous in sharing his knowledge and helped generations of researchers – academics, genealogists, family historians, local historians. He was one of the first archivists to receive the designation Higher Archivist when it was introduced to reflect experience and knowledge in the archival field. When there were difficult questions, Gregory was the man most likely to know the answer. Gregory worked in the field outside the archives as well, often risking life and limb, and brought in many collections from courthouses and solicitor’s offices.

He was a polymath, a talented linguist and an inveterate traveller. He was a great attender at religious services, particularly those conducted in foreign languages.

He had a great sense of humour. In the morning he would come into the office and make a little joke with whoever was behind the reception desk. This would continue during the day with staff and readers and end when he made a final quip to the security man as he was leaving at night.

He was generous both with his knowledge and with his time, whether it was in Rathfarnham where he was President of the Historical Society or as a stalwart member of archival organisations such as the committee of the Irish Society for Archives. He was a most conscientious worker and was invariably the last person to leave the archives at night. We shall miss him but we will not forget him.

 

Public Services Archivist, Suzanne Bedell:

I first got to know Gregory in 2016 when working as a contract archivist at the National Archives. He was always so friendly and he always stopped to say hello when he passed through my workroom on his way to find files he needed to answer queries. He took a particular interest in what I was cataloguing at the time, especially the bankruptcy office collection, as he was an expert in all things court records. It was then I learnt of his love of travel and how he took an interest in learning languages.

A couple of years later, I started working in my current role as an archivist in the Public Services Division, where I again worked alongside Gregory. As an archivist working in Public Services it can be quite daunting at first as there is a lot to learn. You’re only getting to know collections, how the finding aids work and you’ve to assist researchers as best as you can in the Reading Room, on the phone and via written correspondence.
During those times I relied heavily on the Public Services team, including Gregory, to help me through these early stages in the role.

In the Public Service Division we all work so closely together. We are like a little family. I honestly couldn’t thank Gregory enough for all his patience, wisdom, help and the constant support that he provided not only then but throughout my time working with him. He always had a smile on his face and was only too happy to assist. Gregory was also very supportive throughout the pandemic when we all couldn’t work in-person together. He would help us out with his photographic memory, remembering where to locate material whist he worked remotely. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the collections we held and always had an answer to the most unusual request.

Gregory was a valued mentor and a dear friend who will be greatly missed by all. The National Archives won’t be the same without him. May he rest in peace.

 

Archivist responsible for Education and Outreach, Elizabeth McEvoy:

When I think of Gregory, it still comes as a shock that in certain cases, the past tense must be used because in my mind’s eye, he is still walking down Bishop Street, coat flapping, trusty umbrella and briefcase in tow, en route to the office. In common with most of my workmates, I hadn’t seen Gregory for much of 2020 due to the pandemic and so his all-too premature passing still has an unreal quality to it.

I prefer instead to remember what made Gregory tick. His love of languages (the more challenging, the better) and the law. His mixing of business and pleasure when practising his Romanian on a visit to the National Archives in Bucharest. His fan’s delight in scoring a ticket to see Brian Wilson and the Wondermints live in concert in the early noughties. The pleasure he took in table quizzes. His sweet tooth.

In his eagerness to learn new facts and his steadfast commitment to his legal studies in King’s Inn’s at a stage in life when many are contemplating a relaxing retirement, Gregory was an exemplar of life-long learning. Running in tandem with this was his support and long-standing membership of his beloved Rathfarnham Historical Society, myriad language/conversation groups and his committee membership of the Irish Society for Archives, where he could always be relied on for good ideas and suggestions for lectures and events.

These qualities of support, loyalty and commitment were also on display in Gregory’s role as a colleague in the National Archives. Over the course of 21 years in the National Archives, many of them spent working directly with Gregory in Reader/Public Services Division, I cannot remember a single time when he refused to give a talk, to fill in for a colleague or to swap Reading Room duty over the coveted Christmas holidays. Gregory’s willingness to share his knowledge (sometimes on the most arcane point of law), his collegiality and generosity with his time were known and appreciated in Bishop Street and beyond and made him an in-demand guest speaker for both internal and external events.

It’s Gregory’s joie de vivre that will live long in the memory and it’s certain that ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.

 

 

My colleagues have said it all beautifully but I would like to add that that in the 5 years I worked with Gregory as a ‘needy’ archivist learning on the job, there was never once an expression of exasperation as he saw my number pop up on his phone or I knocked sheepishly on his door seeking urgent advice for a reader. His office was always freezing, he never felt the cold. He never hesitated to swap duty to accommodate my travels home to my family at Christmas-time and he was always quick with a pun. He was rarely punctual. My last memory of Gregory was on a National Archives Zoom our kind of Christmas get-together in mid-December.  I was already at my parents’ house and brought our dog to sit on my lap, Gregory emailed me after and remarked on how nice it was to see me ‘and your charming dog’, to me that sums him up – a lovely person.

We would like to thank all archive colleagues and our reader’s, of which there have been many, who have contacted us to express their sorrow on hearing of Gregory’s death, it has meant a lot to us and his family.

 

Natalie Milne, Archivist, Public Services

 

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