The quote illustrates the career of Offaly’s mental health advocate and successful businessman
MENTAL health campaigner and successful businessman James O’Connor received the prestigious Offaly Person of the Year 2021 award at a reception at the Bridge House Hotel, Tullamore last Saturday evening.
A citation describing his achievements as an activist and businessman was read by Pat Teehan, a member of Offaly’s Person of the Year organizing committee and Chairman of the GAA’s Leinster Council.
The quote reads: “It is with great pleasure that I present to you this evening the winner of the Offaly Person of the Year 2021 award.
The award is given to a successful and hardworking businessman who is a leading mental health campaigner in Offaly and surrounding counties.
Born in Tullamore 42 years ago, he was educated locally at St Joseph’s NS and Tullamore Vocational School.
But as he himself admits, he didn’t like school and spent most of his time having boobies and playing with his classmates. It was only later in his life that he realized the benefit of a good education!
He excelled in wood and metal work and his thirst for working with his hands and the opportunity to earn money drove him to drop out of school after his Junior Cert.
The 2021 Offaly Person of the Year first went to work at Harpscreen where he earned what he thought was a fortune.
After that he worked with Joe Keyes and Sons and this is where he gained valuable knowledge and skills in the building and carpentry industry and this is where his true love of the job began . With Joe, he worked on major projects including Texas Dept. Store, Pat’s Bar and Capital Cars and he loved seeing those old buildings changed and brought to life.
He left Joe to work in Texas for a while. The shop was constantly changing and the owner traveled the world coming back with new ideas for displays etc.
The 2021 Offaly Person of the Year was doing the general building work, but he noticed that all the shop fitters were from Dublin or the North and charged a fortune. It was there that he saw an opportunity to step in and deliver value to the Texas owner while earning a few pounds himself.
He started his own business when he was 17 and by the time he was 19 the business was booming and he and a team of five were working on projects in the Midlands.
That’s when tragedy struck and in February 1999 her baby daughter Leah Victoria died. It turned his world upside down. He threw himself into his job as a way of coping and subsequently his relationship with Leah’s mother broke down.
In June of the same year, he attempted suicide and ended up on life support, then in psychiatric care.
But as soon as he was able, he typically went straight back to work.
Soon after, he met Lisa and he got stronger and his business grew more and more.
At the age of 24 he completed the fit-out of the former Days Hotel – now Central Hotel in Main Street – it was a huge undertaking with the whole project completed in 12 weeks at a cost of 1.5 million euros.
This was a turning point and he began to take on bigger projects. He had five teams on the road working across the country for government agencies, multinational corporations, department stores, office buildings and shopping malls.
When the accident happened, he made the difficult decision to let everyone go, including some of his best friends.
Then followed a few tough years – dealing with banks on various properties he had purchased and making tough sacrifices and decisions. He took this time to work on the business and renamed himself fititout.
He went to college part-time and earned a degree in construction management.
The 2021 Offaly Person of the Year and his team now work almost exclusively in the Midlands, where their work is instantly recognized for its thoughtful design and meticulous attention to detail.
In 2015, after two young men he was close to killed themselves in quick succession, he made the decision to share his own story – he posted it on Facebook in hopes of helping just one person. The response was huge with hundreds of people messaging her saying they were struggling and were ashamed or embarrassed to tell anyone.
This is what inspired him to become an ambassador for See Change, the national stigma reduction program.
In 2018, he and Lisa launched the Tullamore Goes Green initiative as part of the National Green Ribbon Campaign in hopes of encouraging people to talk about mental health.
To date, they have distributed over 40,000 green ribbons and over 280 local businesses, community and sports groups have gotten involved by posting photos on social media and organizing events.
It was through this that he was approached to get involved with a local counseling center in an effort to help overthrow him. His perspective was a new broom and he believed he could draw on his own experience and provide the community with a purpose-built advice center that would be accessible to everyone, regardless of their means.
Accessible Counseling Tullamore ( ACT).
The center is managed by Dympna Summerville who is assisted by Lisa who does all the reception and administrative work, and it is to these two ladies, as well as to the ten volunteer workers, that he attributes the success of the center .
This week the center welcomed 1,000 customers from across the Midlands. They come from all walks of life and range in age from 16 to 88 and receive help with issues ranging from anxiety, grief, stress, addiction, anger and relationship issues, to name a few. name a few.
ACT provides a place for people who may not know how to access advice or who may not be able to afford private counseling to receive professional and confidential service that literally saves people’s lives.
Offaly is very proud of his accomplishments in business and as a mental health advocate.
Tonight we salute the 33rd recipient of the Offaly Person of the Year award.
Ladies and gentlemen, stand up for the 2021 Offaly Person of the Year, James O’Connor.
See pages 41 and 42