Huge fundraising festival taking place as Donegal carpenter who volunteered during the days after Sept 11, 2001, was diagnosed with stage-four cancer.
A lingering cough was the first clue that something wasn’t right with Owen McConnell, a New Yorker by way of Ardagh, County Donegal.
At first, he thought the cough was an occupational hazard. McConnell worked as a union carpenter and had his own company, so being surrounded by dust and debris was an everyday occurrence.
But when the cough persisted and worsened, he went to a doctor who recommended a series of tests. The results? Stage two lung cancer that, within a few weeks, was diagnosed as stage four.
How could an otherwise healthy, 51-year-old non-smoker have such a dreaded, fast-moving disease?
All clues point to McConnell’s volunteer recovery work in the days after September 11, 2001.
McConnell, married with four children, received the chilling diagnosis a year ago. His long-time friend Karl Campbell, one of the many organizers of a huge fundraising festival for the McConnell family that’s set for multiple venues in Yonkers on Sunday, October 27, says that McConnell has been bowled over by all of the community support.
“Owen is an incredible person. His diagnosis hasn’t gotten him down, and the only time I’ve seen him get emotional is when we talk about the fundraiser and all the people who want to help. He chokes up. He’s so appreciative,” Campbell, also from Ardagh, Co. Donegal, told the Irish Voice.
McConnell was born in the U.S. and brought back to Ardagh to be raised with his two brothers by their Donegal-born parents. All of the McConnells remain in Donegal, but Owen made his way back to New York with his Ardagh girlfriend and now wife Joanne.
He started work as a union carpenter in Manhattan, and eventually started his own business with two friends. The company was doing well, the family he was creating with Joanne was getting bigger – they have four children – and McConnell decided to go into business for himself.
“He was living his own version of the American Dream,” Campbell said.
The McConnells moved to a home in Mahopac, a town in Putnam County. Owen continued his work in New York City, and on September 11, 2001, one of his jobs was nearby. In the horrific days afterwards, he felt compelled to serve as a volunteer for clean-up efforts.
Like so many others who were unknowingly risking their lives, McConnell had no clue that the toxins he was inhaling could one day come back to haunt him. But seemingly that’s exactly what happened, as his physicians are otherwise at a loss to explain how such a rapidly moving cancer could have taken root.
After his initial stage two diagnosis last year, further testing revealed that the cancer had moved to McConnell’s bones and lymph nodes. Surgery wasn’t an option, and currently he’s taking a chemotherapy pill that Campbell says is proving some relief.
“The cancer hasn’t progressed and it is not in his brain. But it hasn’t regressed either,” he said.
McConnell is heavily involved in community activities in Mahopac, particularly with the local lacrosse team which his teenage son Finian plays on. The McConnells are also parents to three daughters, Roma, Kyia and Mia – the age range for the kids is 14 to seven.
His business is being supervised by co-workers, as McConnell is unable to work anymore. The family has insurance, and McConnell has applied for assistance under some of the relief programs for 9-11 volunteers which has yet to be approved.
The many friends of the McConnells decided to band together a few months ago to organize a fundraiser. The original idea was to gather in Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers, but Catskills resident and local festival organizer Donal Gallagher had a better thought – given how beloved Owen is, why not get a whole bunch of venues in and around Yonkers to participate and make a day-long festival out of it?
That’s exactly what will happen on Sunday, October 27. With the assistance of singer Kitty Kelly and many other supporters, 11 venues in Yonkers and nearby Katonah Avenue have signed on to help the cause. Rory Dolan’s will host the big raffle and the performance by the Screaming Orphans, and a healing Mass at 11 a.m.
There’s a ceili, Irish dancers, rock and rollers – the entertainment lineup (on the back page of this week’s issue) offers something for all. But most of all, the effort is a sign that the local Irish community, never wanting when it comes to supporting one of their own, is standing shoulder to shoulder with the McConnells in their time of need.
The fundraiser committee members have met every week to coordinate their efforts, and friends are arriving in from Boston, Chicago and, of course, Donegal.
“We’re hoping for a big turnout to help someone who is so deserving, always so caring and considerate of others, a good family man and a great Irishman,” said Campbell.
For more information visit McConnell Family Fundraiser on Facebook.