Extraordinary fundraiser, champion of the Irish community and inspiring chair of a local boxing academy, Pat O’Neill tells his remarkable story
Pat O’Neill moved to Birmingham from Ireland in 1961, building a life here with his wife and four children. Having done it successfully once, they were forced to rebuild again at the height of the Troubles when due to their Irish heritage they were ‘labelled’, and then for a third time in 1976 when Pat lost his sight due to a rare disease called Eales. “I thought I’d never see again,” he recalled. Pat dragged himself out of the dark times and discovered Queen Alexander College in Harborne where he learned telephony, typing and braille. An opportunity came up at Allied Irish Bank as a telephonist where he stayed for more than 20 years, working his way up to business development manager.
“I began developing customers in the non-profit sector which is how I got involved with South and City College Birmingham and when I retired they invited me on to the board.” Pat also started volunteering at Focus – a blind charity based in Harborne where he met people from Selly Oak eye hospital who thought they could restore some of his sight. He jumped at the chance and the sight in his left eye was improved a little, but enough to have a big impact. “I came out of the hospital and just went ‘whoa!’ Everything looked so beautiful – even the double yellow lines in the gutter!” Pat is a trustee of the Irish Centre which he’s passionate about. “The Irish community rallied around when times were hard and it’s good to give back. The Irish Quarter around Digbeth is changing – plans for HS2 and the Metro mean there’s a lot of regeneration to consider. It’s a fabulous part of Birmingham – full of life.”
Pat relishes his place on the diversity panel at Central TV too which is responsible for challenging programme makers. He also champions young people as chair of Paddy Benson Boxing Academy in Small Heath. “It’s hard being a kid today. The boxing academy gives them a focus and fosters respect and manners. They always shake my hand when I come in.” Pat uses the treadmill at the academy to train for his many 10k runs and half marathons raising funds for charities including Focus and a homeless charity in Digbeth called Sifa Fireside. He runs attached to a sight guide, most recently his grandson in the Birmingham 10k in May.