Saturday 18 November 2017

'I never thought she'd look at me' - loved-up couple (70) celebrate 45 years of marriage

'Sunday Independent' agony aunt Mary O'Conor, met her husband John at Dublin's College of Music

Mary and John O'Conor are the best of friends after 45 years of marriage. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Mary and John O'Conor are the best of friends after 45 years of marriage. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Celebrated concert pianist John O'Conor didn't think he stood a chance with his wife Mary when he first met her in 1969 at the College of Music on Chatham Row. John was incredibly shy with women, but was bowled over when Mary arrived to take twice-weekly piano lessons.

"She was so full of life and joy, and was incredibly attractive and wore gorgeous clothes," he recalls. "It was the mini-skirt era and she had, and still has, incredible legs. I never thought she'd look at me, because her life was far too glamorous and I was only a piano teacher."

There was no impropriety involved as both were 22 at the time, and Mary was working as a production assistant in the RTE newsroom. Having studied piano when younger, she decided to resume her studies to get a teaching diploma and admits that she didn't really notice John initially. "I thought he was grand," she says. "He was chatty and good fun, and I used to regale him with tales of my dating life to distract him whenever I hadn't done my practice."

As the months progressed, Mary and John became friends and she realised he was working up the courage to ask her out. She dropped her music on the floor so that she could establish whether he had hairy legs - a deal-breaker if he didn't - but happily his hirsuteness passed muster.

John is the youngest of the late Kay and Harry's four children, and he and his siblings, Frank and the late Carmel and Joan, grew up in Terenure. His sisters, both excellent pianists, encouraged his studies, and he entered the College of Music aged 10 to train under Dr J.J. O'Reilly. After his Leaving Cert at Belvedere, he dashed his mother's accountancy dreams by doing a music degree at UCD and taking a teaching job.

The gregarious John recalls how his knees knocked asking Mary out, but their first date at the Bianconi Grill went swimmingly. He gleefully explains that Mary was dating three men with similar surnames concurrently, causing great confusion for her hard-of-hearing mother, who could never tell which one was leaving a phone message for her. Mary's parents were the late Michael and Hannah Murphy, and she grew up in Douglas, Cork, with her older brothers, Michael and Mahon. She moved to Dublin after school when her whole family moved up, and spent seven years working at RTE.

Happily, John successfully saw the rest of the competition off, and he and Mary were engaged in 1971, the year he went alone to Vienna on an Austrian government scholarship. They were married in 1972, and Mary moved to Vienna too and worked at the Atomic Energy Agency. "We had a wonderful time," she says. "I think it's great for young couples to get away from parents and outside influences for a while."

When John won first prize at the Beethoven International Piano Competition in 1973, it launched his career and led to him being in demand all over the world. He has been decorated by the French and Austrian governments and the Emperor of Japan for his services to music. He and Mary decided to come back to live in Dublin in 1976, after his professor, Dieter Weber, unexpectedly passed away. Their son Hugh was born in Austria and they had Keith in Dublin, and they have a great friendship with both sons.

Hugh, of course, is a renowned actor, director and photographer, and John and Mary marked their 70th birthdays this year by going to see him in Enda Walsh's play, Arlington, in New York. Computer expert Keith is chief technical officer at Romero Games in Galway, and is married to Elaine. They have a daughter, Fiadh (two).

As well as performing all around the world in concert, John worked as director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music for decades. When the boys were young, Mary volunteered with The Samaritans, and then trained as a psychosexual therapist and counsellor. Did this help with her own relationship with John, I ask?

"It helped me to zip my mouth more," she laughs. "John travels an awful lot, so even if we get on each other's nerves, it's all forgotten by the time he comes back. His best quality is his generosity of spirit, and he always supports me, no matter what."

Mary had a practice for many years and loved seeing clients, and after she retired from that, she became this paper's much-loved agony aunt in 2012. She answers many of the problems from the couple's holiday home in Florida, where the avid golfer spends the winter. John joins her where possible as he is now based abroad and holds professorships in Virginia and Toronto and a visiting professorship in Japan. He pops in and out of Ireland too as he is also International Visiting Artist at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

John will shortly receive the NCH Lifetime Achievement Award at a special gala concert, hosted by Olivia O'Leary. He will perform with colleagues, friends and former pupils, including Finghin Collins, Tara Erraught, Veronica McSwiney, Philippe Cassard and Michael Collins. He's deeply honoured to receive the award, he says, and Mary, of course, will be in the audience. "Mary is my best friend and I can talk to her about anything," he says. "My travels around the world are always far more enjoyable when she is with me."

NCH Lifetime Achievement Award 2017 Concert with John O'Conor takes place on Sunday, November 26 at 8pm. Tickets €19.50-€42.50, www.nch.ie

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