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OLLIE... THE BEER DEPARTED; Stars and his drinking pals raise a last glass at wake of movie hellraiser.

THE only thing Ollie Reed would have hated about his wake was not being able to be first to the bar to get a round of drinks.

But even hell-raising Ollie might have paled at the prospect of buying one for everybody who wanted to see him off yesterday.

Down at his favourite pub, O'Brien's, they took off the front doors to make room for the hordes of thirsty mourners.

"Ollie would have wanted there to be plenty of room for everybody,'' explained barman Pat O'Brien.

Then they screwed new beer taps to the bar and lined up 40 extra barrels of Murphy's ale in the street outside.

It was, one local in the tiny Cork village of Churchtown explained proudly, their 40-barrel salute to Ollie, the Englishman who always drank for Ireland.

Movie legends Dustin Hoffman, Piers Brosnan and Steven Speilberg had all jetted in earlier from the States to pay their last respects.

And snooker star Alex "Hurricane" Higgins, now sadly ravaged by cancer, crossed the Border from Belfast to say goodbye to his former drinking pal.

This, though, was no glitzy, star- studded Hollywood affair.

Ollie, 61, may have been a world- famous actor. But to the people in his adopted home of Churchtown he was simply their friend.

All last week they had been scrubbing doorsteps, painting windowsills and hanging baskets of flowers in preparation for his funeral.

And yesterday they dressed down for the occasion, keeping a smile on their faces as they remembered the jolly giant who put their sleepy little village on the world map.

The traditional Irish funeral was contrasted with the joy of a local wedding, but both were punctuated with gallons of the black stuff, courtesy of O'Briens which is at the heart of community life in Churchtown.

At times, the revelry was loud enough to be heard in Ollie's new resting place just yards away in the 14th century cemetery.

Wisely, the authorities had kept the graveyard gates firmly padlocked to keep sightseers away until just before the funeral.

But perched on the wall overlooking the concrete-lined hole in the ground was a single whiskey glass with a handwritten note.

"Cheers, love Sambo" was all it said.

Throughout the day a fleet of taxis shuttled back and forth between the nearby town of Mallow bringing in a constant stream of mourners.

Just a short distance away at Ollie's Castle McCarthy home, a special 200-seater marquee was set up for last night's farewell knees-up.

A huge team of catering staff had been flown in from England to make sure the wake went with a swing.

Then Ollie's heartbroken widow Josephine, 35, and his children Mark, 38, and 29-year-old Sarah bravely gave relatives, friends and special guests a tour of the estate.

At times during the day, the air of expectation and excitement which hung over the village seemed more fitting for a carnival than a funeral.

And you couldn't help but imagine Ollie perched on a huge white cloud, whiskey glass cocked in hand and a wry smile on his face as he looked down on the activities below.

Everyone agreed it was exactly the way Ollie, who collapsed and died during a drinks bender in Malta, would have wanted it.

After all, wasn't he a man who made sure other people enjoyed themselves? And wasn't he doing exactly that at his wake yesterday?

Even local priest Father Pat Twohig had urged villagers to salute the actor with a drop of the hard stuff. Ollie, he said, would have liked that. And Fr Twohig's parishioners certainly didn't need telling twice as they paid their last respects.

With every pint that was sunk, there came a different and cherished drunkalogue in memory of the man himself.

Many remembered the little girl with no limbs for whom Ollie raised pounds 90,000.

His compassion for those less fortunate, everyone agreed, knew absolutely no bounds.

Then there was the young professional boxer whose career Ollie nurtured both financially and morally.

In young Oliver O'Dea, the actor saw himself when he was a hungry young fairground boxer trying to earn some cash.

And there was Scratchey, the donkey that Ollie notoriously adopted from a local sanctuary just so his horse could have a friend and companion.

One pal said: "Ollie just loved being here. People accepted him for what he was and he came and went without any hassle. He loved to have a good time, but he didn't want a whole load of fuss which is why O'Brien's suited him down to the ground. Ollie loved the honesty in this place.

"Just because he was a famous actor it didn't make people in Churchtown afraid to say what they felt to him.

"Everyone speaks their mind here because they are truthful - and there were plenty of rowdy nights to testify to that. But they would always end with Ollie being the first to offer a round of drinks.

"He didn't want to live life in a goldfish bowl and if he wanted to get totally blocked nobody battered an eyelid.

"Other times he just went about his business with his wife and was a much-loved character in the town.

"Ollie never wanted to wear a halo above his head, but he believed that if you said thank you to someone just once a day you would not die screaming."

One of the saddest sights on a sad day was former snooker champion Alex Higgins, now seriously ill with cancer.

A few years ago he and Ollie had been ferocious drinking partners. They would sit up into the wee hours, discussing fame, fortune and the price of a pint.

But now Ollie was gone. And Higgins, suffering from cancer and wearing a scruffy black jacket, blue sports top and white baseball cap, has obviously fallen on hard times. Still only 50, he looked like a withered old man.

And while Ollie may have been a hell-raiser during life, the villagers were certain where he had gone in death.

"There's no doubt that Ollie has gone upwards and not downwards," said one of his old drinking chums.

"I don't think people realise just what a kind man he was. He was an awesome man with a huge heart."
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Author:And, ROSIE DUNN
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:May 16, 1999
Words:1043
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