The best of the Irish was on display when paying tribute to Irish rugby hero Anthony Foley.Caty Bartholomew

Mourning Our Killaloe Legend

 

Every cloud has a silver lining, they claim. That was surely the situation in our small quiet town of Killaloe in Co. Clare over recent days.

The cloud was created by the tragic death of sporting legend Anthony Foley at the age of only 42 years. He died in Paris of a heart attack on Sunday, October 16 hours before his Munster rugby team were pitched up to play an important European championship game there.

That was a tragedy which shocked the nation to the core. But it also shocked the entire rugby world of which Foley had been a popular element, initially as a Munster and Irish player of formidable force and power; latterly as his province's head coach and leader.

The tragedy made headlines both nationally and internationally, the story carried big time on all the leading TV channels on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.  Many of you probably viewed some of those stories.

They began with dramatic coverage of the shocked Munster fans laying flowers and jerseys outside the French stadium where the game was due to have been played.  It was, of course, cancelled until a later date.

Meantime, and for the week and more after Foley's death, the name of our small town and details of his funeral arrangements were writ large across the TV screens of the far wider world.

The silver lining appeared in the days after Anthony Foley's remains arrived back in Ireland for burial in his home town. The very best of the strength and resilience of an ordinary Irish community, and its bottomless compassion and respect, and the warm support for the stricken family, was quite incredible and very touching.

As a journalist I have covered many significant funeral proceedings down the years, including state services for the high and mighty of our society. But I have never observed anything as powerfully respectful and emotive as this young sporting king's obsequies. I confess there were several occasions during his wake in St. Flannan's church in his town's center, and at his funeral itself, when there were tears in my eyes.

I was not the only one by a long chalk. The legendary players who soldiered with Foley in great rugby battles in the green Irish jersey, men like Paul O'Connell and Peter Clohessy and Keith Wood, fellow townsman and boyhood friend, and Ronan O'Gara and the peerless Brian O'Driscoll, forming a guard of honor for the beginning of his chapel wake, they, like all the attending thousands of mourners, were very visibly emotional.

Never before have I seen so many big grown men weeping. Never before. And the queue to get into the church to pay respect to the stricken family stretched quite literally for the length of the town.

Beautifully, though, the reality was that Foley's death brought the town and province to its knees, primarily not because he was a sporting legend but because as a townsman, a neighbor, and a family man above all, he possessed what folk told me was "a heart of gold." Killaloe mourned him so fully for his community works off the field of play more than his sporting achievements. And the spokesmen for the young Munster team he coached were so overcome with sorrow that they broke down in tears in many of their radio and TV appearances.

But, as the queues inched towards the wake in the chapel, it was striking that folk in the shops and businesses along the route responded uniquely. Cafes served free tea and coffee and sandwiches to those spending hours in the queues. Chairs and benches were brought out for those who needed them. There was the kind of real community spirit which, in this modern era, even in the west, is far too often under threat.

That it emerged so quickly, naturally, and strongly when the need arose made one proud to be a citizen of Anthony Foley's town. That was the silver lining.

There was a sporting tailpiece the day after his funeral in Thomond Park, the headquarters of Foley's team. They were due to play a powerful Glasgow side and they were adamant the game would go ahead as a tribute to their lost leader.

His widow Olive and his two young sons Tony and Dan attended, and both teams paid high tribute to the man they called Axel before the game commenced. And despite having a man sent off early in the game Foley's side, playing with real fire after all the tears, were triumphant in the end. And that burnished the silver lining further.

A hard week in a little town by the eternal Shannon. But a wholesome and heartening one too.