'Ireland's Princess Diana moment': Funeral held for rugby legend

By Oliver Brown

Former Munster players, from left, Peter Clohessy, Keith Wood, John Hayes and Munster captain Peter O'Mahony carry the coffin of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley. Photo / Getty
Former Munster players, from left, Peter Clohessy, Keith Wood, John Hayes and Munster captain Peter O'Mahony carry the coffin of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley. Photo / Getty

The sound of a plangent violin rose high above the grey crags and thickly wooded hills that frame the peaceful village of Killaloe. All along Main Street, threading down to the banks of the River Shannon, mourners gathered in numb incomprehension in the pale October sunshine. Little St Flannan's Church felt, somehow, like the repository of all the pain in Ireland. Shops and businesses had stopped. Even the radio stations had stopped, interrupting their programming to play Fields of Athenry at the stroke of noon.

Rarely is loss ever so palpable or so raw. But the passing of Anthony Foley has left a crater in this community that will, as his bereft family acknowledged, take many more days, weeks and years to fill. Among those who loved and admired 'Axel' here, there was the heartbreaking sense that he should, as on any other autumnal Friday, have been preparing for a rugby match. But such is the cruel caprice of tragedy, or what Father Pat Malone described as the "mystery of God's ways", Axel was coming home.

Forty-two years old: it is no time to die. Not even the reading that Orla, Foley's sister, gave from the Book of Ecclesiastes - that there is a "time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" - could ease that thought. But it was more than faint comfort, as the 700-strong congregation here knew, that he had used those 42 years to leave such an affirming, indelible mark.

Olive, Foley's widow, summoned great emotional resolve to read a letter that she had received from a Munster player. Munster had meant everything to her husband, and vice versa. All along the twisting road from Limerick to Killaloe, which marked the path of his final journey, the province's signature red colours fluttered from every front porch and garden fence. He was meant, of course, to have been coaching them for Saturday's match against Glasgow, until his death in Paris last Sunday from a pulmonary oedema rent this part of the world asunder. Thomond Park, its gates already festooned in floral tributes, will be transformed on Saturday afternoon into a shrine to his memory.

Munster supporters pay their respects following the passing of Munster head coach Anthony Foley. Photo / Getty
Munster supporters pay their respects following the passing of Munster head coach Anthony Foley. Photo / Getty

The player's message read: "Axel was the heart and soul of Munster. I worshipped him as a forward for 10 years, and then was honoured to have him as my coach. I owe him so much. I was in a dark place once, because of an injury, but Axel never gave up on me. He never looked on me as a lost cause."

It is testimony such as this that illustrates why Foley's death has triggered such a national convulsion, which one observer likened to Ireland's "Princess Diana moment". Foley, to be sure, was a wonderful No8 in his prime, capped 62 times for his country and with an unmatched reputation for selflessness and graft. As Eddie O'Sullivan, the former Ireland coach, put it: "He was a man who didn't speak often but when he did, everyone listened." For sheer talent, he was perhaps not quite in the bracket of Munster team-mate Paul O'Connell - he never managed to earn a Lions cap, for example - but his contribution to rugby folklore here was incalculable.

As an architect of Munster's 2006 Heineken Cup triumph, and as son of Brendan, the lock who formed part of the team's 1978 win over the All Blacks, he was cherished. In his all too short life, he was a keen guardian of this history. The story has it that at his boyhood club, Shannon, he would always ferociously guard his father's reserved place in the dressing room. Since the terrible news in Paris last weekend, the bar at Shannon has been open day and night for his friends to share their recollections.

Brian O'Driscoll looks on as the hearse arrives for the funeral of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley. Photo / Getty
Brian O'Driscoll looks on as the hearse arrives for the funeral of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley. Photo / Getty

None were so powerful, though, as those offered by Olive, whom he married 17 years ago. Sometimes, funerals can be impersonal, with sanitised versions of history read by a priest with no direct knowledge of the deceased. But Olive, a woman of self-professed "deep faith" who chose the two-hour liturgy at St Finnan's, elevated this occasion to a different level of resonance. Her eulogy, full of such sorrow and gentle wit that it was a wonder she got through it all, left gnarled Munster veterans weeping openly.

"My last conversation with him was last Saturday evening," she said. "He had been ringing all day, because that was his way. I never bothered to ring him back; I knew he would get me eventually. But I did ring him back that day, and naturally the talk was about our two boys, Tony and Dan. How the athletics had gone that morning, how far Tony was throwing the javelin. It was a lovely chat. I didn't expect it to be our last." It beautifully evoked the mundanity out of which calamity can strike. "Ours was an idyllic life," lamented Olive, breaking down in sobs."We had great plans for the future."

With that, Foley's pallbearers, including his father and two sisters, bore him out of the church to his final resting place at Relig Nua Cemetery, a few hundred yards away. Here, there was no violin, just the sound of the odd swooping crow and the reminders of life's fragility drifting across this timeless, haunting landscape.

- NZ Herald

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