Fans' anthem rings out again as James is laid to rest
IT was the memorably defiant and rousing anthem that marked the Irish out as the best and most loyal fans of the European Championships in Poland. But this time the mood was very different and the contrast could not have been more poignant.
Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given struggled to contain his emotions as a slower, sadder rendition of the 'Fields of Athenry' was sung at the funeral of Irish fan James Nolan (21) as his coffin was taken from the church for burial yesterday.
Close to 1,000 mourners flocked to pay their respects to the young football fanatic -- a "beautiful human being" who died while on the trip of a lifetime to support the national team in the Euros, when he drowned in the River Brda in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz.
James was remembered as a quiet young man with a beaming smile who had loved life and had a lot of friends.
The strapping figure of Shay Given was unmistakable in the crowd, while FAI chief executive John Delaney and Claudine Keane, wife of Ireland captain Robbie Keane, also attended the funeral Mass at the Church of Our Lady in Blessington, Co Wicklow.
President Michael D Higgins was represented by his aide-de-camp Louise Condron and the Taoiseach by his ADC Comdt Michael Treacy, while the Polish Ambassador Marcin Nawrot was also in attendance.
The mourners were led by Mr Nolan's parents, Jimmy and Essie, his sister Suzie and brother Andy.
A letter from Rafal Bruski, the mayor of Bydgoszcz was read aloud in which he recalled the "joyful memories" of the visit of the Irish football fans to his city.
Expressing his deep regret to the Nolan family on their great loss, he urged the family to "let the indestructible last" and to treasure their memories of James, adding: "Bydgoszcz will never forget."
Addressing the congregation, Suzie Nolan smiled as she recalled how her brother, though six years younger, had helped her with her homework.
"Everybody is asking why, out of over one million fans, this happened to James," she said. "But James was always one in a million."
He never did too much forward thinking but seemed to live each day with "absolute contentment with life".
The family take comfort from the knowledge that his happiness stemmed from his certainty of how loved he was by his family and are not left with any doubt as to how much he had loved them, she said. Searching for a "reason" for her brother's death, she said the family believe he was obviously chosen for some purpose.
During the recession, many Irish people have been driven to despair over money problems, with a lot of depression and darkness. But James had simply "lived and loved and that made him so happy", Suzie said.
"If one person leaves here and just tries to live and to love, maybe that is why James was chosen."
A beaming photograph of James -- who was affectionately known as "Jam" -- adorned the cover of the funeral booklet, and his uncle, Noel Nolan, said this trademark smile is what he sees now when he recalls his nephew.
Parish priest Fr Tim Murphy praised the gesture of Irish captain Robbie Keane who held up a T-shirt with the words "James Nolan RIP" on the back, after scoring for his club LA Galaxy at the weekend, saying the gesture showed the strong bond between the Irish team and its supporters.
"We are a people who showed something really good to the world," he said. "We have a spirit that was personified in a young man like James. That is the spirit that will change this country."
Prayers of the faithful were read by family members, giving thanks for the 21 years they shared with James, and for all those who had searched tirelessly to find James including the Polish police and rescue services.
Gifts brought to the altar in thanks for James's life included a family photograph; a set of darts; and a pack of playing cards with the memory of "many a laugh and many a late night"; an under-nines player of the year football award; the green Irish jersey "he was so proud of"; his mobile phone and his PlayStation controls.
Tears streamed down the faces of mourners and Shay Given's face crumpled with emotion as the sorrowful strains of 'The Fields of Athenry' accompanied the removal of the coffin from the church, as all recalled the spirit of the Irish fans throughout the championships and how amongst them had stood James Nolan.
Then members of the local Blessington soccer club formed a solemn guard of honour as the coffin was brought for burial to the nearby Burgage Cemetery and the town of Blessington came to a silent standstill.