The 15-year-old had been crying. The teacher was lovely to her and the girl smiled. Glad but sad. Fulfilled in that she had just been present for an inspirational talk from Donal Walsh's dad Fionnbar. Sad for Donal who died from cancer at 17.
Teachers were crying too. Donal's message is simple enough. Live Life. And this is the name of the Donal Walsh foundation. There was more. Fionnbar urged the students to talk to the person sitting next to them, if they were in trouble, or to a parent or teacher. Last week, we followed Fionnbar around to three schools as part of the fundraising walk by the students of Tralee CBS The Green, Donal's school, and Mercy Mounthawk, also in the Kerry town.
The boys and girls left the Aviva Stadium after the Ireland-Scotland game last Sunday week and their journey ended in Thomond Park on Saturday night. The youngsters were drenched and frozen from the beginning. Even the three wise men wouldn't set out in such bad weather. The marchers slept on the floor of rugby clubs so as to spare on expenses. Most have colds, a couple flu. Some have forsaken a school tour to Italy. All are fiercely committed, but in a caring, gentle way. There's a Zen about them, calmness.
The hall of Ard Scoil Rathangan in the heart of the Co Kildare racing country was packed. Not a sound could be heard when Fionnbar spoke. Rapt, they were, as they drank in every word.
Donal's very good pal Danny Cournane, who has the invincible mix of Kerry and Maori blood flowing through his veins, performed the Haka for 300 or so students. These Kildare and Kerry kids radiated love. They mind each other and show small kindnesses with hugs or a clap on the shoulder. "We talk to each other," said Danny, "but not publicly, like, just privately. Donal definitely helped us to appreciate what we have." Danny put his heart and soul into that Rathangan Haka, just as he did at Donal's funeral.
Fionnbar spoke to the Kildare students of Donal's dying, of the operations he had to endure, the fitting of a prosthetic knee, of having to give up football and rugby. You could see the compassion and empathy in the students' faces as he spoke.
A blonde girl at the back of the hall asks a question: "Are you going to read the letter?" Fionnbar's hands were shaking as he read his son's words. His words were softly spoken as his heart was breaking. The letter was meant for Donal's pals, to help them get over his death, but now it has become public property. The letter is controversial. Donal speaks of "the mess" left behind by those who die by suicide as he ponders his own imminent passing and how much he would love to live on.
Before he died, he showed true compassion, love, for those who die by suicide and he pleads with anyone suffering to push open the door for help. It's a 16-year-old's letter for his peers. No more than that. This is peer pressure in the best possible way. Applause fills the room again. There's great hope for our country.
Fionnbar is pale and gaunt. There is a frenetic, but good-humoured energy about him these days. You'd worry about Fionnbar. He promised Donal he would carry on the message. He has taken a week's holidays for the walk he and Donal had planned, but as he says himself: "Donal isn't around to do it."
The Good Father kept the promise he made to his dying boy. Wife Elma is keeping Donal's work going from back home, while Fionnbar is on Donal's Camino. They are very much together in all this. Fionnbar's employers, Gleneagle Hotels, have been very good to him, as have his colleagues. He manages the excellent Maritime Hotel in Bantry, where laughter is standard.
Fionnbar is a wonderful speaker but the efforts drain him. He grabs his cycling gear and laptop. We hope no one sees the gruesome sight of a middle-aged man changing into lycra in the back seat of the car. There's a leg in the rear mirror.
"You'll dislocate something," we say. Then we think of how it was that a dislocated shoulder led to a scan and poor Donal was told his days among us were numbered. But he would not go quietly. The boy who won our hearts on the Brendan O'Connor show wanted that his living and dying would not be in vain. It's more about the message than the money but the quarter of a million raised in his name will help the cancer kids in Crumlin and many more worthy causes.
We're in Monasterevin now. The student marchers are very tired but there's not a single crib. The girls from Mercy Mounthawk are pretty and confident. That's the thing about them I love the most, the confidence. They are relaxed, articulate and caring.
We lunched in Monasterevin with Jonathan Myers. This airy young lad spent six months with his pal Donal in Ronald McDonald House while they were being treated for brain tumours at the nearby Crumlin Children's Hospital.
We will tell you Jonathan's story and more in our sports column on Saturday.