THE visit of a GAA president to a small club in rural Ireland is not uncommon, but there was nothing routine about Liam O'Neill's call to Kilbeacanty on Friday night. Of all his duties of office this may have been the most challenging, arriving in a community in mourning over the loss of a young hurler it regarded as the essence of its heart and soul.
Niall Donohue would probably have been embarrassed by the stream of tributes and tears his death has brought over recent days. The south Galway club which nurtured him has been in existence almost as long as the GAA itself. It is not in it for material gain for little has been won over the years. Emigration is a constant drain. On Friday, Niall's brother Shane returned from Australia accompanied by seven local lads who left home in recent years.
The cause didn't need the enrichment of medals. Kilbeacanty is an intermediate club who last won that championship in 1978 and they hurl because they love it and their place has something no other can offer. Their best-known player was Steve Mahon from the 1980s, a winner of two All-Ireland medals. At underage level, they forge an alliance with neighbouring Beagh to make ends meet. So to have a player like Niall Donohue to call their own was a very big thing indeed.
"Stevie Mahon was the last Galway hurler from here, we have waited a long time for another one, and we had a real gem in Nially," says the young club chairman, Justin Fahey. "How do we go about following the Galway jersey again? How do we go about trying to get our lads back together again? It is going to be next to impossible, but we are a strong community, a strong club. At the moment our thoughts are with the Donohue family.
"Everyone was just so proud of him and what he achieved."
The arrival to a club of a GAA president is usually a time of excitement and pride, a chance to dress up and look your best. It makes a picture that will hang on the wall for years to come. Friday night could not have been more different, the entrance muted and solemn. But they welcomed him warmly and appreciated his presence. They are grateful and encouraged by all the support that has been flooding in. In times like this, the GAA family becomes tight and comforting and doesn't have to say very much at all. The news of his death, a few days before his 23rd birthday, resonated across the wider GAA society. On Friday, the former Galway hurler Iggy Clarke came to Kilbeacanty to talk to and counsel the local players. Niall Donohue last hurled with them six weeks ago
when they were defeated by just a point by Leitrim-Kilnadeema in the quarter-final of the intermediate championship. They would have been nowhere near that level without their inspirational centre-back. The winners went on to land the championship.
If Galway miss him, and they will, then the loss to Kilbeacanty is unfathomable. "He was the fella they looked up to," says one veteran of the Galway hurling scene. "He was the Henry Shefflin of Kilbeacanty and that was it. He had that kind of a standing in the community. Coming from his background, club background, the fact that he had come to the fore meant that you know he was working against the grain the whole time. Every day he went out he was on a mission to prove himself. Every day at club level he had to stand up and be counted. He was one of these fellows who had the blue and gold jersey the first day he hurled and that would be the one he finished up with."
The people of Kilbeacanty and the surrounding areas knew that he was a special player from his national school days. They realised they had someone, as one put it, "a good bit above the ordinary". He was a manager's dream: dedicated and not an ounce of trouble. In 2008, he played in the All-Ireland minor final, losing to Kilkenny, and he starred at full-back for the under 21s when they defeated Dublin to win the 2011 All-Ireland final in Thurles.
That evening on the way home between Loughrea to Gort the convoy took an unscheduled detour to Kilbeacanty to mark his importance to the team. A year later, he won a Leinster senior championship with a towering display in the Galway defence.
He had a dash and drive reminiscent of the county's half-back giants of the 1980s. His score in the drawn All-Ireland final against Kilkenny when he had to extricate himself from a potential ambush to keep possession before landing an outrageous point will be remembered for a long time in Kilbeacanty and beyond.
Justin Fahey has handled the last few days as best he can and, like a lot of others, has done so with tremendous grace and dignity. "The heart has been ripped out of the place and I don't know if we will ever get over it," he says. "We have been rocked to the core.
"He was a hero to everyone . . . it is an understatement to say that everyone really looked up to him. That was brought to light last year when he visited the two local national schools and when he walked into the rooms and you looked at the kids you could see just by looking at them how much they absolutely idolised him.
"He was a man of very few words but his presence on the field of play was huge. We haven't been successful on the field as a club but his presence was enormous, the other players grew taller and they performed better when he was there. When he manned that half-back line, we were were never far away. We were beaten by a point in the intermediate quarter-finals and some of those stalwarts there were saying it was the best ever performance by anyone in a Kilbeacanty jersey."
Fahey is eager to acknowledge the help provided by local clubs, and by the Galway County Board, and the GPA who offered counselling services and advice. "Our main priority is the family, and our players; we got the players all together last night so they could talk about what has happened. We will do whatever it takes to bring these lads on from this tragedy. We will sort it out as a club. We have a great community here, a great committee, we will get our heads in order.
"Right now there is a black cloud hanging over here and it is just going to be there for a while. We are just trying to be there for for (Niall's father) Francie and (brother) Shane and (sister) Orla. We have got messages of support from all over. We'd like to thank all those who have got in touch. It will be tough on the lads here, but they are a strong bunch and they will stick together. They have good guys over them. They will pull together for Nially 'cos that is what he would have wanted them to do. He wouldn't want the blue and gold to suffer for too long."
The Galway county final scheduled for today has been put back 24 hours but it is hard to imagine it not being greatly diminished by this loss. Donohue had been earmarked for the problem full-back position on the Galway team in the years ahead.
One of those close to that set-up said: "He hurled without any fuss. What he was good at came easy; he didn't have to work at it or manufacture it. It was natural in him."
He had the speed vital in a modern full-back and he had power, good feet and hands and was a natural striker off both sides. "The other ingredient he had that was important was that he was immensely popular with his peers," says a Galway mentor. "He was easy in a group and could break a moment with some cynical or humourous remark. He could come up with a turn of phrase at the right time.
"Obviously, the (Galway) squad are close. It is an enormous tragedy and we have got to deal with it, to make sure everyone is okay and understands it. Thankfully, behind the scenes there is a good support service through the GPA (counselling) and players are fully briefed and told that it is not embarrassing to ask for help."
Niall Donohue will be taken to his final resting place in Kilbeacanty today.