DAMIEN Hayes has spoken of the shock and heartbreak experienced by Galway's hurlers at the sudden and tragic death of their team-mate Niall Donohue last winter.
The gifted 22-year-old took his own life last October and Tribes' veteran Hayes revealed that he was training with county champions Portumna when the devastating news was broken to him.
"It's an awful loss, an unbelievable tragedy. I remember being told at a club training session on the Friday and I just couldn't believe it," he said.
Hayes said he was particularly shocked because Donohue was such a bubbly character and he had got to know him particularly well over the past year because they often found themselves sharing space on the Galway bench.
"I had gotten to know him better in 2013 than in 2012 because neither of of us could get on the (starting) team," he said.
"Niall was an absolutely lovely fella and a real character. He was really bubbly, with great one-liners, and just a great laugh.
"I didn't see it coming. I always thought he was unbelievably happy. I used to often be over in the same corner with him in the dressing-room, messing and chatting. It was an unbelievable shock. It wasn't easy and when you go back in (to county training), it'll still be hard."
Hayes revealed that the whole Galway squad returned to Kilbeacanty for Donohue's 'month's mind' and that he had sought out and spoken personally to his father Francie and brother Shane.
The tragedy brought the Galway GAA community to a shocked standstill and forced the county SHC final to be put back by 24 hours.
Describing in stark terms, the anguish that Donohue's loss caused, Hayes said: "The match was meant to be played on the Sunday and next of all it wasn't and we were burying Niall and doing a guard of honour for him.
"I remember when we laid Niall to rest, Lord have mercy on him, and a man standing beside me said: 'It won't be easy to hurl tomorrow.'
"You were going into a county final after burying one of your team-mates, one of your county colleagues and one of your friends. It wasn't easy but you had put everything into perspective," he said.
"You had the minute's silence and you said your prayer to him before the match and you had to get on with it, but it wasn't easy."
The tragedy may yet help to galvanise Galway this season and spur them on to recapture their form of 2012 which slumped so badly last year.
Hayes' energies are currently focussed on winning a fourth All-Ireland club title this year, with Portumna's semi-final against Na Piarsaigh of Limerick fast approaching on February 8.
But the two-time All Star, who turns 32 next month, has committed himself to the county cause for another year and still vehemently believes he can make a contribution, despite losing his starting place until the All-Ireland quarter-final last summer.
"It was a bit frustrating being on the bench because I felt I was good enough to be on the team," he said.
"When I (eventually) started against Clare I felt I was one of the best of us on the day, so it was very frustrating to be honest.
"We just struggled to get wins. I can't explain it. In 2012, we got on a roll. We got into the relegation final against Dublin, which went to extra-time and then to a replay. Those were the two games that stood to us and once we won those, it built confidence in us and we went on.
"But in 2013, it just never seemed to get going. I don't know what the reasons for it were. Maybe lads took everything for granted after making the All-Ireland final the year before, yet everyone put in the effort and trained just as hard. We just never got up and running. There's no real explanation for it."
By Cliona Foley