Wednesday 29 March 2017

Band of brothers lost for words as they pay respects to a hero

Rugby family gathers from all over country to honour 'leader' Foley

Brendan Foley looks on as Anthony's sister Rosie Foley takes the Munster flag off Foley’s coffin Photo: Mark Condren
Brendan Foley looks on as Anthony's sister Rosie Foley takes the Munster flag off Foley’s coffin Photo: Mark Condren
RTÉ pundit Brent Pope Picture: Mark Condren
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt with Michael Kearney, Greg Feek and Richie Murphy Picture: Mark Condren
Leinster players including Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton queue to pay their respects Picture: Mark Condren
Anthony Foley after the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2006 Picture: Sportsfile
Former team-mate and close friend Keith Wood directs the crowds Photo: Brian Arthur

Nicola Anderson Anderson in Killaloe

No words could suffice, only a warm embrace and a hearty clap on the back that could be heard echoing down the narrow streets of Killaloe.

Again and again, this was the greeting exchanged between members of the rugby family, old and young, as the day went on - household names from days of glory and fresh-faced up and coming players wearing their academy tracksuits.

Anthony Foley (42) had been a pivotal figure amongst them, some of whom had mentored him coming up the ranks, some his peers, and others who had looked up to him and aspired to be like him. All came now in the same spirit of togetherness in which they celebrated their countless victories and losses on the pitch, rising and falling as one and finding immense comfort and brotherhood in their midst.

From 10am, the crowds were beginning to form an orderly queue in the picturesque village on the lakeside of Lough Derg.

Crowds gather to pay respects at the removal of Anthony Foley at Killaloe Photo: Mark Condren
Crowds gather to pay respects at the removal of Anthony Foley at Killaloe Photo: Mark Condren

Anthony Foley was not the first hero to hail from here - first, came Brian Boru.

But watching the estimated crowd of some 20,000 who gathered at the small church of St Flannan's in the centre of the village to pay their respects, it was clear that 'Axel' Foley held an almost equally legendary status amongst his people.

The night before, they had welcomed him home to Killaloe in a silent procession, the streets lined with people carrying a single candle, with more candles lining the footpaths.

It was beautiful and entirely spontaneous, organised by the people themselves via word of mouth. "You could have heard a pin drop as the coffin went past," said a local man.

Paul O'Connell and Mick Galwey Picture: Mark Condren
Paul O'Connell and Mick Galwey Picture: Mark Condren

And then, the applause had filled the night as he passed.

The family had taken Axel home to spend one precious final night in their midst.

Five minutes before 1pm yesterday, the hearse drove up at the church, the coffin draped in the Munster flag.

Read More: 'Axel' would have ended up coaching Ireland - O'Sullivan

An informal guard of honour was made up of the backroom staff of Munster.

Two queues had been arranged - one to pay respects to the family and a separate one for those who just wished to pay a final farewell to Axel, though by far, the biggest numbers were there for the family and the line reached the bridge at the bottom of the town, continuing on until 8.30pm.

Mick Galwey gets a hug from Barry Murphy and Ken O'Connell Picture: Mark Condren
Mick Galwey gets a hug from Barry Murphy and Ken O'Connell Picture: Mark Condren

It was an open coffin and many mourners left the church deeply overcome and unable to speak. "We're all too choked up," said an emotional Ireland manager Joe Schmidt, who was first into the church to pay his respects.

'Ginger' McLoughlin, the great Irish international, was also there, together with Declan Kidney, whose wife Ann passed away just last week.

Mick Galwey paid an emotional tribute to his friend afterwards, recalling how Anthony always stood out as a star.

"I remember him from a young age playing with Shannon - the rest, as they say, is history," he said.

He had always given 100pc and was "always a player's player and always a great friend".

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt with Michael Kearney, Greg Feek and Richie Murphy Picture: Mark Condren
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt with Michael Kearney, Greg Feek and Richie Murphy Picture: Mark Condren

They had a shared history in the magic years of Munster.

"I was lucky enough to be captain before him but he went and finished the job and it's as simple as that," he said.

"I was very proud of him and I told him that. He was a great friend."

He told how he had met him at the funeral of Ann Kidney last Friday.

"And that was the time last I met Anthony," he said. He added that Declan's presence in Killaloe was a sign of how strong the rugby family is.

"We're great to celebrate wins and we get over losses, but I think this puts everything into perspective, and this is what real friendship is about - being there when your friends need you," he said.

Former team-mate and close friend Keith Wood directs the crowds Photo: Brian Arthur
Former team-mate and close friend Keith Wood directs the crowds Photo: Brian Arthur

Galwey and former Munster and Ireland teammate Paul O'Connell had been amongst the close group who had flown home with Anthony's remains and the family on Wednesday.

Read More: Town is cordoned off as thousands attend removal

For Peter Stringer, Axel had been his protector on and off the pitch. "He was my dear friend, my colleague and a true leader on the field," he said.

"And as I've said publicly, he was my protector on the field. Any time we played, he was the guy just in front of me. He was just a guy who never shirked any challenge."

Emotional, he could say no more than that.

Former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan, too, was uncharacteristically lost for words when it came to make sense of what had happened.

Anthony Foley after the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2006 Picture: Sportsfile
Anthony Foley after the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2006 Picture: Sportsfile

He had played rugby with Brendan, Anthony's father, and said he had shaken his hand yesterday.

"It's very hard to know what to say to Brendan and the family," he admitted.

"It's very harrowing to meet the family in such dreadful circumstances. There are no words to describe what's happened here."

As the queues began to thin, more mourners came to pay their respects, buses coming from rugby clubs all over the country.

Afterwards, the rugby family repaired to Wood Brothers bistro, owned by Anthony's great friend Keith Wood.

They stood on the street in the fading sunshine and drank tea or beer as they shared their memories and their laughter rang out, sweetening their bitter loss for just a moment.

Irish Independent

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