Comment - Anthony Foley was the spirit of Munster and Thomond Park made flesh
THE chokehold of sorrow, the vice-grip of inexplicable loss seems to banish the oxygen, lock out the light.
Stop all the clocks, for the heartbeat, the ticking timepiece of the Munster nation has been stilled.
You did not need to know Anthony Foley to sense a hole gouged open in the ozone layer protecting Ireland’s soul, to believe your very core, the ability to think straight, had been drop-kicked into a hellish swirl of confusion and incomprehension and disbelief when the dreadful news arrived like a volley of winding punches to the solar plexus.
All that was required was an ability to empathise, an understanding of tragedy, a sense of place: To care for your own family, to support a team, to know how to love.
To have had – at some terrible fork in life’s meandering, mysterious journey - your own marrow pierced by grief.
And to listen to the tales from those who knew him best.
Anthony Foley was a Special One who preferred to uniform himself in an off-the-peg suit of normality. He was the chieftain who dined with his tribe, the warrior who decommissioned his ego each time he entered battle. The Ordinary Man who conquered a continent.
Modest, when he had very little to be modest about.
Internationally, his profile would have been dwarfed by the Himalayan reputations of O’Connell, O’Gara, Wood.
Yet, if Mount Rushmore could be transplanted to the Shannon’s banks, his would likely be the very first likeness chiselled into the peak’s granite face.
For he was – how wrong, how harrowing, how unfathomable that past tense seems – essence of Munster, the spirit of Thomond Park made flesh, the taproot through which a movement, a community, an unstoppable yearning was fed and watered.
Not because he was capped 202 times for his province, nor because he played more Heineken Cup games than anybody else, not because he was a Munster blueblood, his father, Brendan, among the Alone it Stands immortals of 1978, not even because he lifted a trophy – and a people – toward the Cardiff heavens that May evening in 2006.
No, it was because he made a connection, because he understood: He was of the clan he served, whose lives he made better; greatness strengthened rather than severed the umbilical cord between Foley and the Motherland.
That much was evident almost before his last breath had ebbed.
Oh Lord, to watch the television pictures as the impromptu, pop-up crimson shrine was constructed outside Stade Yves-du-Manoir was at once, a terrible and beautiful thing. It was to be transported to the most moving cathedral of solidarity.
Even a stranger could immediately recognise the universal languages of anguish and deference and tribute, of broken people scrambling to make sense, to offer support.
It was as powerful as a uranium-enriched nuclear warhead.
The Fields of Athenry, gently hummed, mournful, respectful; and then, visceral, booming, gorgeous, defiant, the adopted anthem of Shannon RFC: There is an Isle.
“There is an Isle, a bonnie Isle,
Stands proudly from,
Stands proudly from the sea,
And dearer far than all this world
Is that dear Isle, is that dear Isle to me.”
And then the spine-tingling, tear-laden chorus, lines Foley would have bellowed – a refrain of belonging - in so many dressing-rooms:
“But because it is my native land,
And my home, my home is there.”
Nobody ever wondered where home was for Axel.
He was as Munster as Tipp hurling or Kerry football, as defining a headland as the Cliffs of Moher, a towering, instantly recognisable provincial landmark.
Foley was a footbridge from rugby’s final days of Corinthian excess to the new age of po-faced professionalism.
If his innate thirst for knowledge, for self-improvement made a young Foley a willing convert to the game’s bright new dawn, a small part of him never crossed the Rubicon.
There was an old-school love of life and mischief, a joy in camaraderie, an undiluted sense of wonder, we imagine, whenever he gathered with his oldest comrades.
He was a giant, a titan, a big man, but as Tyrone Howe so eloquently phrased it “not the kind of big man who is created in a gym…big personality, a big sense of humour, generous to a fault.”
Foley’s greatness was born not of endlessly bench-pressing the equivalent of a small family car, but from the nurturing the over-sized muscle between his ears.
Oh, he had exceptional physical gifts. His sometime room-mate Liam Toland talks of a player who could pass off both hands, who could drop-kick like an out-half.
But it was his intelligence, his cerebral approach to the game which set him apart: He was the player who only had to read half the clue to solve the crossword puzzle. That old line about not needing to be the fastest if you knew the shortest route was a perfect fit.
See him now: Lightly stubbled, unkempt, even; eyes half-shut yet wide open, Munster’s famous crimson shirt a second skin, invariably, inevitably in the right place.
He set standards, gave all of himself, laboured in the crucible forging the Munster legend. And, through that selfless service, he himself became a legend.
The pain for his family and friends is so red-raw, the bewilderment so absolute, that it can seem trite to suggest that legend, that status, is inextinguishable, beyond mortality's reach.
But it is true.
In “Consolation”, a 2,000-year-old manuscript, that wise Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero asks: “What is the soul?”
He answers his own question: “It is not moist or airy or fiery or compounded of the earth. There is nothing in these elements that accounts for the power of memory, mind or thought, that recalls the past, foresees the future or comprehends the present. Rather the soul must be counted as a fifth element – divine and therefore eternal.”
As the chokehold of grief loosens just a little, here are words to cling to.
Anthony Foley’s soul will forever illuminate Munster, an eternal, ethereal presence: Because it is his native land. And his home, his home is there.