Friday 22 September 2017

Tommy Conlon: 'This is Homeric. People like Foley are our warriors'

Limerick, Killaloe and Munster join together to sing their farewells to a fallen champion

'The Munster team belongs to the province and beyond, he acknowledges. And Foley himself grew up in Killaloe, albeit that his father Brendan, also a revered player for Shannon, Munster and Ireland, grew up in the heart of St Mary's Parish, the club's original catchment area.' Photo: PA
'The Munster team belongs to the province and beyond, he acknowledges. And Foley himself grew up in Killaloe, albeit that his father Brendan, also a revered player for Shannon, Munster and Ireland, grew up in the heart of St Mary's Parish, the club's original catchment area.' Photo: PA

Tommy Conlon

The day was still bright when the first trickle of Munster men and women arrived to stand sentry outside the gates of Thomond Park early on Wednesday evening.

They were wearing red, of course, but this time they had come to mourn rather than cheer, to speak in low murmurs and shake their heads slowly in muted conversations. Three days after the dreaded news had come from Paris, they still could not assimilate it as hard fact. The shock simply hadn't worn off.

Among the red, splashes everywhere of the black and blue hoops, the colours of Shannon RFC: schoolboys lined up to form the guard of honour alongside portly grey-haired officers in their club blazers.

Dusk fell, lights flared in the darkness and silence descended as word came through that the cortege from Shannon Airport was imminent. Then it materialised at the crest of the incline on the Cratloe Road, flanked by two Garda outriders on their motorbikes, and made its stately procession through the tunnel of people that thronged the footpaths on both sides.

Still 200 yards from the gates, a lone voice struck up the opening line of the fabled Shannon anthem. There is an Isle. The crowd immediately replied, suddenly strong of voice, comforted by the familiar call-and-response ritual of the song. "There is an isle." A bonnie isle. "A bonnie isle." Stands proudly from. "Stands proudly from the sea."

The hearse came to a standstill outside the stadium gates. Man and boy, the anthem had been a raucous, triumphant soundtrack during Anthony Foley's life in rugby. Now it was a lullaby singing him softly to the big sleep that had befallen him.

This was a death without rhyme or reason. A travesty, even by its arbitrary, wasteful whims. A random strike to the epicentre of a family that had built its place in the world on the eternal values of love and goodness and work and loyalty. Now a cornerstone of that edifice had been torn away.

So here on the streets of Limerick, and further north in his native Killaloe, were communities rushing in to provide support; to help keep the structure solid; to provide some light against what the family described, in its heart-rending statement, as their "incomprehensible darkness".

As they sang their song, old rugby men with gnarled faces blinked back the tears. Women reached for their handkerchiefs. Children were stilled into solemn quietness. With this melody they'd managed to conjure a moment of beauty from the ashes of this desperate aberration, a dignified tranquillity that was a mirror opposite to the sound and fury they'd conjured on so many other nights inside the stadium.

One of the mourners in the crowd on Wednesday was the playwright Mike Finn. He grew up in Thomondgate, just down the road. An actor and founder-member of the acclaimed Limerick company Island Theatre, he'd been involved in the very first production of Alone It Stands, the celebrated play by John Breen that dramatised the story of Munster's legendary victory over the All Blacks in 1978.

Finn was in Dublin on Sunday when he heard the news. He'd never met Foley. But suddenly he found himself shedding tears.

"I was shocked by how much it upset me," he said. "For someone I didn't know personally, I was trying to rationalise it. And I think it was because, at around the time that his generation of Munster players came along, Limerick was in a pretty rough place. We had this reputation, not entirely undeserved but mostly undeserved, for being a tough city - all the gangs and the feuds and all that stuff. And it was hurtful. Of course it was hurtful.

"Then this Munster team comes along and wins two Heineken Cups and it gave us an alternative narrative, which was about hard work, about honour and decency. And it gave us a pride in the place, I think, and Axel was at the heart of that. He was steeped in that. He was rugby royalty, and he was the heart and soul of that (crusade)."

The Munster team belongs to the province and beyond, he acknowledges. And Foley himself grew up in Killaloe, albeit that his father Brendan, also a revered player for Shannon, Munster and Ireland, grew up in the heart of St Mary's Parish, the club's original catchment area.

"And of course Killaloe have a claim to him, all of Munster has a claim to him, he belongs to all of us. But the Munster team is very special here in Limerick. And that Munster team and their journey in Europe became almost a touchstone for Limerick people. It gave us something to hold onto at a time when we were the butt of all the jokes, when we were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. And there was so much good about this city that we knew about, and these men seemed to embody that. And Foley in particular seemed to embody that. He was a Munchin's man, a Shannon man, a Parish man. His people are the same as mine. He represents sort of, that working-class nobility, that I found such an attractive narrative, bearing in mind what the other narrative was and that we were saddled with. People like the Foleys represented the best of us."

His influence therefore, and that of his team-mates, extended way beyond rugby. But they exerted that influence only because they had the required talent and ambition as rugby men. The game was Foley's alpha and omega. It was family and community too. It provided him with an identity, a means of expression when words were not always his ally. He was a brilliant schoolboy player and frequently returned to his alma mater long after he'd graduated to the provincial and national teams.

"Anthony was quite shy, almost bashful," recalls David Quilter, the principal of St Munchin's. "He kind of had almost this country way about him, very easygoing, not flamboyant - and no ego. He never had an ego. But the boys found him easy to relate to. He would come back on an annual basis, often around the time the cup campaigns were getting under way, and give a talk to the boys. They would come out (after he'd addressed them) and you could see the stare in their eyes. He'd have talked to them about the team, he was all about the team: it was family, stick together 'like a fist' and you will achieve things."

The cortege moved on from Thomond Park, passing through the streets of Limerick and pausing again, outside the gates of St Munchin's, before crossing the border into Co Clare and on through the rural roads to Killaloe. The coffin was taken into the family home on Wednesday night before being brought to the local church on Thursday.

This was not a state funeral but Anthony Foley was a public man who'd had a major impact on civic society. Inside the church he lay in state. People queued in their thousands all day Thursday to pay their respects and perhaps to acknowledge his great service to them.

Preparations by then were well under way in the cemetery on the edge of town. A concrete wall separates the graveyard from the local GAA club that adjoins it. Foley was also a frequent visitor to this modest field, where his sons Dan and Tony were already learning the skills of the hurling trade. Only two weeks earlier, he'd stood in as umpire for an under 11s game.

And now, on the other side of the wall, his grave had been dug. Beside it was a mound of earth, covered in black plastic sheeting. And planted on top of this mound, the red flag of Munster, fluttering in a light breeze.

Back in Thomond Park on Wednesday evening, John Collopy recalled an altogether happier homecoming from Shannon Airport. Like thousands more Munster fans on that crazy May day in 2006, he had to be there when the European Cup landed on home soil.

Foley as captain and Declan Kidney as coach were the first to appear in arrivals, brandishing the silverware as the halls of the airport shook with noise.

"It was unbelievable that night. Absolutely fantastic," he said. "That was the first time and no matter how many times they win it again, it's never going to be the first time. 2006 was the one. It'll never happen like that again."

Tony Cusack Jr was in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium earlier that day, when Foley first raised the cup and the fans lifted the roof. He was 12 at the time. Now he's 22 and a prop forward with Shannon's senior team. Cusack has learned his history well. He understands that the next generation must carry on the values that Foley personified.

"The club ethos, the loyalty, the work ethic, the sheer honesty, those core key values. Those players created a legacy that the current players have to live up to, and Foley was a massive part of that."

As the cortege silently rumbled into motion again, the singers, with immaculate timing, began the words of the second verse to There is an Isle. Farewell, farewell . . . "Farewell, farewell . . ."

As a storyteller, Finn felt compelled to post some words online to mark the occasion. "I know he's only a human being, and he'd probably be embarrassed by the comparison, but I suddenly thought of Homer and Greek mythology, and there was a quote about Hector, defender of the citadel, and how the entire city mourned after he was killed in battle."

He gestured to the grieving crowds who had now broken into sustained applause as the cortege moved into the distance. "This is Homeric. And people like Foley are our latter-day warriors. It is so sad. It is like our champion has fallen."

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