Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Opinion: Farewell to a good man who was one of us

Munster and Glasgow Warriors players observe a minutes silence in memory of the late Anthony Foley Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster and Glasgow Warriors players observe a minutes silence in memory of the late Anthony Foley Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

I've just watched a beautiful, heart-breaking, movie. It opens in Paris on a bright, crisp autumn day. Two large groups are milling about, one wearing red, the other in blue and white stripes, exchanging good natured banter.

It's an important match in European rugby's major competition. The TV cameras and other media are poised for action. Then, totally unexpectedly, Sky TV's James Gemmell says: "We must bring you the saddest possible news."

He announces the red team's head coach has been found dead in his hotel room, aged 42. The game is put off.

As tributes start to flow in, the camera switches to the outside of the Stade Yves-du-Manoir where the Reds' fans have gathered in disbelief and grief. Pain is etched on the faces of grown men and women. They hug and cry. They sing 'The Fields Of Athenry'.

A morning that buzzed with excitement and hope has been turned on its head, the awful juxtaposition of life in its prime and sudden death.

What we don't see is the shock of the immediate family. We don't need to. We have all known such horror.

The next scenes document the following days, which are filled with tributes to this man, Anthony Foley, or as he was affectionately known 'Axel' after the Beverly Hills Cop movies.

The tributes were magnificent, not in a polished Hollywood style, but in their honesty, simplicity, openness and vulnerability. Our friends, those who mourn us, tell the real story of who we are.

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I cried, at the words of Keith Wood, Donal Lenihan, Alan Quinlan and Brian O'Driscoll. These are tough men in the toughest of sports. Peter Stringer called him his "protector". Ronan O'Gara tweeted "we love you". Jerry Flannery said: "I am heartbroken. You are everything I ever wanted to be."

A straight-talking man of few words, with a dry wit, he had led his province to an unheralded plain of joy, showing other clubs and other Irish sports that they, too, could dare to dream.

But he was much more.

For all his sporting achievements, the one thing that kept coming through is his humanity, that he was a good man - the father, son, brother, husband, friend you would want.

I cried for the loss to family, in gratitude for the happiness he brought to so many, for all he will not now get to do.

His death also reminds us of our own mortality, how much we take for granted every day. Every night since, I have held my loved ones a little tighter.

Someone said this is our Princess Diana moment. It is in ways, but it's very different too. Anthony Foley was born with no silver spoon. What he achieved was by dint of hard work and perseverance. He was one of us.

He epitomised so many good traits that we traditionally value and his death seems to have transcended all boundaries, Shannon, Munster, Ireland, rugby.

Thomond Park is on the normal route from Shannon Airport to Killaloe.

As the headlights of the funeral cortege appear over the crest of the hill on Cratloe Road, the silence is broken by a man's voice. He sings four words: "There is an Isle..."

The thousands lining the road repeat back the line, as one, in the conventional opening to Shannon RFC's anthem.

If ever there was a poignant song and a way of singing it to match an occasion, this was it.

Many in the crowd knew Axel. Many others, like myself, never met him. Yet we all feel we have lost a good friend.

Tragically, for Anthony Foley's family, this is not a movie.

Words, however kind or well intentioned, can't bring him back. I just hope that his family can take some comfort in the love of close friends and the distant support of the many.

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