Tuesday 12 December 2017

Haka for a hero: Maori funeral farewell for brave Donal

Dan Cournane from Tralee Rugby Club, who was coached by Donal Walsh (inset), performs a funeral haka as Donal’s remains are brought from St John’s Church in Tralee, Co Kerry. Munster rugby stars helped carry the coffin
Dan Cournane from Tralee Rugby Club, who was coached by Donal Walsh (inset), performs a funeral haka as Donal’s remains are brought from St John’s Church in Tralee, Co Kerry. Munster rugby stars helped carry the coffin
Donal Walsh
Mourners at the funeral of Donal Walsh
Munster players attending the funeral
Mourners at the funeral of Donal Walsh
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

THE coffin paused at the church gates and a cry of raw anguish pierced the hearts of mourners.

The words were foreign but the grief expressed by the solitary figure of this young man needed no translation.

The whole sadness and simultaneous triumph of Donal Walsh's life and death seemed to be contained in the strange cries and fierce swooping movements of a Maori funeral haka. It said it all, when words had barely scratched the surface.

It was beautiful, haunting, and when it was over, left young Dan Cournane – whom Donal had coached in rugby – completely spent and overcome.

"Thank you," mouthed Donal's parents, Fionnbar and Elma, tears in their eyes, and Fionnbar reached out to hug him tightly.

As he passed by in the funeral cortege, Munster rugby player and former All-Black Doug Howlett stopped to say "Well done" and to chat briefly with the youngster, who is New Zealand-born but has lived in Kerry for the past five years.

It was an extraordinary moment and just one of many throughout the day that Donal – a keen sportsman – would have deeply appreciated.

But then, this was no ordinary funeral. There was a profound sense of loss and grief – but a complete and curious absence of 'tragedy' despite the sorrowful circumstances. Donal himself had seen to that.

Few adults – let alone teenagers – could have overcome the knowledge of certain impending death and, with love and compassion for others, managed to transform it into powerful and enduring action as he did.

His funeral was held exactly a month before he was due to turn 17 but Donal had, in the weeks before his death, we heard, received "thousands" of letters and cards from people whose lives he had touched.

Many were youngsters who had been encouraged by his words to acknowledge that they had a difficulty and had gone on to seek professional help.

The respect he had inspired went far beyond his young years and was evident in the packed benches of St John's Church in Tralee for his funeral, where mourners of every age and background came to pay him tribute.

From the moment the first Mass concluded at 10.30am, people were beginning to fill the church, with every uniform from all the schools in Tralee represented – particularly pupils in the grey of Donal's own school, CBS The Green.

Their youthful, fresh faces were a poignant and stark reminder of the shortness of Donal's own life and yet, simultaneously, of how much he had achieved in that span.

By 11.30am, the church was completely full.


Mass booklets were handed out, which bore a "screen grab" of a happy and relaxed Donal, taken from his recent TV interview with Brendan O'Connor on the 'Saturday Night Show'.

Also printed on the cover was probably Donal's wisest and most famous quote: "I've climbed God's mountains, faced many struggles for my life and dealt with so much loss. The only difference for me is that I'm looking from the mountain."

As his funeral left his home in Blennerville outside Tralee, in the foothills of the Kerry mountains and where the windmill is a well-known landmark, thousands of local people lined the streets in solemn respect as the hearse passed by.

The church bell tolled and the congregation rose in silence to receive the coffin, and an atmosphere of intense sadness swept over mourners as they saw Donal's parents and sister Jema, his grandmother Mary and the rest of the extended family as they walked sorrowfully behind up the aisle. His mother, Elma, was sobbing, her hand held over her face.

There were no fewer than 14 priests concelebrating the Mass, many from surrounding parishes, and also Donal's uncle, Fr Michael Walsh, an Augustinian priest, with parish priest Fr Francis Nolan presiding over the requiem Mass.

The President's Aide-de-Camp Colonel Brendan McAndrew was especially welcomed.

Fr Nolan also welcomed the media, thanking them for having 'engaged with Donal's story' in the past number of weeks.

Symbols of Donal's full life were brought to the altar, including a crucifix brought by close friend Cormac Coffey as a presentation of his strong faith; a club football jersey and Tralee rugby jersey and cycling top were brought up by rugby player Shane Jennings.

Drumsticks symbolising his love of music were brought up by friend James O'Connor; his Crumlin Hospital medal for his charitable work was brought by friend Hugh Stewart; a pen and paper representing his gift for writing was brought by Kerry footballer Paul Galvin; and his local hero award – which propelled him to national prominence – was brought up by John Keating.

Fr Michael Walsh revealed to mourners how, as an Augustinian priest, he had shown a copy of Donal's newspaper article for the 'Sunday Independent' to his prior general, Fr Robert Prevost.

He had been so impressed that he had asked Donal if he would like to become an honorary Augustinian.

Donal had accepted and was sworn in two days before his death last Sunday.


"It is a great honour for the order to have someone like Donal as a member," Fr Walsh said.

With great dignity, Donal's grieving sister, Jema, read the first reading – her voice strong and brave as she told how "length of days is not what makes age honourable, nor number of years the true measure of life".

In his homily, Fr Nolan said a feeling of intense and painful loss prevailed in people's hearts at Donal's death.

They had all hoped for a miracle – but Donal had slipped away on the Feast of the Ascension of The Lord. "What an appropriate day to go," he commented.

He spoke of Donal as "a gentleman of high stature yet so gentle".

His acceptance of death and wisdom was a "beautiful miracle in a boy of 16," he said.

His lack of fear of death had been "beyond inspiration and truly heroic" and Fr Nolan called on young people not to forget his words that suicide was not the answer.

He had left further legacies in the lesson that life is a special gift, which is irreplaceable, and that in every crisis of life lies an opportunity, he said.

Prayers of the faithful were offered for Donal's family and friends, the medics who had treated him – with Elma later singling out the palliative team of Kerry General Hospital as a "team of angels" – and also for young people in crisis.

A beautiful moving solo rendition of 'Panis Angelicus' from Donal's school choir brought tears to the eyes of many, compounded by a version of 'Steal Away'.

Resounding applause ended a section of Donal's own beautifully written words and then his mum Elma rose bravely to speak, thanking those who had helped her in the care of her son.

There was laughter as she revealed how Donal had not always got his own way – and had greeted it with pouts and slamming doors.

It was her way of saying that her son had been a normal teenager behind it all.

Ending her words with a catch in her voice as she told how she and her family would miss Donal to the end of their days, she was given a standing ovation.

And then, before the final funeral rites were given, the people of Tralee, Kerry, and far beyond rose in a body to pay their respects to the family.

In deep respect and overwhelming gratitude to the memory of Donal Walsh, the nation stood behind them.

Irish Independent

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