Tuesday 20 March 2018

Silence falls over Killaloe as beloved warrior Axel makes his final journey

Munster and Ireland players Peter Stringer, Frankie Sheehan, Paul O'Connell , Alan Quinlan and Mick O'Driscoll pictured before the funeral mass for Anthony Foley at St Flannan's church in Killaloe Picture: Frank McGrath
Munster and Ireland players Peter Stringer, Frankie Sheehan, Paul O'Connell , Alan Quinlan and Mick O'Driscoll pictured before the funeral mass for Anthony Foley at St Flannan's church in Killaloe Picture: Frank McGrath
Former Munster and Ireland coach Declan Kidney Picture: Frank McGrath
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Just a field away from home, Anthony Foley was laid to rest amid the rallying cries, softly sung, which had sent him out to battle.

Muted renditions of 'There is an Isle' from his days with Shannon RFC and 'Stand Up and Fight', the anthem of Munster's red army, rang out as his remains were lowered into the earth of his beloved Killaloe. It was a fitting farewell to one whose funeral had taken place where the palace of Brian Boru, another fallen warrior, once stood.

The site surveying the rolling hills was again a devastated battleground as they stood like soldiers in their battalions, separate but very much a solid, unshakeable unit. The rugby family frozen in grief, not knowing how to carry on after a true leader had been swept from their midst.

Shannon Rugby Club were decked out in their black and blue. The entire Munster squad, past and present, sported their best navy suits and red ties.

Ulster's Rory Best and Ireland coach Joe Schmidt Picture: Frank McGrath
Ulster's Rory Best and Ireland coach Joe Schmidt Picture: Frank McGrath

The grizzled officials.

The little boys in their striped jerseys from Ballina and Killaloe rugby club.

Even the youngsters in their yellow soccer jerseys from the five-a-side team from Molly's Bar where Anthony liked to have a pint.

Former Munster player Frank Roche had flown back from Australia to be there, as had former Munster and Australia player John Langford. Declan Kidney, the former Ireland manager whose own wife Ann had just died last week, was flanked by ex-Ireland internationals Keith Wood, Tony Ward, Peter Stringer, Shane Byrne, Ronan O'Gara, Donncha O'Callaghan, Rob Henderson and Paul O'Connell.

Donnacha O'Callaghan Picture: Frank McGrath
Donnacha O'Callaghan Picture: Frank McGrath

Munster chief executive Garret Fitzgerald was present, with former Munster coach Alan Gaffney, as was Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

Read More: 'Anthony will be with us in spirit, every step of the way' - Olive Foley pays emotional tribute to husband

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny was represented by ADC Commandant Lorraine Fahey while President Michael D Higgins was represented by ADC Col Michael Kiernan.

Proud Munster men, the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, junior sports minister Pat O'Donovan and Minister for Housing Simon Coveney were present.

Munster player Simon Zebo Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Munster player Simon Zebo Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

All had come together for Axel's last journey.

"I am fairly certain that even God could do with a top-class number eight," Chief Celebrant Fr Pat Malone observed. On the coffin were two of the caps he had proudly won for Ireland and for Munster.

WATCH: 'Magical family moments in the garden' at centre of tributes at Anthony 'Axel' Foley funeral

Ahead of the funeral, mourners were told that Olive Foley had specifically requested a prayerful, reflective, quiet space in which to mourn Anthony and this was respectfully observed.

A pin could have dropped in Killaloe and it would have reverberated like the famous Munster roar. The tolling of the church bell was the only sound that shattered the silence before a violin took up a lament, playing 'Stand Up and Fight' - the Munster cry which is fittingly set to the tune of 'The Toreador Song' from Bizet's opera, 'Carmen'.

The coffin was carried in by pallbearers who included Donncha O'Callaghan, with Anthony's sister Rosie helping to shoulder it, with sister Orla symbolically guiding it from the back.

Olive followed behind with her two sons Dan and Tony and her sister Aideen.

Jerry Flannery Picture: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Jerry Flannery Picture: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Anthony's parents Brendan and Sheila were amongst the grieving family gathering on this saddest of days.

In the church, an enormous sheaf of red roses was another symbol of Munster. Midday fell and the funeral began - as radio stations around the country simultaneously marked the moment by playing 'The Fields of Athenry,' the Irish rugby anthem.

There were around 500 mourners in the church and another 500 or more lining the streets outside.

Read More: Axel cared so much about people, on and off the field - David Wallace

Another guard of honour was formed by the pupils in Munster scarves from St Ann's Community School where Rosie Foley teaches, together with boys from Anthony's alma mater St Munchin's.

Entire families stood outside the church with babies in buggies.

Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Many wore Munster scarves or symbolic touches of red in a jacket or a scarf.

Old men wiped their eyes at the words of Olive Foley, with her steely bravery not possessed by any scrum-half in the entire Six Nations.

The mass was presided over by the new Bishop of Killaloe, Fintan Monahan, and parish priest, Fr James Grace. Also concelebrating was Fr Gary Blewitt, who had officiated at the marriage between Anthony and Olive 17 years ago.

Fr Malone, as a friend and next-door neighbour, gave the eulogy, saying what had touched him most from reading the tributes during the week was the amount of care Axel had offered to so many different people.

"He had that great human capacity to sense or notice those who were struggling in one way or another," he said, speaking of his ability to "reach out to them and include them in a sensitive and caring way".

"That outreach made all the difference to these people," he said.

WATCH: Crowd burst into applause as Anthony Foley's remains are removed and carried through the streets of Killaloe

"He offered people hope when they felt hopeless, confidence when they were deflated, and simply wished them on when they were unable to do it themselves.

"He was a man who lived life with dignity and personal and professional integrity," he said.

He said Olive was Anthony's "true love".

"You complimented each other so well, Ying and Yang, in perfect balance with each other," he told her.

"My memories of Anthony as a loving, caring and interested dad revolve around the magical family moments in the garden."

He recalled Anthony "pucking a sliotar with his lads," kicking a football, swinging a golf club and erecting a trampoline.

Precious family moments he had observed included the excitement of the family when they got some new hens. "I remember him at the excitement of the hens' arrival… searching with his boys for the eggs that were laid," said Fr Grace. "The excitement when they were found was shared and young Tony would look over the fence and invite all to breakfast." Anthony's presence had been "reassuring", he said.

There was laughter as he apologised for borrowing an anthem from Liverpool, saying that knowing Anthony's presence was knowing you'd 'never walk alone'. He quipped that he liked the parable of the pencil which is to 'make your mark'. "Anthony 'Axel' Foley made many a mark in his 42 short years of life. Just look around and see the warm, affirmed marks left on family, friends, colleagues, sports fans, this local community, rugby wherever it is spoken of, that to name but a few," he urged them.

Read More: Peter Stringer started for Sale hours after attending funeral because 'Anthony Foley would have wanted it'

Addressing Olive directly, he asked that the benchmark of his love might be the ray of light that dispels the incomprehensible darkness the family are working through. Prayers were said for the family and for all "who miss Anthony", for all who helped following his passing in France and also in Ireland and for all "who had been kind" to them.

The coffin left the church to the sad strains of 'May the Road Rise Up To Meet You'.

It was shouldered by Anthony's old team-mates, Keith Wood - his friend since they were eight years old - Peter Clohessy, Mick Galwey and John Hayes, and John Langford, along with Munster captain Peter O'Mahony. It was the hardest struggle they had undertaken.

Irish Independent

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