Thursday 23 January 2020

Qualities we admired in rugby hero Axel are shared by his wife

Olive Foley spoke at her husband's funeral Mass with courage and determination while managing a nod to his humour

STRONG: Olive Foley at funeral Mass. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
STRONG: Olive Foley at funeral Mass. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

There is often something powerful and moving in how people respond to the death of a loved one. And that was the case this weekend as Anthony "Axel" Foley was laid to rest by his family in Killaloe.

Foley was a rugby titan. As an Ireland and Munster player, then Munster coach, he had a long and successful, but sometimes challenging, career in the game.

But it was Foley the family man, not Foley the rugby player, who was spoken of in St Flannan's Church by close family friend Fr Pat Malone, the parish priest of Clarecastle and Ballyea, and Foley's "true soul mate" - his wife Olive.

It is never an easy task to speak at the funeral of a loved one. When that loved one is your husband, who was taken from you unexpectedly in his prime, and you are standing in front of your two young sons in a church packed with his brothers in arms, it is surely a task to which many of us would feel unequal.

But courage, integrity and dignity were not solely the preserves of her husband, and Olive spoke simply and eloquently for 14 minutes about the man she described as "a loving husband, father, son, brother, friend and team-mate". In that order.

She faltered on occasion, the emotion of the situation catching up with her, but she pressed on resolutely. She wanted to pay proper tribute to the man she loved - painting a picture of a family man who clearly had a devoted relationship with his wife and sons. She said: "He would ring me 20 times a day. He was a ringer. Although he wouldn't say that much." This was greeted by some laughter from his friends and team-mates in the congregation, as he was known to be a man of few words.

Foley did like to listen, though, and Olive spoke of how he would come in from work and have a cup of coffee and just be happy to sit there, while she "rambled on about her day", and then he would say, "Get the hurleys, lads", and take their two sons Tony and Dan out for a puck.

"I'm going to get a hurley now," she said, breaking hearts throughout the church. "I'm going to go and do that, and we'll see how that goes."

She said: "He trusted me with everything - with the children, their schooling, the house, everything. And I intend to honour that trust, and I'm going to make sure our two adored boys will grow up to be decent, solid men, full of integrity and honesty, just like their dad."

Sometimes I wonder where people find the inner strength and the extraordinary courage to stand steadfast in the face of such obvious terrible grief. We're often at our human best at the send-off of a husband, father, son, or brother. And that was Olive on Friday.

She was supported in her and her family's grief by Axel's tribe. They came from as far as Australia, but also from the small towns and villages of Clare and Limerick. Big, sombre men in dark suits came quietly to St Flannan's to see off their team-mate, their coach, their mentor, their friend.

Foley hadn't had an easy time of it lately from a rugby point of view - his fortunes were tied to those of Munster. Olive alluded to that in her eulogy. She spoke simply and without any hint of self-pity or indulgence of the "very rough days and the pressure and the hurt" of his past two years as Munster's head coach.

She spoke of the stresses Foley experienced but she, like Axel himself, was dignified in how she dealt with that. And none of that mattered any more, as his extended clan rallied this weekend to Olive and their boys. Axel's coffin, decked with red roses, his rugby caps and his number eight jersey, was carried by a band of brothers who are among the few people who really understand the pressures, the highs and the lows, of being a professional sportsman - and almost a piece of public property.

Pallbearers included Keith Wood, Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy, Peter O'Mahony, John Langford, John Hayes and Niall O'Donovan and - in a beautiful tribute among that group of strong, able men - Foley's sister Rosie.

Fr. Malone commented he was sure that "even God could probably use a top-class number eight".

But it was Olive who summed up perfectly, bravely and beautifully her husband's legacy, which was the people he touched, his indomitable spirit, and his loyalty and pride in his province.

She said Foley told her: "I was never as bad as they said I was. And I was never as good as they said I was." I suspect he was right. He was so much better. Olive should be proud of her husband. And, indeed, of herself.

Sunday Independent

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