Colm Keys: 'How grief inspires, bonds and honours - Club finals epitomise all that is great in sport'
Teams harnessing inspiration from death of loved ones is a familiar theme these weeks
Twelve days before he played a significant part in Tipperary's third All-Ireland hurling title of the decade last August, Brendan Maher was in St Brigid's Cemetery in Borrisoleigh helping to dig the grave of a young man he had coached with the local club's U-21 team.
It has become an all too familiar ritual in the community over the past year or so, the tragic loss of young life pulling hard on their emotions.
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Nicky Cooney's death came just a couple of months after the passing of another member of that U-21 team, John Ryan.
In that same period, Amanda Stapleton, brother of former Tipperary All-Ireland-winning defender Paddy and back-to-back Cuala All-Ireland club winner Shane, and Maher's own cousin Lorraine Chute also lost their battles with illness, casting long shadows over the village. "It just seems to have been one after the other," Maher articulated in an interview with the Irish Independent on the eve of this year's All-Ireland final.
"And the common link I suppose with it all has been the GAA club, whether it's been sons or daughters or siblings, we've done more guards of honour this year between youngsters and minors and U-21s.
"I feel sorry for the younger generation in Borris at the moment, they're going through a real tough time. Because, you know, it's not natural. But the one thing I would say is that it's shown how close we are as a community. There's strength in that."
That strength has manifested in Borris-Ileigh's return to a Tipperary senior hurling final two years after a heavy defeat to Thurles Sarsfields.
It's 33 years since the club that has given the county four All-Ireland-winning captains last took home the Dan Breen Cup. Seeking to prevent that in a novel final are Kiladangan, themselves in pursuit of a first senior county title.
Maher was the recipient of the Gaelic Writers Association's 'hurling personality of the year' award on Friday night and again touched on the grief befallen on his people and how it forms such a stark backdrop to their latest county final appearance.
In these weeks remembrance is a familiar theme from podiums across the country, irrespective of the weight of silverware being lifted. On Sunday, success in three of the bigger county finals had more than a touch of poignancy attached to them.
To be All-Ireland club champions so often in recent times demands as much resilience as talent and Ballyhale Shamrocks have both in abundance. But even their levels of resilience were tested to the extreme in recent weeks following squad member Eugene Alyward's death from injuries sustained in a car accident.
A year earlier they had found themselves coming to terms with the death of another colleague, Eoin Doyle, from a motorbike accident the previous April and as captain Michael Fennelly acknowledged in an emotional speech after accepting the Tom Walsh Cup, to have to deal with one such tragedy in a club was tough but two so close together was devastating.
Eugene was remembered warmly by Fennelly as "a fun-loving character, full of smiles".
"If he was here today he'd be standing there, looking up smiling with a big happy face and for the next two or three days' celebrations. That's the kind of lad Eugene always was. A great, great character. As some people used to say, he was a big teddy bear.
"Words, they have meaning, but actions speak louder and I hope our actions over the last couple of weeks have helped you on that journey and gave you some sort of comfort, no matter how small it is.
"This cup here is a dedication to Eugene's name," he said, directing his words to the Aylward family in the crowd below and around.
In Meath, Ratoath landed their first senior title, just seven years on from their junior success. Once a village, now a sprawling commuter town, they have harnessed the population boom impressively to create a strong Gaelic games footprint in the area.
The former Dublin goalkeeper and Jim Gavin's goalkeeping coach for four years, Davy Byrne, is their manager and, like Fennelly, he couldn't let the moment pass without reference to a death that touched them in September.
Ronan Cahill was an underage player with many of those who were acquainting themselves with the Keegan Cup for the first time.
He had cystic fibrosis but the condition could never dampen his enthusiasm for all things Ratoath GAA and whatever tasks were required to be done around the running of the team, he was always willing to carry them out.
Ronan, or 'Pep' as Byrne called him, was only 20 when he died and they dedicated their win to him.
"A great guy of ours, a great footballer, a great clubman. He was with us this year," he said, before revealing how they too were able to harness inspiration from the sadness of his passing.
"I saw a tightness there and a bond and a unity that I have never seen in any other team. Ronan has been with us since and will be with us in the future."
In Kildare, Sarsfields reclaimed top spot with their replay win over neighbours Moorefield but that too was tinged with sadness with the death early that morning of Ann Dempsey, a club stalwart and mother of senior panellist Sean Dempsey.
Like those gone from Ballyhale, Ratoath and so many other clubs, her memory was cherished from the podium where captain Sean Campbell paid a fitting tribute to her.
How grief inspires, bonds and honours and how club success can offer brief refuge from the pain of it was never more evident than last weekend and really is a feature of these few weeks.