The player’s death at 24 has rocked his home parish of Clonoulty and the entire hurling world of which he looked destined for greatness
Even for those of us who never met him, there is the enduring impression – above all – of a wonderful smile.
Of a young man with eyes that carried a lot of light in them, the light of mischief and drive and perhaps a certain fearlessness. Tuesday was a day of glazed expressions and low voices in Clonoulty as they took Dillon Quirke to his final resting place under a hot August sun.
Also a day to remind us that maybe we are at our most eloquent when broken.
The words in the Church of St John the Baptist of Dillon’s father, Dan, and his uncle, Andrew, put the most vivid pictures to their fallen boy’s name, pictures that only love could open.
There are no handrails for our feelings when small communities gather to convey something so utterly deep and authentic, something so out of scale.
Clonoulty just picked up the Quirke family in its arms and carried them through a string of days that will forever more seem scarcely believable.
Jimmy McGuinness writes about this in his beautiful memoir, ‘Until Victory Always’.
McGuinness’s older brother, Charles, died suddenly from a heart-related issue in April of ’85 while still just a teenager.
He remembers the family finding immense consolation in the support of community and, for a time, the distraction of a busy house. But ultimately the real coping begins when the world falls quiet.
McGuinness wrote: “The absolute rawness of life – or in this case death – hit me like a sledgehammer. I was sent spinning in a completely different direction, away from the boy I had been. Life was never going to be the same again.
“I felt that without being able to articulate it or make sense of it. Every single day, I felt kind of off balance, like I couldn’t trust the ground beneath me. I went from a happy-go-lucky child – the youngest, the rascal who gets away with it, not a care in the world – to a very, very vulnerable person in the blink of an eye.
“And our entire family was in the one boat. It changed us all. There was just a constant, deep sadness that we all had to cope with. You feel lost and isolated and helpless, which is the worst part. I still have that feeling. I have never lost it.
“I have carried that with me every moment of my life.”
There is no gentle, stock philosophy to make sense of this. Nothing that will ever communicate Dillon’s passing at 24 as anything less than cruel.
For now, the comfort for Dan and Hazel Quirke and their family comes from knowing unequivocally what Dillon meant to other people, to his community, to Tipperary.
The story was told by Tipp player Robert Byrne this week of his final flash of mischief, almost a signature farewell.
Just minutes before he fell in Semple Stadium, Dillon set up a Clonoulty goal against Kilruane, his marker and county team-mate – Craig Morgan – running immediately towards the referee to protest that the pass had been dubious.
But the goal stood and as Craig returned to his post, he was welcomed by that trademark Quirke grin and winking confirmation that the handpass might indeed have been less than perfect.
“Nice little throw there, Morgan!”
Just last week, he and some friends sat in a car in Liberty Square almost weak with laughter watching their victims bend in vain to retrieve a splash of two euro coins they’d superglued to the pavement.
That was the lightness of Dillon Quirke, his essential rogue.
But in a period of luminous transition for the Tipp senior team, he had been a beacon of light through a difficult season too. On the metric of minutes played across league and championship, Dillon was the number one performer for Colm Bonnar’s team.
And that told of quite a journey from last winter when he’d pitched up for a one-to-one with the new Tipp management team, wrestling palpably with his confidence. He’d been playing centre-forward for the club without ever quite feeling that his game could find real flow.
In a talent search, Bonnar was about to reignite the Miller Shield, an old, interdivisional competition pitching the four corners of the county against one another. As Dillon would be hurling for the West, it was suggested that a return to the backs – where he’d excelled at underage – might just get him firing.
It duly did too, Quirke captaining his side to the silverware.
Bonnar’s brother, Brendan, was in charge of that West team and spoke afterwards of the respect Dillon had generated in their dressing-room, the ease of interaction with team-mates, the ability to mix serious with light.
And the word Brendan kept returning to was ‘presence’.
The Tipp dressing-room for 2022 was hopelessly ransacked of seniority through a mix of injuries and retirements, so Bonnar needed – above all – to find new leaders. And, by the time they reached their final training weekend before championship, one man’s hand kept rising higher in Carton House than all others.
The memory of a player whose form brooked no argument about his right to selection.
Quirke would play every minute of Tipp’s championship, an inevitably difficult campaign resulting in four defeats. But he returned to Clonoulty conspicuously more confident, being named captain of a team managed by his uncle and two-time All-Star, Declan Ryan.
Bonnar believed that that role of captaincy was one that made perfect sense.
Speaking on Wednesday, the Cashel man reflected: “I really felt that next year we were going to see the real Dillon Quirke in terms of how he now knew he could hold his own against some of the top players in the country. Because I think he had the capabilities to go on and captain the county.
“He would certainly have been in the top two or three when it came to looking for Tipp captains over the next few years.”
Quirke had built a small gym at home and developed into “an absolute unit” as Tipp team-mate, Barry Hogan, averred this week.
And there is a snapshot from their championship game against Limerick that stays with Bonnar now, Quirke and Gearóid Hegarty tangling legs as they prepared for a puck-out and Dillon losing his footing. In an eyeblink, Hegarty had 20, maybe 30 yards on him.
But by the time the Limerick man swung to shoot, Quirke had somehow made up the ground, forcing a hurried wide.
Three months later, the idea that he is gone makes little sense. Most likely, it never will. Bonnar remembers a virtual force of nature now, someone who would never just keep their own company in the dressing-room, chasing personal focus through headphones. “He needed the energy of the others around him,” he says now.
“Look, he was a real pleasure to know and you could see that he wanted to make every last second count on the field. To be honest, he was exactly the type of person that we were looking for, someone who pushed and pushed, who had that fight in them and the work ethic to be able to deliver it.
“It’s just impossible to get your head around that he’s gone and there will be tough days ahead for his family now. But Clonoulty is a parish that loves its hurling and its hurlers, a very tight community. You could see that this week. They’re a real example.
“And Dillon was a credit to them.”