Friday 19 January 2018

Billy Keane: Foley saved Munster in life...and now in death - by reminding us what is important

A group of ladies listen to Anthony Foley’s wife Olive as she speaks during the funeral mass
for her husband at St Flannan’s church in Killaloe. Photo: Frank McGrath
A group of ladies listen to Anthony Foley’s wife Olive as she speaks during the funeral mass for her husband at St Flannan’s church in Killaloe. Photo: Frank McGrath
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Olive Foley spoke in words of love and honour. It was as if she was repeating her marriage vows up at the high altar beside her husband's casket.

She spoke in words that were tender and words that were steely, too. She was true to the life of her husband. Her words were for all time. Words for every man and every woman.

It was a sun shower tribute to the man she loved. In between the tears, there was joy and laughter.

Such strength and such honesty and such courage inspire us. And when Olive finished, the church rose as one to give her a standing ovation.

And do you know what I got to thinking in the church as Olive spoke? There are people married for 60 years buttering toast this morning and sipping tea but in all of those of years very few will have experienced the life and love of Olive and Anthony Foley.

Anthony was given a great send-off in his home town of Killaloe. There's no doubt but that we do death very well in Ireland. We travelled up the hill to the church past the pub once owned by his dad Brendan and his mother Sheila. Anthony's home town pals were walking close together, almost in formation, as if they wanted to stay close now that one of the group was gone.

Noel 'Buddha' Healy, the President of Shannon RFC, Anthony's club, generally says what is in his brain without any great filtering process and so his talk is always lively and sometimes rich in content. "Billy," he said, "Axel (Anthony's nickname) looked very well in the coffin. His hair was combed and he was shaved. Axel usually looks like he just got out of bed."

It was as if his old buddy was there beside him and then The Buddha stopped. He realised all of a sudden Axel wasn't there to slag him back. Tears rolled down the ravines on his open face.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and former Munster and Ireland player Keith Wood arrive for the funeral of Munster Rugby head coach Anthony Foley

Keith Wood's house is just up the street from Foley's. He and Axel were very close. Woody organised everything with that kind of authority and precision he was famous for on the field of play. Woody and Axel, the Kilalloe boys stuck together when they faced all sorts of intimidation on the pitch. They had each other's backs. And now an exhausted-looking Woody was there for his pal, making sure the ceremony went off smoothly.

Yes, Olive was funny in the sun shower reflection she gave with such courage up there beside her husband's coffin. She spoke of how they had a coffee every evening when he came home from Munstering. "I couldn't get much out of him but he was content to let me go on," she said. Foley was a man of few words. But I knew Foley and I knew he loved listening to her. She spoke of how he trained his two boys in every sport from rugby to football, hurling and golf. And sometimes, she said, "he even checked their homework."

I was a guest at the funeral and so I cannot really tell you too much about the church service as I felt I would be betraying a trust. Suffice to say, the Foleys were broken- hearted but incredibly dignified. Olive's words we can bring you in so far as I can remember.

She spoke of their perfect home. And the love her man had for his kids. "He was a ringer," she said. He phoned her loads of times every day and she spoke of their last phone call on Saturday night before the last sleep in France.

Now in calm moments of quiet reflection in the library of Kilaloe, here on the banks of the Shannon, we think of the great man. Anthony Foley just wanted everyone to be the best they could be. He always wanted to be the best he could be.

Olive said Anthony gave everything he had to Munster. Everything. He did not hold any grudges and when Olive was upset, just as I often was at the savage criticism, she was calmed every time by his words. "I'm not as bad as they say I am and I'm not as good either. Don't read anything."

We must never forget to look back at a life lived in the service of humanity when maybe there is a temporary failure such as the losing of game. Some turned against him. But then in death the deeds and the life story were replayed before our very eyes. We were reminded of what it was we forgot and in that recollection came redemption. Munster became Munster again. Loyal and full of heart. With shared values of valour and honour. The heritage of fair play, of trust and courage is safe. Foley saved Munster in life and in death. There is a lesson for all of us here. We must judge a man or a woman on the whole of their lives. We are far too hard on our fellow humans.

I was very sad when I met Declan Kidney, who was our coach when Foley was captain in 2006 for that first famous Heineken Cup win. I think of the two of them there in Cardiff so happy lifting the cup up to all of us like a holy chalice. There was a communion there between the players and the fans. Declan lost his wife last week but he was there for Foley, whom he always backed and championed.

Olive Foley made another promise to her husband there on the altar of Killaloe Parish Church. She vowed to look after Tony and Dan with all of her might. There was a maternal fierceness in her voice as she vowed to mind their two lovely sons.

And she said: "Anthony will be there with me in spirit." Of that, you may be sure, Olive.

Irish Independent

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