IT is a bullpen of tears, a curtain of weeping scarlet, a proud, heart-stung fellowship of the Munster soil.
October 2016, a week on from Anthony Foley’s sudden passing at 42, just 24 hours after he was lowered into the Killaloe earth, and Thomond Park is throbbing, the stage for an afternoon of immaculately crafted tear-stained theatre.
Munster are hosting Glasgow, but the game is an afterthought: This is a farewell to one of their own, and on a crisp, autumnal Saturday, the storied arena by the Shannon is brimming with humanity and grief and affection.
Their love – on this Limerick day of days - is on the wing, they had dreams and songs to sing.
As they rent the air - soaring, unrelenting arias - a team, their audience and the memory of a fallen giant melded.
Axel and his tribe. Indivisible. Indistinguishable. One.
It sounds overblown, but that was how it felt this occasion of requiem.
At the end of a tumultuous afternoon, one - fittingly - where Munster appeared propelled by heavenly guidance, their players gathered in a circle at half-way.
A hush as powerful as thunder fell over the wedged arena.
And Thomond delivered a uniquely Munster tribute to their fallen soulmate.
Bizet’s Toreador Song – for generations a Limerick rugby staple - cut through the silence and a hypnotised, baffled and forlorn audience let loose a Niagara of tears.
Stand up and fight until you hear the bell
Stand toe to toe, trade blow for blow,
Keep punching till you make your punches tell
Show that crowd what you know
Until you hear that bell, that final bell
Stand up and Fight like hell!
In that instant, Earth – to borrow a line from the poet, William Wordsworth – had not anything to show more fair.
When the singing concluded there came a great guttural exhalation, one that might have been whipped up by a celestial bellows: “Munster, Munster, Munster…”
It was authentically spine-tingling, reaching down and touching those present at their core.
And you didn’t have to be at all spiritual to sense Foley’s presence in the ground where he had shone as a player and captain, and where, just weeks earlier, he had coached.
It was one of those binding communal afternoons, the type nobody present ever leaves behind.
In the shadow of death, from the valley of hurt, came a special, life-affirming valediction.
Foley’s essence tiptoed into every nook and crevice of a crammed, visceral Thomond Park.
His presence could be acutely felt at the shrine – a kaleidoscope of colour; flags and shirts tattooed with words, eloquent and heartfelt - that sprouted organically outside Shannon RFC’s bar, in the hours before kick-off.
And when Simon Zebo, after touching down for Munster’s third try, pointed his fingers and face to the clouds and whispered a few words to his fallen head coach.
He was there in every tackle and heave, investing every last drop of celestial energy, easing Munster to a 21-point win Champions Cup win that should - logically - have been beyond them after a week of unprecedented tumult.
It was as if Foley’s spirit was carrying his club just as his team-mates – suffocating with anguish - had shouldered him to his final resting place a day earlier.
The Munster cathedral soared and swayed, fuelled by tenderness and togetherness and bone-deep hurt.
It was both ruinous and gorgeous, a reminder that a community – stirred by some epic happening - can reach down and summon something unbreakable, untouchable.
Munster won a rugby match – their lust to do right by Foley overwhelming and crushing Glasgow – and somehow their crimson tribe found a way to face down mortality.
Even after the felling of a titan, with death intruding, Thomond offered a startlingly beautiful landscape.
The tributes were thoughtful, at a perfect pitch.
The match programme – which sold out in minutes – might have been bound in brown leather: The carefully crafted words of those alongside whom he toiled read like sacred scripture, their testaments as poetic as a biblical psalm.
And the music – Luke Kelly’s tremulous Song for Ireland, Clare to Here, Fields of Barley, One, The Fields of Athenry – seemed to rise up from the very bowels of the arena.
When the Munster Rugby Supporters’ Choir sang a haunting version of Foley’s club song, There is an Isle, the ground itself seemed to shake with emotion and surrender to the enormity of the realisation that he was gone.
There is an Isle, a bonnie Isle,
Stands proudly from,
Stands proudly from the sea,
And dearer far than all this world
Is that dear Isle, is that dear Isle to me.
And then the chorus, a refrain of belonging so familiar to Foley:
But because it is my native land,
And my home, my home is there.
Some 25,000 voices cracked and sobbed, reminding their fallen friend that his home was here.
The afternoon unfolded as a eulogy.
With their performance, Munster even stepped into a time machine. A team which had flailed in the preceding months emerged again as a powerful facsimile of the one Foley had first led to the European summit in 2006.
Somehow – despite the emotional vortex in which heads and hearts spun – they delivered the very best of themselves.
Munster were passionate, coherent, clinical.
Looking on, teary-eyed and proud, old gladiators like Mick Galwey and Keith Wood nodded knowingly.
All Munster's instantly recognisable calling cards from the glory years returned: Unlimited passion, a unity of purpose.
If Thomond Park felt like an ark bobbing up and down on a tide of grief, it was also a formidable palace of solidarity.
Their supporters had gathered to do the only thing that can be done at such a helpless, dismaying hour: To be there, offer a shoulder, wrap a family in love.
That afternoon five years ago felt almost like a state funeral: The Munster nation bidding adieu to one of their own, ushering him to the land beyond the meeting of sea and sky.
Foley lay in the Killaloe earth, but his spirit soared above the famed rectangle of grass.
Because, as the song had reminded us, it was his native land. And his home, his home was there.