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Dillon Quirke: The hurler’s sudden death, grieving family and lifesaving legacy

A year ago today the 24-year-old collapsed and died on the field at Semple Stadium. A foundation named after him aims to prevent similar deaths

On Sunday last, the Quirke family went to the All-Ireland football final together. Family trips have always been a tradition and, as Dan Quirke says, a “blessing”.

They’ve been lucky enough to have Christmases skiing or in South Africa, to follow Munster, to visit Old Trafford regularly. What it comes down to, for them all, is stories. Dan is laughing now as he recalls the three magical weeks when he and Dillon toured New Zealand, following the Lions rugby tour in the summer of 2017.

“The thing about Dillon, whether you were eight or 80, he had time for you,” he explains.

Not long after they arrived, Dillon got chatting to a few Scottish men.


“The guys were in their 60s. They were also hardcore Rangers supporters. Whether it was the uniqueness of following the same team as a chatty young Irish lad or the liberation of finding themselves at the other end of the world, something clicked. Of the 21 nights, I’d say we gave 15 with these fellas. And Dillon loved it. They told us great stories.”

The reverberations of that tour didn’t stop. The Quirke men also met a Crossmaglen man on that trip – suffice to say not in the company of the Rangers gang. Just a few weeks ago, Dan travelled up to the Crossmaglen Classic as a guest and spent a memorable weekend in the town. He’d never been before and if in some ways it was like stepping into an Irish town with a completely parallel experience to that he’d lived in Tipp, in other ways it was the exact same. The hospitality he received in Cross’ was overwhelming. It has been since Dillon died.

Today, Saturday August, 5th, marks the first year anniversary of Dillon Quirke’s sudden death while captaining his club, Clonoulty-Rossmore, in a championship match against Kilruane McDonaghs. He was 24.

The club has decided to rename their grounds in his name in a ceremony that will take place this evening. GAA president Larry McCarthy will be there. An anniversary Mass follows at the ground. The Quirkes are touched by the gesture and, naturally, still a little stunned that any of this is happening. Dan has found it difficult to go down to the pitch over the past 12 months. He finds coming to Thurles hard, too.

We are sitting in the Anner Hotel. The afternoon is warm and pleasant enough for people to sit outside and there’s a bright energy about the place. For decades the hotel, on the edge of town, has been a gathering point on marquee Tipperary hurling days. The Quirkes live a quick drive away.

The original GAA town and the lush surrounding countryside serves as a who’s who of Tipp’ hurling. Come in from Nenagh and the first landmark you see is Semple Stadium itself. Jimmy Doyle lived in its shadow.

Come through from Templemore and a sharp right will take you to Corbett country, a left to Noel McGrath’s club. Rising through the masses of young hurlers to play for the county is a monumental feat. Dillon Quirke had scaled it. He won minor and under-21 medals before progressing to the senior team where he played under Liam Sheedy and Liam Cahill.

Like all counties, Tipp were measuring themselves against Limerick’s era of supremacy over the past few years but it was against the champions that the Quirkes watched Dillon grow into the responsibility of senior hurling. With the honour comes an unquantifiable element of public scrutiny. Against Limerick, Dillon found himself marking Kyle Hayes, Gearóid Hegarty and Tom Morrissey, each a unique proposition of athleticism and ability. Dan reckons it might be the game his son enjoyed the most.

“I thought that, yeah. When they were close up to seven or eight minutes, I think he enjoyed that. Three good guys! And he did well on the three of them. He was delighted with that. That he could compete at the top level so he could stand up with his chest out. To make it at that grade, you have to believe that you are good enough. And I would say that for a couple of years, Dillon didn’t know.

“But whatever happened in his final year, I could see him grow, when they played him in the half back line. And he was able to hurl with a smile on his face. If you can do that at that level, you have it made. Because it means you are enjoying it. And it is hard to enjoy it at that level.”

We speak for a while about the imaginary force-field it takes to progress to senior inter-county Gaelic games. The sport is a wasteland of promising minor talent unfulfilled. Dan Quirke was a serious sportsman, also winning an All-Ireland under-21 medal with Tipp’ and playing senior football for the county. He came through at a time when the competitive seriousness and heavy socialising seemed to exist in perfect harmony.

Today’s game requires a more ascetic approach. If there is a trait that all county players share, it’s that of perfectionism. The demands of the amateur ethos require a kind of ruthless time management and insistence on doing things right. Dillon had those.

Dillon will have a legacy. And I would hope his legacy would be that every young sports athlete, male and female in this country, will have mandatory screening for their heart

After finishing school he started college and, after six weeks of looking around with increasing impatience and disinterest at the scene, he decided he had better things to be doing with his time.

He spent four years completing his apprenticeship as a high voltage electrician. He had also started working in the family business. His mother Hazel operates a bakery from the home and she and Dan set up three delicatessens which have become enduring favourites around the county. Dillon bought a place in Thurles and lived there with friends. He had an appointment made to arrange planning permission for a home he would build on a site right next door to his parents but never got to keep it.

“He was well focused. He knew what he wanted in life,” Dan says.

He could tailor his work around training and resting. He was highly sociable and outgoing but was always interested in the fun of it rather than drinking.

“He would take a beer. But he didn’t need the beer.”

Sometimes, Dan would observe his son’s week-to-week hurling ritual and wonder where the game could go from here. If matching Limerick meant outperforming Limerick on the training field: how could teams humanly do that? And still be amateur? It’s a national conversation with no easy answer.

We were to go for one more final test. But a game came up in the meantime. He was captain of his club. He wanted to play. And unfortunately, that was the game

In the haze of shock and confusion after Dillon’s death, the Quirkes began to try to understand what had happened. It didn’t take them too long to discover that some 100 young people die every year from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (Sads) in Ireland.

“Not all sports people,” Dan says, “but for some reason, the majority seem to be.”

The figure left them reeling and instantly determined to try to do something. The foundation was established soon afterwards.

“It has gone so quickly because there is so much happening. I guess the foundation has been a solace to me. Maybe not the girls so much because it is kind of overpowering. But it has been a focus for me. Maybe I am being selfish, I don’t know. It has helped me enormously. And I don’t want to overpower the girls either. Because someone said to me, shortly after Dillon passed: ‘don’t let Dillon overtake your life going forward’.

“You have to look after people who are still with you. Which is Hazel my wife, and our two girls. That is with me all the time. Dillon will have a legacy. And I would hope his legacy would be that every young sports athlete, male and female in this country, will have mandatory screening for their heart. That is the ambition of the foundation over a five- or 10-year period.”

If Dan had his way, heart scans would become mandatory for any juvenile wishing to play sport. Just as Garda vetting is now a standard requirement for anyone involved in coaching, so should a heart check become a required document for young players. He is convinced it will help.

He got a call recently from a parent whose child had gone into hospital with a burst appendix. A nurse happened to mention the Dillon Quirke Foundation. Had they considered getting a screening while in the hospital? And the father rang Dan to tell him they’d found an issue with the child’s heart, and that it could be treated. He’s had six or seven similar calls from parents just saying thanks. There is a comfort in that. The GAA community has thrown its considerable influence behind the foundation. It is close to achieving charity status.

“Our ambition is to make that mandatory. We won’t be able to do that by ourselves. but we can raise awareness. It is costly. Certain people can afford it and certain people can’t but, at least if there is awareness; it’s a start. And we’d appeal to anyone who may not be able to meet the cost to get in touch with us. You won’t catch everything with the screening. But we know this can save lives.”

Dillon Quirke had been screened. Four years before his death, the Quirkes began to notice that if there was any common illness going – a flu or shingles or a cough – it didn’t miss him. A night out could leave him unusually tired. His immune system was not what one would imagine in a strapping athlete, radiant with good health.

He was diagnosed with myocarditis and took a full nine months away from sport to give himself a chance to recover. So, he was in consultation with heart specialists and had been given full clearance to return to sport. But Hazel made him promise not to ignore any signs of faintness and he was true to that.

“He was a big strong guy, ate well, slept well, and did everything right, but it is amazing: when that thing isn’t right . . . He seemed to get better. He got [the] all clear. But we really don’t know. This could be a genetic thing that started for Dillon. We don’t know. The tests came back fine. We were to go for one more final test. But a game came up in the meantime. He was captain of his club. He wanted to play. And unfortunately, that was the game . . .”

As it happened, on August 5th last year, he was marking one of his closest friends, Craig Morgan, as he collapsed on the pitch in Semple Stadium. He told Craig to tell the referee to stop the game; that he was going to faint. Hazel, Dan and Shannon were at the game. They raced to his side. Shannon, a trained medic, took his pulse. A senior GAA match means the presence of trained doctors and an ambulance. They worked on him, but it was clear he had experienced something catastrophic and that he was gone.

“The electrics to Dillon’s heart were destroyed,” Dan says now.

“I don’t know the technical term for it but that is what happened. When adrenaline flows, you need more oxygen to your heart and it was not getting there, I guess. That is what caused the problem. But in saying that, when he played with Tipperary last year, in a six-week period when they played four championship matches and he played every minute of those matches, there was no issue at all. And you would imagine the adrenaline would have been higher again. So, it is inexplicable. And I don’t know if we will ever get answers.”

In the weeks and months afterwards, the family absorbed the fact that if Dillon had, by some miracle, come through the episode in Semple Stadium, his hurling days were over. In fact, all sport would be absolutely forbidden.

“It would have been a nightmare for poor Dillon. We were told . . . if he had kids, God rest him, and they were playing in the garden, he wouldn’t be supposed to run around with them.”

Dillon’s birth, in 1998, came about prematurely and through a harrowing circumstance. Hazel was involved in a head-on collision when pregnant with Dillon. She suffered serious injuries while somehow managing to protect her child.

“She’s an incredible woman. They were both lucky to be alive. And he was born eight weeks early. Hazel was so strong to come through that,” Dan says.

You find it difficult to sleep sometimes. And first thing in the morning. But we are lucky to have so many happy memories. I never had a bad word with Dillon

For the first year and a half of his life, then, Dillon would not sleep.

“And we took him to all kinds of quacks back in the day,” he laughs. “But things moved on and he settled great.”

Shannon, now 26, is a year older than Dillon would be now. Kellie, 22, is three years younger. It meant the trio were the perfect age to grow up and do things together: the brother in the middle of two naturally close sisters with a livewire sense of fun.

Shannon had planned to go to Australia before the pandemic and eventually headed off last December. She flew back from Melbourne to be home for her brother’s first anniversary. She is home for three weeks.

“We all felt it would be good for her to go. Life doesn’t stop. You have to move on,” Dan says. Kellie has finished second year studying maths and PE in UCC.

When Dan appeared on the TV3 morning show to talk about Dillon and cardiac screening, a compilation of videos featuring Dillon laughing and goofing about was broadcast. To anyone watching, it was obvious he had an irrepressible sense of joy and was very affectionate.

“Very affectionate,” Dan nods. “He was. Ah, he was mighty fun. Always playing tricks on Hazel. Some of them are on TikTok. Pretending there were mice or something. He’d be upstairs and fire a bucket of water down at her. Silly things but just having fun.”

Those videos and the televised games that Dillon played are there as reference points to look back on.

“Absolutely. Personally, I haven’t looked at them yet. The girls and Hazel can look at them a bit better. I will do that in time. As children go, he was fabulous. Of course, I am biased. But whether it was fun, work, sport, he had lovely attributes about him in the way he dealt with people in general. He left an effect on everyone he met.

“And since this happened, we have heard more stories that we never knew about. Full of mischief. He could turn things into a joke or a bit of fun. But he could flick a switch and get serious when he needed to.”

If we told them that we would give them a hundred grand to put the foundation on the jersey, I know we would get it

This evening’s ceremony will be difficult for the family. Dillon’s death continues to have a profound impact on his friends and team-mates. The Quirkes meet them regularly. Dan knows that the Tipp team carries a photo with them, just so his spirit remains part of what they do. They’d spoken of how he’d begun to ease into the squad and had begun to show signs of becoming a leader, in it for the long haul.

Dan Quirke can laugh still, and he has an easygoing personality to which people gravitate.

“It is when you are on your own at night,” he says about the worst of it. “You find it difficult to sleep sometimes. And first thing in the morning. But we are lucky to have so many happy memories. I never had a bad word with Dillon.”

They want to push this awareness. Recently, Joe Canning, one of the most gifted hurlers to ever play, chose on television for his hurling moment of the year the decision by the GAA not to allow the hurlers of Tipperary and Limerick to wear the Dillon Quirke Foundation logo on their jerseys during a championship game. It was a protest point by Canning, whose anger did not surprise Dan.

“It didn’t surprise me. All the ex-GAA guys have been phenomenal and, like ourselves, they don’t understand why the GAA would come up with this. It is really confusing to us. We feel as a family and a foundation that the GAA should be doing this screening anyway. Because we are losing a hundred lives a year from Sads. It doesn’t add up.

“If we told them that we would give them a hundred grand to put the foundation on the jersey, I know we would get it. So, what is it about? Is it about money? You would wonder. But John Kiely said it: when Dillon passed on the field of play, in Semple Stadium, it was unique. For the wrong reasons, it was unique. So, we felt and everybody we have spoken to feels: how could they not let us do this. But the support has been phenomenal. And it has helped the foundation to grow quickly.”

The past year propelled the family into a place they’d never imagined and somehow, through their grief, they have managed to associate Dillon Quirke’s name with something that carries a powerful potency for good. If you listen to his father talk, it is clear they are only getting started. It has been a fast, heartbreaking year. This evening, back at the field, they get to pause for breath.

Invitations for sponsorship for the ‘A Day for Dillon’ golf fundraising tournament at Killarney Golf Club (October 11-12th), featuring celebrity participants, are now open. The cost is €5,000 per player and the goal is to raise €100,000. Further information on the foundation, which aims to provide heart screening for all GAA players over 12, is available online: