Lives Lost to Covid-19: Donal Fitzgerald – a sports fanatic and a family man

Limerick man took great pride in his family and home county’s sporting achievements

Donal Fitzgerald


Sport coursed through the veins of Limerick man Donal Fitzgerald but, like all sports fanatics, his passion landed him in awkward situations at times.

Once, while driving with his wife Helen in Cork – enemy territory for a rugby supporter of Young Munster RFC – Fitzgerald suggested that she ask a passing bystander for directions; he identified him as a well-known Cork referee who had made “scandalous” calls against his team.

“Maybe you should ask for directions as he might recognise my voice,” said Donal, fearful that the off-duty referee might remember his pitch-side roars at his home team’s ground.

Fitzgerald’s sporting life was long and very involved from an early age. He grew up playing hurling and football for Limerick GAA club Treaty Sarsfields with whom, alongside his brother Sean, Donal won three Limerick Senior County Championships in a row in the mid-1970s.

He could spot talent too. Playing in a street league growing up in Janesboro, Donal insisted his young brother Tony be allowed to play, over the protestations of the other boys. His view was that if Tony was good enough, he was old enough. Tony later went on to play for Limerick FC.

Long battle

The flags of Treaty Sarsfields and Young Munster adorned Donal's coffin at his funeral at Raheen Church last month after his long battle with Covid-19, which was as hard-fought as some of the games he played and watched during his sporting life.

His son, Barry, who lives in New Hampshire in the United States, recalls one of his lasting and fondest memories of his father: Donal calling him from Croke Park after Limerick won the All-Ireland hurling final in 2018.

“It meant the world to both of us and even though we were 3,000 miles away, we enjoyed that moment together,” he says.

Fitzgerald's love of sport extended to his regular rounds at and proud membership of Limerick Golf Club and his long-invested support of Manchester United.

Sport was more than just a game to Donal, says Barry; it was as a way to teach his children about hard work and discipline, honour and self-respect.

Where sport lost out, for Donal, was in his love for family, particularly Helen. He used to joke how he did not deserve “the posh girl from the South Circular Road”.

After making their home in Raheen Gardens in 1975, they raised three children: Deirdre and John followed after Barry. Their respective partners – James, Lyndsay and Anne – made the family bigger and allowed Donal to devote time to his five adored grandchildren – Cormac, Lana, Alyssa, Daniel and Amelia. He relished their visits to his Limerick home and to the bedtime stories via video calls with John's children in Australia every Sunday night.

Early retirement

Donal worked for medical devices company Howmedica for 27 years, working as much overtime as he could, before taking early retirement.

In the end, sitting around was not for him. He lasted just two weeks before he found another job at Shannon Aircraft Motor Works where he worked for another decade.

Even in his most difficult days in hospital with the virus, when his laboured breathing made speaking difficult, Donal still managed to talk to his family every day, on many occasions several times a day, chatting about everything from sports to politics to what was going on in their lives.

By early February his condition had deteriorated, but even in his final days, his love of family and sport were always close at heart and in mind.

Donal asked Barry to text him updates from Manchester United's game at Southampton when he was in hospital in early February.

His last words before he was put on a ventilator were: “Tell Helen I will call her in the morning.” He was lucid and knew what was going on but he wasn’t scared; he cared only for his wife. Eventually, his family had to say their heartbreaking goodbyes over FaceTime.

The death of Donal, an active 71-year-old, is an example of how brutal this virus is. A non-smoker, he kept in good shape, walking every day and playing golf up to three times a week.

“One of the things that we have taken from Dad’s fight is that Covid can take anyone,” says Barry.

Even in Covid times, many people gathered, socially distanced, outside the church for his funeral. His beloved Young Munster gave him a guard of honour for his final journey to the grave.

“He was almost universally remembered as being great fun and a gentleman,” said Barry.

“That’s a good legacy to leave behind.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent