Foley funeral: Family reclaims ‘Axel’ as rugby takes second place

Determined Olive Foley gives extraordinary 14-minute eulogy recalling ‘true soul mate’

The remains of Munster and Ireland rugby legend Anthony Foley arrive for funeral mass in St Flannan’s Church in the village of Killaloe, Co. Clare. Video: Bryan O’Brien

 

After five days of public mourning, Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley’s family claimed him back on Friday and rugby took second place for a man described in the order of service as “loving husband, father, son, brother, friend and team mate”.

Munster flags and jerseys lined the back roads from Limerick city to Killaloe, where several hundred community volunteers guided traffic down single-lane roads, into farmyards and across fields to park close to the church.

The deep bonds forged by that band of brothers who had battled their way into the professional rugby era and on to a gloriously romantic, joyful series of Heineken Cups campaigns were evident in the faces of the hundreds of sombre, besuited men who gathered at St Flannan’s church.

Some like former coach Alan Gaffney, and player, John Langford had travelled from Australia for the funeral.

Yet rugby featured only briefly in Olive Foley’s extraordinary 14-minute eulogy to her “true soul mate” and husband of 17 years.

She spoke of his legacy and the people he had touched, but more piercingly for all those who had loved the man for his indomitable spirit, loyalty and pride in his province, she described with raw emotion the stresses that “the stones on the road knew about”; the “very rough days” and “pressure and the hurt” of his last two years as Munster head coach.

The determination to create a “quiet, prayerful, reflective space” she had requested was echoed throughout the service. No limousines, celebrity performers or famous eulogists. Choral music was provided by the Killaloe Church Choir and The Gunas, of which Olive is a member.

Pallbearers

Just after midday, pallbearers including Anthony Foley’s sister, Rosie, carried his coffin, topped with red roses and the Number 8’s Munster and Ireland caps, into the church. A rendition of Stand Up and Fight, the great Munster battle cry, by violinist Diane Daly provided a slow, haunting air.

In his homily, Fr Pat Malone, parish priest of Clarecastle and neighbour and close family friend, spoke of Olive as Anthony’s true love - and “how good you were together...As parents together you were second to none”.

He described Anthony at home in the garden, pucking a sliotar with his sons, Tony and Dan; kicking a football, swinging a golf club or erecting a trampoline.

He paid tribute to Anthony’s parents, Brendan and Sheila, and noted how they had reared a son with the “great human capacity to sense or notice those who were struggling in one way or another and the ability to reach out to them and include them in a sensitive and caring way... He offered people hope when they felt hopeless”.

Commending Anthony “to the care of God”, he said he was “fairly certain even God could do with a top-class Number 8”.

As Mass ended, Olive Foley rose to speak, often emotional, but rising above it, clear-voiced, determined to acknowledge all who had supported them in recent days.

Homecoming

She spoke of “the great help in getting Anthony back home and the tributes paid passing Thomond Park, passing his beloved Munchins [college], the home drive from Limerick to Killaloe and the homecoming he got as we brought him through our town with people bringing candles and prayers - it was beautiful”.

Olive paused, and then to a burst of laughter and applause, added : “He would absolutely have hated the fuss - But he would have been very proud”.

She spoke of their “idyllic” family life and his hands-on involvement with the boys he “loved and adored”. She was going to have “to pick it up a notch with the hurling but I’m going to get a hurley”, she said to more laughter, “and I’m going to go and do that. We’ll see how that goes”.

Anthony had trusted her with almost everything, she said; “with the children, with their schooling, with the house, everything. And I intend to honour that trust and I’m going to make sure that our two adored boys will grow up decent, solid men with integrity and honesty just like their dad”.

She painted a picture of a lovely, harmonious life, of a home that “was a haven for all the important things...His values were perfect”. He would come home after work and always sit down for a coffee. “I wouldn’t get that much chat I must say”, she said to more laugher, “but he was happy enough to just let me ramble on and then it was ‘get the hurleys lads we’re going for a puck’”.

Last conversation

She recalled her last conversation with him on Saturday evening. “He’d been ringing all day. Because he was a ringer. He rang and rang and rang 20 times a day. I think if ever there was a little bit of a lull in what he was doing he’d say ‘I’d better ring Olive’.He’d say nothing but sure...,” she said, raising a laugh among those who had known Anthony Foley as a man of few words.

“But I never bothered ringing him back because he always would but I rang him back that day and I sat down and we chatted and of course it was about the lads - about the athletics that morning, about how the javelin was going with Tony and then Tony had a little chat with him and it was a lovely conversation.

“We didn’t expect it to be the last. We chatted and I had a fundraiser [for the family of a young woman who had died suddenly] that day and of course he asked me all about.”

Olive described how with family and friends they had gone over to Paris to bring him home. To more loud laughter and applause, she added : “And I am ashamed to say I said a prayer on the way over - please Jesus, let him have shaved”.

‘Rough days’

In her brief reference to Anthony’s last years with Munster Rugby, she said how stressful they had been for him. “But he took that journey with great hope. He took that job and gave it everything”, she said, “with the same passion he brought to when he put on the jersey and won two Heineken Cups...They were very rough days in those last number of years but despite the pressure and hurt during that time, he’d have an aul smile, knowing he gave it everything. He never held a grudge. When I found it stressful sometimes, his advice was always the same, the same line - ‘Olive, I was never as bad as they said I was and I was never as good as they said I was. So read nothing’”

They had great plans. “We talked about going to Australia next year and we talked about loads of different things of what we’d do. We wanted to change the kitchen. But the show will go on and I’m going to stick to the plan”.

She said her faith would see them through, and quoted the lines that appear on the back of the Order of Service, with a photograph depicting a back view of Anthony in his Munster jersey, running onto a rugby field: “Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I together can’t handle”.

As Anthony Foley set off on his last journey, his pallbearers and escorts were drawn from that band of brothers: Keith Wood, Peter Clohessy, Mick Galwey, John Hayes, John Langford, Niall O’Donovan and Peter O’Mahony.

His graveside farewell, inevitably, fittingly, included There is an Isle, the anthem of Shannon RFC.