Smiles among the tears as hurler Niall Donohue is laid to rest

Community asked to look out for signs of difficulty in others

Niall Donoghue’s coffin is carried by fellow hurlers through Kilbeacanty, Co Galway, yesterday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Niall Donoghue’s coffin is carried by fellow hurlers through Kilbeacanty, Co Galway, yesterday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Long before Niall Donohue’s hurl hit the soil of Semple Stadium and Croke Park, he had played his first “All-Ireland final” on the lawn of his Ballyturin family home under the Slieve Aughty mountains in south Galway.

Smiles broke through many tears at the image of the small boy with big ambitions, racing across the fields close to Lough Cutra, as drawn by close friend and Kilbeacanty GAA club chairman Justin Fahy in a moving graveside tribute yesterday.

He was only five or six then, and little did Donohue know he would play two senior all-Ireland finals in one year and represent his home club and his county with such skill, agility and distinction, mourners heard.

More than 1,000 people attended the requiem Mass in the tiny parish church, where a guard of honour was formed as the player’s coffin arrived from home, draped in his club colours of gold and royal blue.

There was standing room only in two marquees erected in the church grounds, and only the sound of rain and a gale as his white helmet and a Galway “number 5” team jersey were placed on his coffin, along with his “number 6” jersey worn for Kilbeacanty club and a Bible representing his faith.

Kilbeacanty parish priest Fr Paddy Callanan invited Galway hurling captain Fergal Moore and fellow players Barry Daly, Niall Gilligan and Justin Fahy to light four candles, symbolising aspects of Donohue’s life and passing. Fr Callanan told how he had received messages of sympathy from as far away as Nigeria since the young man’s unexpected death at his home last Wednesday, two days before his 23rd birthday.

This was a “sad day for the Kilbeacanty GAA team and the associated Michael Cusack’s club of younger players”, Fr Callanan said, and there were times in life when one had to ask why this happened.

There was often a sense of “betrayal by God” in addition to the sense of desolation felt, Fr Callanan said, when death was “sudden and unexpected and tragic”. The family suffered the loss of a son and a brother who was very dear.

“They tell us there is no safe shortcut through bereavement,” he said. But “the love we have for a loved one does not end in death”.

Signs of difficulty
“Niall led a good life, a short life, a happy life and he enjoyed his hurling,” Fr Callanan said. “We must as a community look out for each other and look out for the signs of difficulty in a person’s life.”

His cousin Niall McDonagh spoke of Niall’s ability as a hurler and described him as “a man of the people, never above the people”, who was “always himself” whether talking to a seven- year-old in the hurling field or shaking a president’s hand.

“Galway was your county, but Kilbeacanty your country . . . the centre of your life,” McDonagh said, recalling how his cousin’s faith was such that he played with a miraculous medal sewn into his shorts. “Niall’s death was not a decision, it was a struggle,” he said, speaking of his cousin’s commitment to honesty and his “big radiant smile”.

“The truth is that Niall’s life ended in a way that leaves us confused and hurt,” he added.

Chief mourners were Niall’s father Francis, his brother Shane, sister Orla, and girlfriend Ciara Reilly, and extended family and friends.

Leading figures in the GAA included Clare hurler and relative Shane O’Donnell, former goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack, former president Joe McDonagh, former Galway team captain Joe Connolly, Ulster council president Aodhán O Fearghail and Connacht council president Frank Burke.

Just as county players had borne the player’s coffin through Kilbeacanty village to the church, so his club mates carried it to Rakerin cemetery. There he was buried beside his mother Mary, who died in 1996.