Two little girls walked into the crushing silence of a crowded churchyard.
Instinctively, they reached out and found each other’s hand.
They looked up and around at this extraordinary scene, then back to their family for reassurance.
So many people. So many big people in uniforms lined up on either side, some of them crying, all of them heartbroken at the sight of two wide-eyed little girls holding hands tightly as they slowly followed their father’s coffin. One of them cradling a pink teddy close for comfort.
Their granddads and uncles had carried him on their shoulders from the altar to the church doors.
Now, a bearer party from An Garda Siochana was taking him the rest of the way.
Garda Tony Golden, their dad, died in the line of duty. He gave his life in the service of others, murdered as he tried to protect a young mother from the man who shot him dead. On Thursday, the state recognised his valour.
The Houses of the Oireachtas closed. Flags on public buildings flew at half mast. The President and the Taoiseach, on behalf of the nation, came to their seaside village in Dundalk to pay their final respects. His funeral was televised.
Over 4,000 gardaí stood to attention when the cortege passed through the main street of Blackrock.
There was a marching band and a pristine tricolour covered Garda Golden’s coffin.
Did they recognise his cap and gloves tenderly placed upon it by a grieving colleague?
The Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, who spoke at the Mass, recognised the importance of family to 36-year-old Tony, the proud father of two girls and a boy, all under the age of eight. “It is achingly sad to realise that Tony and Nicola’s three beautiful little children will need help to remember the best of what has been taken away from them” she told the congregation in St Oliver Plunkett’s Church, her words relayed to hundreds of people outside and many, many more who watched the Mass on big screens in the village.
They would be helped to “remember being hefted onto the big shoulders of their daddy to get the very best view. Remember the strong sure hand of him. Remember the sound of a car arriving outside and the excitement of rushing to tell him all the things that were just so important that had happened that day.”
But for the moment, the state funeral and the loss of their father is enough for them to be getting on with.
Gardaí began arriving in Blackrock from early morning. The county initials on their epaulettes showed they had mustered from all over the country.
Shortly after 11.30am, Tony’s remains were removed from his home for the short journey to the church for the midday service.
The narrow streets were lined with mourners as the huge funeral procession passed. Family and friends followed the hearse, and behind them, hundreds upon hundreds of members of An Garda Síochana, led by the Commissioner and her most senior officers.
Marching drums dictated the pace – two members of the Garda Band solemnly marched at the head of the huge contingent of uniformed officers, beating out a slow, relentless rhythm.
Schoolchildren from the local primary school, along with children from Scoil Naomh Lorcan in Omeath, the village on the Cooley Peninsula where Tony Golden met his death, lined up on the footpath and stood to attention.
The drums, draped in black fabric, echoed in the silence.
The children looked on with awe – when they are old, and maybe some of them will become gardaí, they will remember this day.
Slowly, the procession progressed along Sandy Lane and suddenly the road dipped and the waters of Dundalk Bay came into view.
The villagers blessed themselves when the hearse passed. They were standing to attention too. Outside the butcher’s shop, an elderly lady stopped and shook the hand of a young garda. “I’m sorry for your troubles,” she said, wiping away a tear. “Thank you ma’am,” he solemnly replied.
The distinctive round tower of the stone-cut church neared. There was scarcely room to move on the footpaths.
Finally, as marching drums continued their steady tattoo, the cortege reached its destination. St Oliver Plunkett’s, the church where Tony and Nicola were married.
Defence forces representatives mingled outside with Government Ministers and customs officers in their dress uniforms and emergency services personnel. And so many members of An Garda Síochana – cadet, serving and retired.
The family watched as a bearer party removed the coffin and carried it into the church. Symbols representing Garda Golden’s life were presented at the start of the Mass. They were what you would expect for a young family man who was an exemplary and proud policeman and a vital part of his local community.
There was a jersey and hurley – Mayo man Tony once lined out in Croke Park for Ballina Stephenites. There was a TV remote control along with a can of Coke, a chocolate bar and a bag of crisps. And on the coffin, a large photograph of Tony and Nicola with Lucy and Alex and Andrew. Their smiles radiated around the tiny church.
Tony Golden had four brothers and a sister. Patrick said a few words from the altar about his big brother “Tonster” who always looked out for him.
“Some words immediately come to mind, such as hero, gentle giant, family man, caring, rock and idol. These words can’t explain how good a man he was and how much we all love him.
“As a child growing up, I always looked up to Tony in every way. Eight years ago, Tony made me so proud when he asked me to be his best man. Little did I think that such a short time later I would be speaking at his funeral. But today, I’m still so proud to stand here and call him my big brother.”
Outside in the grounds, his fellow officers swallowed hard and battled back the tears and Patrick concluded: “Tony – you will be greatly missed by all. You will never be forgotten. Goodbye Anthony, my brother. Husband, father, son and hero.”
A favourite Bruce Springsteen song – “You’re missing” - played gently as the coffin came down the aisle.
“Shirts in the closet,
shoes in the hall
Mama’s in the kitchen,
baby and all
Everything is everything
Everything is everything
But you’re missing.”
And in the churchyard, and down the slope to the sea, all along the promenade and the sea to the edge of the village, backs straightened and feet snapped together.
The people of Blackrock filled in the spaces where there were not any gardaí. Children fell silent, transfixed.
From the top of Main Street, right up to the end, a heart-stopping vista had unfolded. Thousands among thousands of mourners, as far as the eye could see.
Buckles and badges glinting in the sunlight as the serried ranks moved through them.
And into the enveloping silence, the band played the funeral march.
For Tony Golden, and his grieving wife Nicola, one small boy and two little girls and their teddies, looking up through the throng with wide, innocent eyes.