‘A smile for me, and for you too’: The tragic death of Dillon Quirke leaves his people frozen in time

At the age of 24, he was a million things you’d want to be – a hurler, a captain, the future of his club and county

Ahead of the camogie final last Sunday, the minute’s silence was unbearable. Croke Park was numb and still and wet-eyed, lost in the death of Dillon Quirke not 48 hours beforehand. Through the course of a GAA year, there are minute’s silences dotted around the country most weekends. They don’t all root you to the spot like this one did.

Dillon Quirke was a million things you’d want to be. He was 24. That perfect age when you’re too old to be too stupid and too young to be too sensible. He worked in the family deli business, he lived in a house with a gang of his friends. He had got his qualifications as an electrician but he couldn’t wire a plug. Plenty of time for that.

He was a messer. At the funeral on Tuesday, his uncle Andrew told a story from when he was 12. Their club, Clonoulty-Rossmore, were in the county final and Dillon took a notion he’d go around painting the green and yellow of the club jersey on some road signs. Mark out the territory, that kind of thing.

“But when he was doing it, didn’t the county council man arrive along in his van?” said Andrew. “Dillon spotted him and took off on his bicycle and headed for home as fast as he could. The van tipped along behind him, nice and slow. So Dillon jumped into the ditch to escape and went through the fields to get home, delighted with himself for getting away with it.

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“But when he arrived into the house, the county council man was sitting in the kitchen talking to his parents. So he was paraded down the road to wash the signs clean. But that was our Dillon. He was fit for anything, so he was.”

Most of all, he was a hurler. You could know nothing else about him standing there in that minute’s silence and you’d still know that. You mightn’t have a clue what he looked like with his helmet off but you’d be able to tell just by the build of him. He was one of those lads you could come across backpacking in deepest, remotest Cambodia and your first question would be, ‘What county do you play for?’

Six-foot-two, eyes of blue, as his friend the Holycross hurler Seánie Nally wrote in a poem to him this week. Wardrobe shoulders, arms like hams, a chin you could pare your pencil off. He took nothing more seriously. Hurling owned the title deeds to most of him and leased the rest out to the world in bits and pieces.

He was captain of his club. In Clonoulty-Rossmore, they had been waiting on him to come along. His father Dan had played for Tipp at various levels but never made it at senior. His uncle is Declan Ryan, who won everything there was to win. Clonoulty-Rossmore won the their first Tipp championship in 1888 and then waited 101 years to add their second. When they brought their total up to four in 2018, it was 20-year-old Quirke who drove them in the final, nailing two sideline cuts and ransacking Nenagh from centre forward.

Earlier in 2018, he had won an under-21 All-Ireland with Tipperary. They weren’t supposed to be any great shakes that year. Cork were fizzing and had beaten them by 13 points in the Munster final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, with the likes of Marc Coleman and Shane Kingston and Jack O’Connor lacing daisies around them.

“The mood was sombre enough after it,” remembered goalkeeper Barry Hogan this week on a lovely Tippcast tribute. “But Quirke had arranged that we were getting the train to Killarney the next day and we were heading down there for a few days. The management team weren’t too impressed now I must say because we were due to play Galway in the semi-final a few weeks later.

“But to be honest with you, I’d say it was nearly the winning of the All-Ireland, those couple of days down there. We made a huge amount of memories down there, all led by that man. That was him. He always had something organised. He had something up his sleeve the whole time. Where we were going, who we were going with. But always very dedicated along with it. Hurling was number one.”

His senior Tipp career had a couple of false starts. He was diagnosed with myocarditis – an inflammation of the lining of the heart – in 2019 and ended up taking a year out of hurling altogether with it. By the time he came back, Covid was having its way. The 2020 and 2021 intercounty seasons both got squeezed and the breathing room that would usually have been available to Liam Sheedy to try out new faces wasn’t there.

Things started moving for him last winter. Brendan and Paudie Maher both retired. New manager Colm Bonnar came in and sat Quirke down for a one-on-one to talk in October about where everything was going.

“His confidence was a bit low at the time,” Bonnar says. “He felt he hadn’t been doing great. He was 23 and he was definitely in our plans. But he was worried that he wasn’t getting the best out of himself. He had been playing at centre forward for Clonoulty-Rossmore and he saw himself as more of a wing back really.

“I told him that we were going to bring back the Miller Shield (a dormant inter-divisional competition in Tipp that Bonnar wanted to resurrect as a way of running trials). My brother Brendan was one of the selectors on the West team and they made Dillon captain. He got a great kick out of it. He played in the half-back line and it was four weeks of facing the ball and really attacking it and using it when he got it. That’s what we wanted out of him.”

He was a revelation. It was the right move for the right player at exactly the right time. He made his senior Tipp debut in 2022 and even though the season was a bust, Quirke was the brightest spark they had. Having started the season unsure of his place in the world, he ended it having played the most minutes of any Tipp hurler through the year.

“He gave us no choice but to play him,” says Bonnar. “He led from the front in everything. Everything we wanted in our players, he had. Hardness, fight, resilience. His footwork was excellent. He had that huge want for the ball. He loved the challenge, even when things weren’t going well.

“Against Limerick in the Munster championship, he was tussling for a ball under a puck-out with Gearóid Hegarty at one stage and he slipped. Hegarty got away from him but he was up off the ground and chasing him down straight away. As we’ve seen, Gearóid Hegarty is nearly impossible to catch in that circumstance because his stride is so long but Dillon chased him for 30 yards and very nearly got the hook on him.

“That really stuck with me afterwards. That was Dillon. He loved the battle. He loved getting into a tussle with Hegarty and even though he slipped, he loved the chase and not giving up the lost cause.’”

Despite his medical history, they never had a worry or a pause with him. Bonnar says that it never came up in any discussions. He had come back from his year off in terrific shape and had built himself up from there.

In fitness tests, he ranked number one in the Tipp squad for lower body strength. He was a fixture in the top two or three in endurance trials. The Tipp S & coach Tom Hargroves held him up as an example of the gains that were possible through proper load management, diet and dedication.

“In the back of your mind, you would have had him down as real captain material in time,” says Bonnar. “Not just because of how he minded himself and how he applied himself. But really because he had this connectedness about him.

“He was the sort of player who would play at wing back and who his midfielders could trust to organise everything and fill the hole behind them if they went forward. You would see other players who would be so focused on marking their man that they wouldn’t spot that a gap had to be filled. Or they would see it but they wouldn’t have the bravery to leave their man and go and do it.

“Dillon didn’t see the game like that. That’s what I mean by connectedness. He saw the team as one unit and he was completely unselfish and brave about trying to knit it all together. That’s on the pitch and off the pitch. It’s so sad.”

Nowhere, of course, is the sadness more raw and empty than in Clonoulty. It’s a small swatch of country Ireland, 15 minutes to Cashel in one direction, 20 minutes to Thurles in the other. Dillon was the 32nd player from the club to play senior championship for Tipp. They treasure every one.

In a place like that, to lose any young person would have stopped the parish. To lose a hurler goes to the core of who they are. To lose their captain, their countyman, their future. To lose him in Semple Stadium with everyone watching. Unspeakable, all of it.

“It feels as if our parish has become frozen in time,” said Fr Thomas Hearne at the funeral on Tuesday.

The thaw will feel endless.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times