IT’S a strange sight. A Tipperary flag snapping in the wind, deep in the heartland of Limerick hurling.
Since he built his house over 20 years ago at Grange, near Bruff, Pat Fitzgerald, a proud Tipp man, has gone through the same ritual to mark the start of the hurling championship and proclaim his allegiance: Hoisting the Tipp colours on his front lawn.
His only child, Andy, used to help him unfold the flag from its hibernation in anticipation of great Sundays that beckoned.
“It was hurling, hurling, hurling for Andy and we travelled to all the Tipp games. He followed me into following Tipp and always wore the Tipp jersey. He idolised the Tipp goalie, Brendan Cummins. When we’d go to matches Andy would try and get a spot behind the goal so he could get as close to Brendan as possible and shout to him.”
Pat’s life and that of his wife, Miriam, descended into the darkest grief on a fine summer day, Aug 5, 2004.
Andy received a fatal head injury while taking part in a soccer camp at nearby Holy Cross when a goalpost fell on him.
Andy, an adored only child, was just two weeks short of his 11th birthday.
The couple have spoken for the first time about their grief and the new horizon which has dawned in their lives at the University of Limerick.
Andy died when a target sheet attached to the goalpost was caught by a sudden gust, toppling the structure on his head as he played in goal.
Andy did not normally play soccer and went to the camp with friends for a bit of fun.
Miriam was one of the first to get to Andy as he lay stricken on the field and recalled doing CPR on her darling son.
“My head knew he was dead, but my heart kept saying ‘come back to me, come back to me’. Our local family GP, Dr Marcella O’Callaghan, then arrived and took over the CPR. As we travelled in the ambulance to the hospital I could see Dr Marcella was in tears and the paramedic with us was crying.
“They were both in tears. And I could see the heart monitor, but my heart still kept saying they’ll bring him back, they’ll bring him back.
“Andy was the centre of our world.”
But what Miriam and Pat were not expecting was the FAI’s stern fight when they sued for damages, claiming the goalpost had not been put in place according to guidelines.
The case was settled in 2006 after it went to the High Court.
“The FAI have never even said sorry. Even after the case was finalised and finished. I went to school with John Delaney [now head of the FAI] in Tipp town. It wouldn’t mean much now, but having gone to school with John Delaney makes it feel worse.
“I knew him at school. He never contacted me. They just didn’t acknowledge us. To be fair the local FAI soccer teams in Limerick and all over Munster were fantastic and supportive. The grass roots of the organisation were fantastic. But just the senior level. Nothing. To this day they have never said sorry.
“Even a phonecall, a letter, anything, to say ‘look we are sorry’. It would have cost nothing when the case was all over. Would it mean anything now? They had an opportunity but did not take it and that still hurts.”
Pat and Miriam were determined to protect children from similar accidents and started a major campaign.
“We went about it quietly rather than publicly. We eventually succeeded in getting the National Standards Authority of Ireland [NSAI] to introduce a code of practice to ensure something like what happened to Andy never happens another child and all codes using goalposts have signed up to it.
“It is a legacy of our loss which may save other kids. The new code was launched in 2008 by the minister of state at the time, John McGuinness, at Croke Park.”
For the couple, the memory of their son still lives on with his friends.
“When Andy’s class at Bruff National School made their Confirmation, all the boy’s took Andy as the confirmation name. Bishop Murray thought it unusual and asked the parish priest who told him it was in memory of their friend who had died tragically.”
On the night the class completed their Leaving Certificate the entire group descended on Miriam and Pat’s house to share their special night with the couple.
“Before they left we all went up to Andy’s grave and prayed in the pouring rain. As they left, they said they were happy they spent time with him. They did the same on Andy’s 18th birthday and they are always calling and phoning.
“Andy’s best friend, John Pa Corbett, is also in close contact.
“A strange thing happened on the day of Andy’s accident. John Pa told his mother he did not want to go to the soccer camp as he feared something bad would happen and he refused to get out of the car when they got to the field. That night his parents went to tell John Pa, who was in his bedroom. But as soon as he saw his mum and dad at the door and they told him they had bad news, he said he knew and that Andy was dead.”
Pat and Miriam found returning to work after Andy’s funeral difficult to cope with.
Pat worked with Ballygowan in Newcastle West and Miriam was an official with Limerick County VEC.
Pat availed of a red-undancy offer and Miriam was given the opportunity of a career break.
“We could sit there for hours even days without a word being spoken. When we worked on our campaign with the standards authority I became intrigued and saw what ordinary people could do to get things changed and advocate for a particular point in politics.
“I decided after getting the redundancy, to apply for a law and politics course in UL and that has changed my life. I started in Sept 2009, and I am now researching my thesis.”
With Pat spending long hours at UL, Miriam decided to embark on a degree course in human resources at the university.
“After Andy died, I took two and a half years off work. I went back for a while but couldn’t cope very well and the VEC were very good to me. I returned to the VEC in 2008 on a part-time basis and am back full-time now at HQ in Dooradoyle.
“I decided last year I would do a course in UL in HR. I enjoy HR and I have classes one night a week and next semester it will be two nights week.”
Irrespective of how far Tipp get in this year’s championship the colours of the Premier County will fly at Grange until the final whistle is sounded in Croke Park next September.
Pat will then take down his flag and put it for safe keeping under Andy’s bed.