The occasion, prompted by his death on Sunday at the age of 71 following an illness, drew a flock of Fianna Fáil faces past and present to Clonakilty in West Cork, with mourners told: “History will judge Joe extremely kindly.”
The funeral Mass was a veritable who’s who of recent political life, particularly the Fianna Fáil strand which Mr Walsh served with in Dáil Éireann from 1977 to 2007, during which time he also became Europe’s longest-serving agriculture minister.
Former taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen attended the Requiem Mass, as did Mr Walsh’s former government colleagues Micheál Martin, Mary Coughlan, Mary Hanafin, John O’Donoghue, Tom Parlon, Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern, Martin Mansergh, and Charlie McCreevy.
Long-time Fine Gael rival in West Cork, Jim O’Keeffe, was also present.
The Presidential aide de camp, Col Brendan McAndrew, and Comdt Kieran Carey, representing the Taoiseach, were also present. The blue-lined seating of Dáil Éireann had been transposed to the red-cushioned pews of Mr Walsh’s local church.
Mr Cowen said his late colleague had “common sense”, was “independent-minded with strong views”.
“I’ve heard him described as a country gentleman — there was a bit more to him than that,” Mr Cowen said.
“He was a tough man. He was a tremendous minister for agriculture.” Mr Cowen added of his former colleague’s love of horses: “He was a great man to meet after a race, like most fishermen — he always got the fish the day you weren’t there.
“He was a man with a bit of weight. He was a sound man.”
Current party leader Mr Martin said Mr Walsh was “a visionary”, and that his response to the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001 marked him out as an exceptional politician.
“He held the line for the country,” he said, adding that Mr Walsh was “a great mentor”, regularly contacting him to offer advice.
Mr O’Donoghue recalled Mr Walsh’s “tremendous wit”, adding that he was one of “the shrewdest political tacticians in the country”.
Such descriptions of his characteristics echoed around Clonakilty and inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception, to where his coffin was carried from his home on nearby Emmet Square a little after 10.30am. It was shouldered, first out of the house and later into the church, by his three sons, Ronan, Killian and Brian, and three brothers, Donie, Chris, and Finbarr. Wife Marie, daughters Denise and Kate, and other family members followed.
Chief celebrant Fr Pat Walsh, a relative, said he remembered teaching Mr Walsh 50 years ago in Farranferris, where he was “a solid, serious pupil” and “not a teacher’s pet”.
“Over the years, the eternal stature of Joe has revealed itself,” Fr Walsh said, “an authentically great individual”, someone with a natural reticence that had to be cloaked on occasion to court the electorate. “We have to sacrifice our principles from time to time, don’t we?” he said to laughter from the huge congregation.
He said the final rosary, in CUH last weekend, had been administered in Irish as per Mr Walsh’s request, concluding that, while a public man, his family would remember how good a father he was, “staunch in his faith, firm in his convictions, honourable and upright”.
Delivering the eulogy on behalf of the family, former county councillor Donal O’Rourke said his friend had felt “at home in the room in the back of the local hall at a meeting, or the gilded halls of the capitals of Europe”.
“The past never shackled him and his vision for the future always propelled him forward,” he said, adding that Mr Walsh’s love of the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh was simply another way in which he defined himself as a son of the soil. Marking out the shrewdness which characterised his political dealings, Mr O’Rourke recalled how, as a youngster, Mr Walsh was always out first to do the milking in the morning ahead of his brothers, as that meant he would get “the easy ones”.
Their only near-falling out, he said, came in a car on a July day traversing West Cork, when Mr Walsh “swerved the problem” by playing a tape of Christmas carols as they drove, eventually inspiring mutual laughter. ‘Silent Night’ was among the carols played that day, said Mr O’Rourke, a song that would now take on a different significance for the Walsh family this Christmas.
Then to the tolling of church bells and under a winter sun, the cortege departed, travelling once more under the watchful gaze of the statue of Michael Collins in Emmet Square, pausing outside the family home, and then north to Ahiohill, the land of his youth and now his final resting place.