The crowd had started gathering early by the banks of Lough Derg to send Anthony Foley on his way — sporting stars, ministers and politicians, and locals for whom the man known as Axel was one of them — the hometown hero.
There was a sense of a state funeral about it — the state being Munster, a kingdom, its own dominion.
The roads all around Killaloe were decked out in Munster flags, every second car seemed to carry the colours.
This was a public spectacle, but private grief.
There was laughter too — on the park-and-ride buses into the village, stories were exchanged, memories recalled.
Andrew Noonan, originally from Mallow but living in Dublin, travelled down to stand on the street opposite St Flannan’s Church.
Like so many others, he had attended both Munster Heineken Cup triumphs. His glasses propped on his forehead, he gave a running commentary as Axel’s old mates walked past.
“Big Mick O’Driscoll,” he gasped. “Gordon D’Arcy, Donncha O’Callaghan, lock forward and big guy... Ronan O’Gara himself...The church is going to be full.”
It was, and the streets around this country crossroads were lined with people, some of whom were in tears.
Young and old, they were all there, including the under 10s and under 12s from Shannon, Foley’s old club, dressed in shorts even as the fires were lit in some of the nearby houses. They make them tough out this way.
The children were at the front of his guard of honour as the hearse pulled up, green and red caps on the coffin, followed by the cortège.
Anthony Foley was that age once, the jersey hanging off him, the sleeves too long — a sporting life, one cut short at 42 years of age.
Fr Pat Malone, in his homily, touched on the “magical family moments” that often involved Anthony playing sport with his sons. For a man who played out his sporting life on the grandest fields, this was a reminder ofthe really key games — playing around on the grass of home with your lads.
The Mass booklet captured a glorious family moment — husband and wife and two children, all laughs and smiles.
The caption underneath read:From the tree of life, each leaf must fall, the green, the gold, the great, thesmall; each one in God’s own time.
He’ll call, with perfect love, He gathers all.
Anthony’s sisters, Orla and Rosie, delivered the first two readings immaculately, and there was a resonance in the passages read by Orla, with its lines about “a time for tears, a time for laughter, a time for mourning, a time for dancing”.
The musical accompaniment throughout, from the Killaloe Church Choir, Sarah King, Diane Daly and the Gúnas, sent soaring strings and melodies out across the village and over towards the hills and water.
Mourners outside stood stock still as the words echoed over the loudspeaker.
The eulogy delivered by Anthony’s wife, Olive, was the stuff of searing memory, with its tales of domestic life, and the enormous void left by Anthony’s death.
She drew laughter as she pledged to take on the hurling duties and, in admitting that, to her shame on the flight over to Paris to bring her husband home she had said a little prayer to herself: “Please, Jesus, let him have shaved.”
But it was mostly the sound of slow heartbreak, rendered in simple but beautiful words. Anyone who heard it, among them the Aide de Camp tothe President, Col Michael Kiernan, and representing the Taoiseach, Comdt Lorraine Fahey, is unlikely to ever forget.
Her closing words were also repeated in the Mass booklet, over a photograph of Axel, 8 on his back, running onto the field.
“Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I together can’t handle.”
The bells tolled again and the music wafted over the throngs as the coffin was borne back out into the cool air.
Then, directed by Paul O’Connell and Munster team manager Niall O’Donovan, came a line-out with a difference: rotating teams of people putting a shoulder under the wood. Among those crossing the church gates and onto the street, ferrying their friend were John Hayes, Keith Wood, Peter Clohessy and Mick Galway, away down another hill, to nearby Relig Lua cemetery.
Brian Boru, another legend around these parts, never had such a send-off.