A legend, a leader, a braveheart: tributes paid to rugby legend Willie Duggan

A legend, a leader, a braveheart, a kind, loving and spiritual man were among the accolades used to describe Willie Duggan at his funeral Mass, when more than 1,000 people gathered to say farewell to a giant of Irish and international rugby.

A legend, a leader, a braveheart: tributes paid to rugby legend Willie Duggan

The 67-year-old died suddenly at his home in Dunmore, Co Kilkenny, on Monday and his family had wanted his wake on Wednesday and funeral yesterday to be a celebration of his life, encouraging mourners to dress colourfully rather than in black.

That theme was carried through the Mass which, while laced with sadness and shock, was also notable for the happy memories recalled by his family and also the chief celebrant and friend Fr Frank Purcell.

Chief mourners were Willie Duggan’s wife Ellen, daughters Helena and Monica, son Willie Jnr, granddaughter Jo and sons-in-law Robbie and Donal, supported by many who wanted to pay tribute to the man who was capped 41 times by Ireland between 1975 and 1984, winning the triple crown in 1982, and also played all four tests for the Lions during their 1977 tour to New Zealand.

In her address, directed to her father, Helena said “there’s a funeral coming up, we’re not doing it like a funeral,” and asked him if he thought they should tell everyone to wear colours. “We just thought you’d probably hate the suits and definitely the mourning stuff.”

Family members during Willie Duggan’s funeral in Kilkenny. Pictures: Pat Moore
Family members during Willie Duggan’s funeral in Kilkenny. Pictures: Pat Moore

Growing up, she said, “we never knew you were famous, you never told any of us. We just thought you had lots of friends and were just bad at remembering their names.”

She recalled how he would cry during the epic movies with “big music,” how he would “stir the pot with all of us” at home and sit back and laugh as chaos ensued, how much he loved his granddaughter Jo, and how he had a loving and deep soul.

Helena told a story of how her father “rang every bank manager in the country trying to track down mam, so she would go out with you,” and how he bought an engagement ring in New Zealand before she had even agreed to a date.

“I can’t wait to hear from you, I’ve really missed you lately,” she concluded, to loud applause.

Fr Purcell, in his homily, also drew laughter when he remembered times in Dunmore, “all the fighting we used do and the arguments and the lies we used tell each other. I don’t think I ever left Willie Duggan without having to go and Google some expression or other to see what it meant and let me tell you, sometimes it wasn’t pretty”.

Before the Mass, the funeral cortege travelled from Dunmore outside the city to St Mary’s Cathedral, stopping briefly near the Duggan family home in John’s Green. Afterwards the former international’s remains were buried at St Kieran’s Cemetery.

Tony Ward and Ciaran Fitzgerald were in attendance.
Tony Ward and Ciaran Fitzgerald were in attendance.

Among those present were many teammates from club, province and country from the 1970s and 1980s including Ciaran Fitzgerald, who captained the 1982 triple crown-winning team, Tony Ward, Donal Lenihan, Tom Grace, Neil Francis, Ollie Campbell, Des Fitzgerald, Ray McLoughlin, John O’Driscoll, Phil Orr, and Fergus Slattery.

Others present included former international player and Ireland team manager Noel Murphy, internationals Mick Galwey, Shane Byrne, Robert Brophy of World Rugby, former Goal chief-executive John O’Shea, IRFU rugby committee chairman Ian McIlrath, and Kilkenny GAA chairman Ned Quinn.

Former Ireland star Shane Byrne at the funeral.
Former Ireland star Shane Byrne at the funeral.

There were several representatives from the local Kilkenny Rugby Club, from Blackrock College where Duggan played his club rugby, and from his alma mater Rockwell College, including principal Audrey O’Byrne and a number of students and priests, while dozens of clubs were also represented.

President Higgins was represented by his aide-de-camps Comdt Louise Conlon.

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