Back to our clubs we go. There has barely been a moment for the camogie players of Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, Antrim and Armagh to take a breath after the All-Ireland finals before reporting for club championship duty. It’s been a month since intercounty hurling wrapped up, but the changeover is still rapid. While the split season has, by most accounts, been a success, a fortuitous by-product of lockdown that allows county players to be fully present for their clubs, there is precious little downtime for those players, especially if their team goes all the way. And with club pride and local rivalries being what they are, it’s oftentimes out of the frying pan of intercounty hurling and into the fire.
In club training, right around the country, there’s a slight edge to proceedings. An antic disposition. A realisation that all the preparation since the start of the year is beginning to cohere. Pre-championship jitters come out in various ways. Everyone is excited, anxious, playing out of their skins. There’s seriousness of purpose but also a certain giddiness. Funny things are funnier. Tackles are crunchier. Coaches are upping the ante and players are wrecked by the end of sessions, both physically and mentally. Wrecked but ready.
This Sunday there will be two hurling matches broadcast from Tipperary. County champions Loughmore Castleiney will take on JK Brackens; Drom & Inch will play last year’s county finalists Thurles Sarsfields. The makings of two brilliant games. But there’s a gash in the Tipp psyche since the beginning of the month. Dillon Quirke’s death is on everyone’s mind. His loss is felt the most in Clonoulty Rossmore, but it’s reverberated out to every club in Tipp; to every club in Ireland, really. A tragedy like this lifts the illusion that there is some innate difference between ourselves and the next parish over. At the end of the day, we’re all alike.
There’s a paradox at work in times such as these. In a way it gives us all perspective. We realise that hurling is not the be-all and end-all, that there is so much more to life. But at the same time, hurling matters a huge amount to us, the hurling faithful; and hurling defined Dillon Quirke’s life. Through his dedication, craft and massive talent, he brought joy and pride to his family and community, but also to many more that he never met – Tipp supporters, for whom he was a bright light this year, and hurling fans in general who admired the way he went about his game. All of this is meaningful, all of it has impact – and that’s before you even talk about who he was off the pitch.
Sport has value, not for itself exactly, but because we all collectively agree that it has value; it’s like money that way. It has power because of us; because of the time, the energy and the emotion we invest in it. In his short, outstanding life, Dillon Quirke embodied the sport that we love, and that’s why anyone who hears his story can’t help but be moved.
It’s hard to find the words. It feels too huge to grapple with. Other people’s tributes give you a framework, though. The lovely message from the GPA’s Twitter account, which is worth reproducing: "The family, friends & teammates of Dillon Quirke are foremost in the thoughts of players across Ireland. We can’t imagine your pain but will walk with you & support you in any way we can. Rest easy Dillon. We mourn your loss & celebrate your life. You will stay forever young."
People online sharing Seamus Redmond’s famous poem ‘The Hurler’s Prayer’. Dillon’s teammates Timmy and Conor Hammersley on Tipp FM, emotion weighing down their voices, talking about how they would miss him. Minutes of silence before games. Applause before games. Teams of all ages, near and far, retiring their number 11 jersey for the evening – the number most associated with him, even though he nailed down the Tipp number 5 shirt for himself this year too. Sports photographers sharing their shots of him, capturing him floating above the ground, grabbing high balls. Grace notes, like hearing that Shane Kingston went to Clonoulty with the jersey he swapped with Dillon after Tipp’s last game of the year, and that Craig Morgan – Dillon’s friend, Tipp teammate and direct opponent on the night – knelt beside him as he was getting medical assistance.
As a club player, it’s hard not to think of the Clonoulty and Kilruane players who will be asked to fulfil a fixture soon, even though they are all changed now, on a molecular level. At the same time, you know that the best place for them is probably down on the hurling field, with their friends, not running from grief but trying to process it together.
There is a magical passage in Christy O’Connor’s– a book that is as much about grief and male friendship as it is about sport – that captures how hurling can help you move through loss: "When I finally ventured out, the first place I went to was Gurteen. To the hurling wall. A hurley and a sliotar and a wall was all that seemed normal at that time. It was the only place where I could clear my head. Where I could find some peace. No separation."
In an excellent piece by PM O’Sullivan in these pages, Franny Quinn, a Quirke family friend, said: "I can’t believe Dillon is gone and we’re still here." Maybe more than anything else, that stuck with me. We are lucky to continue to be in the world, to tog out in club colours, to be able to train or play a match or encourage from the sidelines. Let’s make the most of it.