Not the optimum time to visit the little Tipperary village — the trees are stark and the approach roads still scarred and pitted by the recent ice — but an irresistible destination yesterday all the same, for the funeral of John Doyle.
On the way we turned off the motorway and headed up through Boherlahan, to sample the countryside that produced the great star of the blue and gold — just to see the rolling hills and quiet lanes he would have cycled through on his way to Semple Stadium over 60 years ago as a promising minor prospect.
They still exist, but there have been changes, of course: it’s unlikely the teenage defender would have pedalled past a poster advertising the Holycross FC fundraising draw, but the river still bends gently through the village, and a couple of swans flapped across its surface as we went past. Rural Ireland as it might have been.
It suits the image: in many ways Doyle embodied the classic GAA narrative, that of the quiet man from a country setting who nevertheless goes up into the heart of the city to win glory with his reflexes and skills, and whose neighbourhood becomes intimately associated with him forever after.
Places like Knockroghery, and Ruan, Cloyne and Valentia are all of them identified with a star, and the same with Holycross.
The funeral was held in the old abbey itself, with its vivid whitewashed walls and sharply sloping floor — even a defender such as Doyle would have been hard pressed to preserve a lead if he’d been facing that kind of incline — but it couldn’t contain the crowd. Outside on the steps and dotted among the gravestones were more people, listening intently to Fr Ray Reidy, who said the mass, recall an old opponent.
Reidy could recall an occasion in 1951 when he, a confident 14-year-old, trotted upfield in a junior football game to “fill out the numbers” against Holycross, only to come into the orbit of the then 21-year-old Doyle, holder of three senior All-Ireland medals at that point.
The reverend father admitted frankly yesterday that the fact that Doyle was then doing a “serious line” with his sister — who would in time become Mrs Doyle — ensured his safe passage through the hour’s play.
Opposing him later with Thurles Sars in the local championship, Reidy said that while they often got the better of Holycross in tempestuous encounters in Semple Stadium and elsewhere, that Doyle was never beaten — defeated yes, but never beaten. The observation drew nods of recognition from those in the church, a congregation whose aggregate collection of All-Ireland medals would have made a fine question for a pub quiz.
It was easier to observe the famous former players once the coffin, draped in blue and gold and green and white jerseys, was removed to the cemetery itself, and a familiar choreography was then played out — elderly men leaning in to chat to each other, many clearly favouring one ear over the other, large hands clasped in greeting.
It was a scene to put an observer in mind of a passage from The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, when the author noticed how recognisable the trainee astronauts of the early Sixties were, no matter where they went in America. They were a group of young men with tight haircuts, thick wrists and enormous wristwatches; they stuck out in any setting.
While those young men were preparing for the stratosphere, John Doyle and many of the others in Holycross yesterday were already famous. It was difficult to make out the quality of the timepieces in the cemetery yesterday, and some of the hairstyles are sparse out of necessity rather than choice, but the thick wrists and warped knuckles that identify a former hurler were much in evidence.
Even if you couldn’t pick them out yourself, you only had to zero in on a man in his fifties, say, murmuring to his son as, one after another, the heroes of his childhood walked past. They had become old, you could see him thinking, before realising that he was now old himself.
The graveside oration of Tommy Barrett of the Tipperary County Board was defeated by a temperamental microphone, but we had enough memories to keep us going.
We headed for Thurles. When we got there the car, much like Barry Fitzgerald’s horse in The Quiet Man, seemed to find its way to the usual spot, and we cruised up through Liberty Square to the old venue.
Semple Stadium was silent.