Irish rugby star Anthony Foley has been remembered at his funeral for the warm, indelible marks he left on life.
The Munster head coach died, aged 42, in a hotel in Paris just hours before the team were due to play Racing 92 in the European Champions Cup last Sunday.
His coffin was carried into St Flannan’s Church in his home town of Killaloe in Co Clare to the Toreador Song from Bizet’s opera Carmen, adopted by Munster Rugby for the club’s anthem ‘Stand Up And Fight’.
Players from the province, past and present, formed a guard of honour inside the church grounds for Foley who is survived by his widow Olive and sons Tony and Dan.
Among them were former Irish and Munster stars Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer, along with ex-Ireland team-mate Brian O’Driscoll while hundreds of other mourners packed into the church and surrounding streets.
Gregor Townsend, coach of Glasgow Warriors who Munster face on Saturday, was also in attendance along with current Ireland captain Rory Best.
In a moving homily, Father Pat Malone, a family friend, spoke about Foley with glowing sentiment.
“It is fitting that we celebrate with dignity the life and achievements of a man who lived life with great dignity and personal and professional integrity,” he said.
“His family meant all to him. Olive, you were his true love, and how good you were together. One could sense the strength of your relationship, the warmth of your love for each other, and the ways you supported each other through the easy as well as the difficult moments of life.
“Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley made many a mark in his 42 short years of life. Just look around and see; the indelible, warm, affirming marks he left in family, friends, colleagues, sports fans, this local community, rugby wherever it is spoken.”
And tears for Foley gave way to laughter and applause as his widow gave mourners a window into the couple’s life.
As hardened heroes of Irish rugby struggled to quell their emotions, the grieving mother eased the pain with an intimate and honest portrait of her soulmate and a doting father.
She recalled her thoughts as she flew to Paris with a plane-load of relatives and friends to bring the rugby great home.
“I’m ashamed to say that I said a prayer on the way over on the plane,” she told mourners. “And I said… please Jesus, let him have shaved.”
The sentiment highlighted how the heart-breaking eulogy offered moments of mirth and relief when they were least expected. The faces of friends, relatives and teammates, gnarled with the sudden grief of the last week, brightened as the two emotions mixed.
“He would have absolutely hated the fuss,” she said. “But he would have been very proud.
“Anthony was my true soulmate. We were perfect together. He will never leave my heart and I’m going to make sure that our two adorable boys will grow up to be decent, solid men, full of integrity and honesty like their dad. From the moment those boys were born Anthony loved and adored them.”
Foley was shouldered out of St Flannan’s by legends of the Irish game among them Keith Wood, Peter Clohessy, Mick Galwey and Munster captain Peter O’Mahony – their faces grimacing and cheeks puffing under the strain of losing a teammate and friend.
Others from the town by the River Shannon joined a huge guard of honour with children from St Anne’s Community College in Killaloe and boys from Ballina-Killaloe Rugby Club as Foley was shouldered to his resting place in Relig Nu Cemetery.