A HEARTBROKEN Limerick father was this week supported by thousands of mourners including several members of the Munster rugby team as he bid a fond and final farewell to his only son, the much loved Donal Walsh.
From half ten on Wednesday morning, hundreds of mourners began to gather outside the doors of St John’s Church in Tralee to pay their respects to the teenager who lost his battle with cancer at his Blennerville home at the weekend.
At 11.55 am, the coffin of the 16-year-old was carried from Castle Street up the long, tree-lined entrance to the church door by six of his closest friends. They fought hard to fight back the tears.
Directly behind them were Donal’s grieving family – his father Fionnbar from Knocklong, his mother Elma, older sister Jema, 18.
“Over time, I, and so many of you here have prayed for a miracle for Donal to allow him to live his life and to do what he wanted to do –to play for Munster and to travel the world,” Fr Francis Nolan of St John’s Parish told the thousands of mourners at the start of the “Celebration of Donal’s Life”.
“This was not the miracle that God chose to give him but I have no doubt now that he has given him another one,” he added. The congregation listened intently. Several hundreds of them had to stay outside the main doors, it was too packed inside. Most were young and middle-aged but some were old. Their legs must have ached from all the standing but they didn’t let on. Donal’s quiet suffering was over and that was their relief.
From the gallery, it was hard not to notice a group of taller than average suited men who filled three pews in the left aisle. Here were Donal’s heroes, lined up, side by side, shoulder to shoulder – the Munster rugby team. Ronan O’Gara, was there along with Felix Jones, Donncha O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Doug Howlett and many more.
But there were the unsung heroes also, his 5A classmates from CBS the Green, Tralee, friends, family members, club mates, and teachers, all who formed Donal’s indomitable spirit in one way or another. They had come to pay their respects to Donal, a young man who journeyed for 16 short years on this earth with the wisdom of an old soul.
Donal had a strong faith, mourners were told. He had received the Eucharist every day for many months. A bible was placed on his coffin beside a crucifix.
Among the 12 priests on the altar were Donal’s uncle Fr Michael Walsh, an Augustinian priest.
Donal of course loved sport. But the cancer had stopped him from playing. GAA and rugby were his games. In recent years, he had struck up a strong friendship with Paul O’Connell. The pair, Donal told this paper just last month, would “shoot the breeze, a lot”. Paul said goodbye to Donal on Sunday before departing for the Lions training in Wales.
A Tralee Rugby Club jersey, a Kerins O’Rahillys Gaelic football jersey and a cycling jersey were brought to the altar by Ireland and Leinster player Shane Jennings. Kerry footballer Paul Galvin brought up a pen and paper. Over the past number of months, Donal had written his way into the hearts of minds of the Irish nation with his moving articles. He wrote about his fight for life and his desire to stop young people from taking their own lives.
His message went worldwide.
In the gallery of St John’s, four camera crews and a dozen reporters watched on. The media were thanked for relaying Donal’s message of hope.
In Knocklong, special prayers were offered up for Donal on Wednesday morning.
Donal visited the village on a number of occasions each year. He made his last trip just before Christmas.
He loved to catch up with his grandmother, Mary Walsh, aunt Pauline, and uncles - Andrew in Glenbrohane, Tomas in Bruff and Sean in Limerick city. Another uncle, Kieran, lives in Navan. His forefathers ran Walsh and Sons Bakers in Knocklong for many years. Fr Willie Hennessy, PP, Knocklong and Fr John Ryan, also of Knocklong parish joined Fr Joe Foley from Bruff, on the altar in Tralee for the Mass. Actor and entertainer, Jon Kenny, was among the mourners.
Above all else, Donal was a family man. He loved his parents Fionnbar and Elma and sister Jema, dearly. He didn’t want to have to leave them. And he loved his friends too.
In an emotional tribute, Elma said her son’s five “great buddies” were now down a wingman. “But instead of being beside them, he will be above them now,” she reassured.
Donal, she said, never had a bad word to say about anyone.
“He always had a kind word for everyone, even in the depths of his pain and suffering.
“Fionnbar, Jema, Brian (uncle) and I will miss Donal all the days of our lives and now we wish for him a peaceful rest in the arms of God. Until we meet again, we love you Donal.” The congregation rose to their feet. Applause rang out. Tears flowed freely. Even the tough rugby players found it hard to keep their composure. Ronan O’Gara reached for a tissue. He dried his eyes.
It was now time for Donal to begin his final journey to Rathass Cemetery. He made it on the strong, broad shoulders of his Munster heroes. Donncha O’Callaghan, Simon Zebo, Tommy O’Donnell, Damien Varley and Ronan O’Gara, were his protectors, carrying him steadily out to the church gates while an old rugby friend performed the Haka.
Following in their slow footsteps was a grieving dad, mother, sister, and then the thousands of mourners. In their hands a leaflet, the funeral liturgy.
On the cover, in black and white, was Donal’s smiling face.
And underneath, Donal’s words, words that will live on with his memory.
“I’ve climbed God’s mountains, faced many struggles for my life, and dealt with so much loss. The only difference for me is that I’m looking from the mountains.”