The late Cal O'Donnell pictured by Yvonne Harrington at a coursing meeting
THEY assembled at the crossroads. A huge crowd. As the flames crackled softly, there was silence. The coffin came close and then spontaneous applause rang out.
“For the family it must have been a massive support. It was a simple thing but a rural Ireland statement and a mark of respect,” says Mike Houlihan of the scenes in the centre of the town of Kilmallock on Sunday night last.
The local fire brigade oversaw a controlled bonfire at the crossroads. Cal O’Donnell was known for his bonfires.
The 80-year-old died unexpectedly at the University Hospital Limerick last Thursday. His coffin was carried from Daffy’s funeral home to SS Peter and Paul's Church in Kilmallock on Sunday night.
He was buried on Monday in Effin Cemetery.
“When you have a victory, you celebrate it and the bonfire was Cal’s symbol.
“It was a statement that something had been achieved,” Mike adds.
Mike and Cal were neighbours - both residents of The Green Road.
On many a great day in the town during the 1990s - particularly in 1992 and 1993 when Kilmallock and Mike were in their pomp and Cal was reveling in their success - a bonfire blazed brightly at the crossroads.
“He always reckoned the bonfires had to be lit - it was tradition,” continues former Kilmallock star player Bernie Savage, a good friend of Cal’s.
“I remember the one he lit after Limerick beating Cork in 1996, I’d say he lit it at about six o’clock in the evening. I remember he went up to the Donie Barry’s and came down with a load of tyres out of Donie’s. On his way back down his pants began to slip.
“He didn’t know whether to drop the tyres or grab his pants,” Bernie smiled.
Bernie played against Cal during their time in England. While Bernie only remained in England for three years, Cal was there from 1956 until 1978.
Bernie played with Brothers Pearse in London while Cal played with St Mary’s hurling club in London in the 1960s and the 1970s.
“He played all his life in the corner back position. He was uncompromising,” says Bernie.
“Cal used always tell this story. In 1955 Kilmallock won their first county minor title and he was marking a fella known as 26 Goal Eric. Eric Smith was his name. He used to hurl with Treaty. Cal was marking this 26 Goal Eric and didn’t Cal bury him!”
While in London, Cal was chairman of the Kilmallock Men’s Association and his wife Ann was the secretary.
“They did the world of good - they used to have a dinner dance every year. They would invite people from Kilmallock. They would have one special guest and they would have a couple of other special guests as well,” says Bernie.
“They would organise that about 40 would go from here every year for that dinner dance and that lasted for years, and years and years.
“It started off in the Spotted Dog but it ended up in the Tara Hotel. It needed a bigger venue because it was getting more popular. Cal was the face, and Ann worked away behind the scenes,” Bernie explains.
While Cal wouldn’t have been known for his singing voice, there were a few songs that remained close to his heart.
“There were two songs in particular that he would sing a few verses of - the Old Knocksouna Boat and The Road Near Abbeyshrule,” says Bernie.
Cal was known affectionately by many as Calín (een),
“Everyone was known as 'ín' by him in the end - it was always Bernín, and Mikín and Tomín.
“If you heard him talking about the hurling, he would be describing “the love and pride we have for our little club”.
Along with hurling, Cal’s other great passion in life was greyhounds.
“ He was a big doggie man - be it coursing or track,” says Mike Houlihan.
“When you would be going or coming from school, Cal would be out with his dogs walking - that familiar stride leading five or six dogs, getting them ready for the track,” adds Mike.
Cal’s sporting pursuits brought him all over the county and country, ensuring he built up many great friendships along the way. “He was the best character Kilmallock ever had. He was known by everybody,” says Bernie.
Cal O’Donnell is very deeply regretted by his loving wife Ann, daughters Rose and Sue, sons Tom, Pat, and Dave, brother Tom, sisters Mary, Biddy, Ann, and Nelly, his extended family and a large circle of friends.