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Putting Sport in Perspective

Published 2 months ago 20th August 2022 by Jamie O’Flaherty

A very good friend of mine was a Nottingham Forest supporter. I say was, in the past tense, because he fell out of love with football on the 15th April 1989. He has not attended a football match since. The specific date will be well known to some readers, it is the date of the Hillsborough Disaster.

Although his exams were looming, my friend left Nottingham that morning bound for Sheffield. He stood at the opposite end of the ground to the Liverpool fans and looked forward to a FA Cup semi-final between his home town team and a formidable Liverpool side. Shortly after the game started he got a sense that there was trouble at the opposite terrace, the Leppings Lane terrace.

Like many others, he assumed that a hooligan element was disrupting the game. Rumours spread across the Nottingham Forest terrace and derogatory chanting was hurled towards the Liverpool supporters. But then he saw Liverpool supporters run onto the pitch racing towards the Forest terrace at the Kop end. Naturally again, bearing in mind the culture of English football in the 1980’s, he assumed a riot was breaking out. But the Liverpool supporters stopped running towards them, and started to break down the advertising hoardings at pitchside, carrying them back towards the Leppings Lane terrace. These would form make-shift stretchers to carry the dead, and the dying. The chanting stopped, and a silence fell over the crowd.

He stood there and watched as 96 people were crushed to death. There were no announcements over the public address system. They could hear the wailing of ambulances and fire engines in the distance. Shortly afterwards, a sole ambulance drove onto the pitch.

The Forest fans too were penned in like cattle, and, although in no danger, could not escape, nor could they go to help. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the voice of Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, came over a loudspeaker saying that a ‘serious situation’ had developed, the match was abandoned and would everyone please leave quietly.

The majority of the crowd in Hillsborough that day continue to follow their respective teams, but not my friend. He rarely talks about Nottingham Forest anymore, even now as they have regained their Premier League status. And he has never gone to a football match again. And the reason is, he cannot find joy anymore in football. Where once, it bookended his week, Saturday’s at the City Ground in Nottingham, idolising the manager Brian Clough.

He was a big Des Walker fan. All gone. The sense of helplessness felt at watching others die in front of him has never left him. Will never leave him. And what is sport for if not to give us joy as well as break our hearts.

I learned of Dillon Quirke’s death two weeks ago now and it still sits over us all like a cloud.
For clarity, we are not related. I was late home that Friday evening and had been pencilled
in for commentary for TippFM on the Clonoulty Rossmore v Kilruane McDonagh’s game that
evening but it was proving logistically difficult so I asked to do the Sunday game between Loughmore and Brackens instead. But like many, I was keen to see how the game was going and Twitter is always a useful tool for match score updates. Shane Brophy from the Guardian had tweeted that the match was abandoned before half time due to a serious incident involving a player. In what seemed like no time at all, messages came in that Clonoulty Rossmore’s Dillon Quirke had died. He was only 24.

However bereft we may feel at Dillon’s passing it is as nothing to the devastation that has been visited upon his family. A young man leaves his house on a Friday night in August to play a hurling match and doesn’t come home? There is no sense that can be made from this.

It is impossible for anyone to explain why it occurred. There may be a medical reason as to how it occurred but no moral or rational explanation as to why. Too often the death of a young person feels like a punch in the stomach, and I cannot say that I knew Dillon Quirke. I met him once or twice, normally in or around a dressing room after a match or at a homecoming or the like. Those encounters seemed to coincide with Dillon being on the winning team and so I always remember him smiling.

I remember him hurling with Thurles CBS and winning a Harty Cup. I remember him winning an All-Ireland Minor Hurling title under Liam Cahill. And then saw him win an All-Ireland under 21 with Tipp, again under Liam Cahill. I remember his instrumental contribution as Clonoulty won Dan Breen in 2018, bridging a 21 year gap. He had good stock around him in those teams but Dillon Quirke was always eye catching. I delighted at seeing his potential realised when he started all four championship matches for the Tipperary senior hurlers this year. Many of his inter-county team-mates will go on and play with Tipperary for a good few more years. But for many years to come we will see a Tipperary team take to the pitch and wonder just how much stronger they would be if Dillon Quirke was still with us.

What I didn’t know until recently was Dillon’s role in rebuilding morale after the Munster under 21 final defeat to Cork in 2018. Tipperary were soundly beaten by Cork that day but remained in the Championship. I’m sure that spirits were low in the dressing room afterwards because on that night nothing had gone right for Tipperary, this was team backboned with All Ireland Minor medallists remember. Dillon had organised for the team to head to Killarney for a few days afterwards. I’m not sure when he started organising the trip, before the Munster Final or afterwards, a trip of celebration or rebuilding? Never mind, he organised it, some soul searching was done and the panel regrouped and set out on what Liam Cahill would call a ‘journey of atonement’. A few weeks later and a smash and grab in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick and Tipperary were All Ireland Champions. I remember that night well, I stood on the pitch afterwards with Shane McGrath, who was bursting with pride because a clubman, David Gleeson, was collecting an All-Ireland medal.

A man from Fr. Sheehy’s club in Clogheen was accepting the cup. It all seemed so bloody perfect. And that win was fashioned from many variables, some created by Cahill and Bevans, and one created by Dillon Quirke in Killarney.

I, and most of our readers, will find joy once again in sport. We know that we will be elated in Croke Park or in Semple Stadium many times in the future and we know too that sport will break our hearts many more times. That’s the contract we have with hurling, football or whatever your chosen sport is. You cannot have one without the other. But the Quirke family will find it almost impossible to find any joy in sport again. Good days lie ahead for the Tipperary hurlers, and Dillon Quirke would, should, be part of that. The fact that he won’t will be difficult to bear for those who loved him. We can only send them love and we offer our deepest condolences for their loss.

Although more senior in years, Tipperary sport also lost a stalwart in recent weeks. I have
known Bernard O’Neill for many years and his passion for sport was infectious. He was a fiercely proud Carrick Swan man, and reminded you of this frequently. He would often appraise me of emerging talent in the Swan club, always finding positives, always with a smile on his face. My fondest memory of Pinkie was in Mallow in 2015 when Commercials defeated Nemo Rangers in the Munster Senior Club Championship. Bernard was absolutely delighted, not necessarily for the Club, but for the players. He had helped so many of them over the years, with niggling injuries and knocks. He helped so many get back on the pitch earlier than might have otherwise been the case. And he loved to see players deliver on their potential. The Commercials players delivered on their individual and combined talent on that wet Sunday in November 2015. And that brought Bernard O’Neill great joy. Only a similar win for the Swan in a Munster Final could have gladdened him more.

Two talented men died whilst doing what they loved. Dillon Quirke playing hurling in Semple Stadium, Bernard O’Neill whilst training up in the Complex in Clonmel. Both sudden, both shocking and both terribly sad. Both men put smiles on our faces, both gave us joy and to both we say thank you and rest easy.

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