“You wonder how they do it,
You look to find the knack,
You watch the foot in action,
Or the shoulder or the back.
But when you spot the answer
Where the higher glamours lurk,
You’ll find in moving higher,
Up the laurel-covered spire,
That most of it is practice,
And the rest of it is work.” – Grantland Rice (‘How To Be A Champion’)
Foley. That’s how he was widely known. Those among us who are identified by surname alone tend to be a different breed of Irishman, the type that John B Keane’s prose could masterfully immortalise. The type of Irishman we’d all be the better for knowing, for befriending, for sharing a pint with. For sharing a dressing room with. The best of us. That rarest of breeds.
News of Paul Foley’s passing on Tuesday last, September 29th, sent a shockwave through Waterford GAA. To write of him in the past tense is unfathomable.
When the dreadful news broke that evening, there was a collective sense of disbelief, of numbness, of deep sadness that a man just north of 40 years of age, was gone from us.
And in that sadness, as the great family of Waterford GAA men and women met, made phonecalls or shared text messages, some words were repeated over and over about Paul, who’d become one of the most popular referees in the county since taking up the whistle.
Loyal. Funny. Dedicated. Trustworthy. Lovely. The best of us. That rarest of breeds.
While Paul’s greatest legacy shall always be his two children, Lillian and Taidgh, his club and inter-county career was marked by several highlights and great achievements.
At the turn of this century, he was one of a small band of players who’d worn the white and blue of Waterford at both senior grades; football, as his Stradbally roots dictated, ran as deep in Paul as his love of hurling.
Turn back to clock to September 1992, when Paul, son of Tom and Ellen Foley and brother to Kieran and Claire, carved out a special niche for himself, scoring both of Waterford’s goals in their All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final defeat to Galway, a statistic of hen’s teeth proportions in Deise terms.
And to be a Stradbally club man in a Waterford hurling team was almost as rare a feat, but this served only to single out Paul’s talent and application. A rare breed indeed.
Paul’s interest in honing and developing the talent of young players saw him assume the Juvenile Chairmanship of the Ballygunner club, and this was, yet again, a role he wholly invested himself in. And what talent has emerged from those red and black ranks in recent years, and continues to do so.
On the field of play, Paul occupied the full-forward slot at what remains the highpoint of Ballygunner’s hurling history: the 2001 campaign in which they annexed both the County and Munster Senior Hurling Championships.
That Ballygunner side, in many ways, mirrored the best of what Waterford produced during the reign of both McCarthys: while not without their steel, they swashbuckled their way to victory, honouring the best traditions of the sport we love.
That they felled three of the great names of Munster hurling en route to that magnificent victory made that success all the sweeter: Saint Joseph’s Doora Barefield of Clare, Toomevara of Tipperary (following a replay) and the famed Blackrock of Cork, whom they dismissed by 2-14 to 0-12 in a never to be forgotten decider, with the two Pauls, Foley and Flynn, netting those all-important goals.
Now there was a Ballygunner team, managed by Freshford’s Gordon Ryan, that truly lit the imagination: a joy to watch, a side whose approach honoured the long-standing traditions of the game here in the Deise: full of wristy hurlers, aggressive when the time demanded it and oozing style, encapsulated by the genius of Flynn, this county’s supreme stylist.
That particular Ballygunner team continues to stand alone in the club’s distinguished history. And at the heart of it was Paul Foley, who, needless to say, took up two seats in the back of the bus that historic, unique day.
“Those of us who, over the years, ever had a discussion, a joke or a row with Paul will know that he nearly always had the last word, whether it was on that occasion, six months later or eight months later, Paul would get you back,” his good friend Father Tom Rogers wryly observed during his Requiem Mass homily on Thursday last.
“Physically, he was a big man, but he was a big man in so many other ways. He was a big man because he had a big heart, a heart which so many people here today – family, friends, customers, even his ‘victims’ (on the field) knew he had a heart of gold.
“And I suppose, when he took up the whistle, maybe many of us felt that, ‘well, that’s it, Paul, you can’t be a nice man now; there’ll be a few who won’t appreciate your decisions’, but yet, the people here today, and over the last couple of days have shown that Paul reached out to so many people in different ways.
“He lived out his life looking out for other people, responding to their needs in so many different ways, whether that was lording it at the bar at Callaghane or maybe bearing down on some poor misfortunate full-back or goalkeeper, as he charged forward with the ball, Paul always had the needs of other people in his heart.”
The colours of Stradbally, Ballygunner and Waterford, along with his fellow referees were proudly evident in Ballygunner last Thursday, amidst a huge gathering of mourners, the scale of which underlined the deep affection and esteem that Paul was held in during his all too brief life.
Survived by wife Karen, daughter Lillian and son Taidgh, Paul Foley’s absence from Waterford GAA, from his native Stradbally and the home he made in Bellake in the East of the county, represents a yawning chasm.
For this was a man of innumerable friendships, via his business as an oil delivery man, as a hurler, footballer and referee, out on the hunt, whose affable nature merited every kind word uttered about him during this past week of indescribable grief.
And many more will be shared in the days, weeks and months ahead when Paul’s family and friends assemble, when the sliothars are broken out at McGinn Park, when training draws to a close and when home beckons after a trip to Thurles having cheered on the white and blue.
Requiem Mass for the repose of Paul’s soul was held in St Mary’s Church, Ballygunner on Thursday last, followed by burial in the adjoining cemetery.
Father Tom Rogers PP, who was Ballygunner’s medical officer in that glorious 2001 season, was the chief celebrant at the Obsequies.
He was joined by Canon Brendan Crowley along with Fathers Liam Power, Finbarr Lucey, Matt Cooney, John Treacy and Jerry Condon.
The best of us, that rarest of breeds, Paul Foley will never be forgotten.
So farewell, Foley. May the soil of your beloved Port Láirge rest lightly upon you.