Dillon Quirke playing against Cork last year, in his final game for Tipperary. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
absent friends

Dan Quirke: 'I know Dillon would be very proud of Hazel and myself'

Tipperary versus Cork will come with a huge sense of absence when the age-old rivals meet tonight.

WEEKS LIKE THESE should be shot through with a mixture of agitation and excitement.

That’s the traditional effect Cork hurling had on Tipperary. On each other. In a sport that can mean too much at times, there’s usually a crackling tension in the air as the days close in until Paud Dwyer flings the ball in and the animal instincts take over this Saturday night in Páirc Uí Chaoimh when the latest instalment begins.

Only, we are in Clonoulty-Rossmore. At the Dillon Quirke GAA Grounds on a Tuesday morning. All around are the most prominent hurling figures of past and present, those whose fame has crossed over into first-name-only territory such as Henry and Davy, onto John Kiely, Liam Cahill, Darragh Egan. Pat Ryan is here, an excursion across the county boundaries would be rare, only for what this gathering is.

dillon-quirke-foundation-gaa-club-fundraising-launch Intercounty hurling managers with children from the local schools at the launch of the Dillon Quirke Foundation. Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

While reporters make their way through trays of sandwiches, Hazel arrives with more supplies and introduces herself as Dillon Quirke’s mother. She says it in the present tense. As she should.

Elsewhere, her husband Dan is trading hurling yarns with Eddie Keher. He’s Dillon’s father, he explains in the present tense. Again, appropriate.

If things had been different, if fate had been a whole lot less cruel, there would have been no gathering here to launch the Dillon Quirke Foundation, with its aim to screen the hearts of all players in Gaelic Games from U12 up within five years.

If Dillon hadn’t died playing hurling for Clonoulty-Rossmore in Semple Stadium, he would have been out there on Saturday night with his hurl gripped in green and his red helmet. Instead, the red helmet forms the centrepiece of their poignant crest, reached into the sky in triumph.

Maybe the Foundation is its own triumph. There are many ways that parents who lose their children react. Honouring the name of their child is a healthy endeavour. It won’t cure anything, but it’s a worthy distraction.

“It has been very distracting for us. I know Dillon would be very proud of Hazel and myself,” says Dan Quirke as he gazes out at the main pitch where the National Schools of Clonoulty and Rossmore are playing small-sided games of hurling and camogie.

“It’s important for us, because Dillon loved the GAA. He loved playing sport. And I think Dillon is driving us all on now to kick this on, to help make sure that other families don’t go through what we have gone through.

“Because, it is a horrendous time. There are so many bad days. Yes, you can have good days but with the help of the GAA and the Foundation, I know that in three to five years we will have every young child, from 12 years up, boys and girls, screened.”

The screens they refer to are an Echocardiogram, an Electrocardiogram (ECG) and a treadmill test. If there are issues after that, an MRI scan will be required. The child’s parents will be informed and they will know there is an issue.

The period is set at three to five years because of the numbers involved. While ‘The Cormac Trust,’ established by the McAnallen family in Tyrone after the passing of Tyrone captain Cormac has started this work, the Quirke family wishes to make it even more widespread.

The numbers are daunting. The figure they wish to reach for the first phase of work is over €1,000,000.

After less than five months, they have almost reached half of that, with a number of what will surely be high-profile charity events slated for the next six months.

“But,” adds Dan, “We need the help of GAA communities all over the country. We need support, and we need awareness.”

When he thinks of his son, it’s not in those moments about how he felt watching him playing hurling or emulating his own achievement of claiming an All-Ireland U21 medal.

Maybe there’s some of that, for sure. Mainly, it’s of how he was away from the game. Like when he would help his mother and father in their three delicatessens, in Thurles, Clonmel and Tipperary, and how he loved interacting with the public and trading yarns.

One evening when the barbecue was fired up, he took it upon himself to invite an elderly neighbour in his 80s who lives alone. Later that evening there was a video taken of Dillon dancing with him.

In 2017, father and son went to New Zealand to follow a Lions Tour. Somehow, they fell in with a group of Scottish men who were, as it happens, very staunch, very vocal and very loyal supporters of Glasgow Rangers. After a few encounters and merciless back and forths between the parties, they fell in love with Dillon and promised them they would look out for the fortunes of Tipperary hurling.

He should have been in De Pairc this Saturday night. This was the team who they beat to win the 2018 U21 title. But there was no way after his final heart scan that he would have been there as a player, either.

The results were not known until after his death, but the readings would have suggested that the electrics of his heart were under severe stress and that competitive sport in the future – of any kind – was out of the question.

On the present Cork team, Niall O’Leary, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Robbie O’Flynn, Declan Dalton, Tim O’Mahony, Shane Kingston, Ger Millerick were all on the 2018 U21 side. Mark Coleman and Jack O’Connor would also be involved only for injuries.

On the Tipp side, Liam Cahill was the U21 manager in 2018 and Barry Hogan, Brian McGrath, Pauric Campion, Jake Morris and Conor Stakelum have all graduated. You could add Craig Morgan and Paddy Cadell to that list only for cruciate injuries.

Quirke’s last game for Tipp was the final round of the Munster championship last year against Cork. Afterwards, he traded jerseys with Shane Kingston who he was marking on the day. After his passing, Kingston returned the jersey to the Quirke family.

Clonoulty have a healthy representation across Tipp panels. Enda Heffernan came on as a sub for the seniors in their opening Munster round robin win over Clare.

For the U20s, they have Jason O’Dwyer in goal, Danny Slattery at corner-back and Robert Doyle at full-back, positions 1, 2 and 3, with Stephen Ferncombe coming on as sub against Waterford last Friday night.

There’s no end of local lads to cheer on, but not Dillon. Just an unnatural loss.

“It doesn’t add up,” Dan shakes his head.

“Because Dillon was in prime condition. Prime condition.”

dillon-quirke-dejected-after-the-game Dillon Quirke. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Even that in itself is a concern.

“I would worry as a parent that the training that the guys are doing now at the top level is extreme.

“And we are amateurs. Or we are supposed to be and we are definitely not amateurs. I’d seen it with Dillon the way he trained. Six days a week.”

Right now, he is waiting on the GAA to endorse the campaign. At the launch on Tuesday, there was no official GAA representation from headquarters. It felt bizarre and shoddy.

“I think it is very important that GAA headquarters in Croke Park get in behind this foundation and help,” says Dan.

“It’s something the GAA should be doing at national level. It has to happen. We are losing two lives a week from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. It’s 100 lives a year in Ireland. It’s phenomenal.

“We know from speaking to our counterparts in Italy, it’s mandatory that to play any sport you must be screened. You have that then as a certificate, like your driving licence. They won’t let you play unless you are screened.

“We have to get to that, in this country. We have to. And I believe we will. The support we have got so far has been unbelievable and I know we will get there.”

The support may have been overwhelming, but it hasn’t been absolute. The Limerick team were prepared to wear commemorative jerseys along with Tipp when they are due to meet on 21 May. The jerseys would then be handed back for auction. But Central Council of the GAA have recently banned clubs and counties from promoting charities and causes on their jerseys.

“Maybe it’s a patience thing. There is a little bit of frustration,” says Dan.

“We felt we needed their support. They will go out there and wear bibs before the match. It won’t be the same, but we are doing our best. I believe in time that they will come on board.”

It’s Tipp-Cork, with all the trimmings. But a little thread has been pulled out, gone forever.

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