Deep sorrow engulfed Carrick Swan GAA Club on Wednesday morning March 16 with the news Michael John Collins had passed away, aged just 53, following an illness borne with great dignity and courage.
Michael John, or MJ as he was also known, was a valued member of the Club. His remains reposed in the Swan Hall on Thursday evening, March 17, where throngs of people attended to offer their sympathy to his bereaved family and friends.
MJ was waked in the Swan Club Hall in honour of his remarkable standing in the Club and for his unbroken length of service to Carrick Swan. Club personnel conducted a vigil and remained with their esteemed club mate all through the night.
His funeral on Friday, March 18 was one of the largest seen in the town for many years. Carrick Swan did him proud as his coffin was carried aloft from the Swan Club to St. Nicholas Church by relays of club players, who wore their club jerseys as other club members formed a guard of honour.
MJ's daughters Rachel and Emma spoke during the funeral Mass about their Dad, and though heartbroken, they gave a wonderful insight into the kind father he was, while youngest daughter Hanna carried his Chelsea season ticket in the offertory procession.
Swan Club Secretary Sean O’Shea delivered his own tribute to a great friend as follows:
"On behalf of Carrick Swan GAA Club, and on my own behalf, I extend our deepest sympathy to the family of Michael John, his wife Ann, daughters Rachael, Emma and Hanna, brothers Denis and Tommy, sisters Patricia and Diane, son-in-law John, Mark and all the extended family, relations and friends.
"To speak here today at the funeral of a very close lifelong friend is both an honour and yet also very difficult, as even though we knew this day would come, we hoped against hope for the miracle that didn’t.
"MJ was born in ‘London Town’, as he called it, in 1963. The family moved back to Carrick in 1966 when MJ was just 3 years of age after his mother Ann, a native of Carrick, persuaded her London-eborn husband Denis to take up employment in the local tannery.
"To know MJ was to know a real character. He was always full of life and enjoyed nothing more than having the craic and banter with his many friends. He loved a sing-song, and if we could get him to sing, which wasn’t often, he would sing one of his father’s songs ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’ or ‘Little Town in the Old County Down’.
"He was known the length and breadth of both Ireland and England, whether due to his work as an electrician, his association with the Swan or his support for Chelsea Football Club.
"MJ had a very strong connection to Chelsea and had great friends with whom he travelled to games on a regular basis. They too have lost a dear friend.
"He was unique in that he could debate any sport to any person regardless of club or county and leave them, in the end, well beaten but yet smiling. His humorous reply always said in jest to our rivals was: ‘join the Birds because if you don’t the only medal you’ll have is your Confirmation medal’.
"As a player in the Swan Club , he won numerous juvenile medals as a very lively forward, including a County U-12A hurling medal in 1975. He won a Minor South medal in 1981 and U-21 South medals in 1982 and 1983.
"He managed our senior hurlers when they won the Seamus O’Riain County Cup in 2008 and was mentor over many of our teams. He particularly enjoyed mentoring the underage teams such as the U-21s. He became like a father to all his players and always referred to them as ‘his babies’.
"He was a valued committee man with great ideas, and if anything needed repairing MJ was the first port of call. If he couldn’t fix it, he always knew a man who could. He worked tirelessly for the good of the Swan Club and his place on the list of the Club’s favourite sons is assured.
"MJ married the love of his life Ann O’Halloran on March 16, 1985 and they had 3 daughters together, Rachael, Emma and Hanna. Life in the Collins household was perfect before the bombshell of his illness was diagnosed.
"When MJ had surgery in Cork Hospital over two years ago, a group of us went down to visit him and, less than 48 hours after the lengthy operation, found him entertaining the nurses and fellow patients as if the surgery were a thing of nothing. As we were leaving he said: ‘ don’t forget once a Bird always a Bird’.
"After leaving hospital he set himself goals to reach, and he reached all of them. He was there to walk Rachel down the aisle on her wedding day; he watched Emma graduate and saw Hanna commence secondary school - all proud moments for both MJ and Ann.
"MJ dealt with his illness over the last 2 years the way he wanted to. He didn’t want sympathy or pity and his outlook was always positive to the last. He told the doctors and consultants not to deal in time, as he wanted to live the remainder of his life on his own terms and in his own way. And this he did, ably assisted by his devoted wife, Ann, and family.
"He never complained about his illness. He fought a mighty battle all the way and had the heart of a lion. The loss of his late mother, Ann, in October hit him very hard but, as was his way, his grief was not displayed in public.
"During his illness MJ was cared for by wonderful people in all of the hospitals he attended. But in our own town of Carrick the greatest beacon of all shone brightest - the home from home that is St. Brigid’s Hospital and its staff.
"We will all miss that unending loyalty that only real true friends possess; the warmth and friendship of his personality; that head of dark hair that never receded or turned grey; the twinkling eyes full of mischief; the hospitality of his salute or greeting; the natural wit and turn of phrase; the text message that asked ‘are you coming out to play’?
"The former manager of Chelsea and MJ’s idol, Jose Mourinho, once referred to himself as the ‘Special One’. Michael John was always our ‘Special One’. It was not a self-appointed title, it didn’t have to be.
"I will finish with a quote associated to Irving Berlin the American composer who once said ’the song may have ended but the melody lingers on’."
Following the funeral Mass, MJ was interred in St Mary’s Cemetery where his friends from Chelsea Football Supporters Club sang a Chelsea song at the graveside. Afterwards MJ, as he would have wanted, was regaled in song and story by heartbroken Swan compatriots.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilís.