On the last day of the year in which Tipperary welcomed its 26th All-Ireland hurling title, the county bade farewell to one of its famous hurling sons, John Doyle.
The GAA family from all over the country turned out in force in Holycross for the funeral of a man known simply as The Legend, who won eight All-Ireland senior hurling medals on the field of play in an illustrious senior inter-county playing career that stretched from 1949 to 1967.
The mourners were led by GAA president Christy Cooney and four of his predecessors – Nickey Brennan, Sean Kelly, Sean McCague and Joe McDonagh. President Mary McAleese was represented by her aide-de-camp, Comdt. Michael Walsh, while the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Senator Pat Moylan, was also in the congregation.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen had paid his respects the previous evening when Mr. Doyle's remains were removed from Thurles, where he had died on Wednesday last, aged 80.
Friend and foe alike from the hurling field also gathered for the funeral of a player who had the distinction of being chosen on both the GAA's Hurling Team of the Century and the Team of the Millennium, and who served as a Fianna Fail Senator from 1969 to 1973.
Eddie Keher and Fan Larkin came from Kilkenny, Jimmy Smyth from Clare and Ray Cummins from Cork. Former team mates including Jimmy Doyle, Len Gaynor, John O'Donoghue, Tony Reddan and Donie Nealon were also present. Tipperary hurlers of a more recent vintage including Pat Fox, Declan Carr and John Leahy also attended, as did broadcasters Micheal O'Muircheartaigh and Brian Carthy.
After a lone piper had played a lament Tommy Barrett, the president of the Tipperary County GAA Board delivered the graveside oration. An emotional Mr. Barrett told mourners that John Doyle was his best friend and he described him as "a veritable Matt the Thresher, in whom Kickham's Knocknagow took immense pride.
His deeds on the field brought much enjoyment to his county men – the memories of an indestructible colossus, not standing on ceremony, ignoring personal safety can stir deep emotions within us to this day. We gloried in his performances, which were fearless and full-blooded. We relished the hip-to-hip duels, the shoulder-to-shoulder tackles and the body check against opponents.
We have lasting memories of John bringing the ball out of defence, leaving opponents sprawling in his wake and making a mighty clearance to lift the crowd and inspire his team. John epitomised Tipperary – immovable like Slievenamon, displaying power and raw courage."
He said that his unbroken service of 20 years at the highest level included a litany of honours unparalleled and unlikely to be ever equalled. He won three County Senior Championships with Holycross and from the time he made his debut for the club in 1946 he was fired by a burning ambition to play with Tipperary.
Tommy Barrett revealed that John Doyle considered retirement in 1957, finding the game demanding and time consuming, as he strove to combine his farming career, raising a young family and hurling.
"Fortunately, he was prevailed upon to continue and his efforts were crowned with considerable success during the next seven or eight years with possibly some of the greatest Tipperary players of all time".
The chief celebrant of the Requiem Mass was Fr. Ray Reidy, Ss Peter and Paul's, Clonmel, whose sister Ann was married to John Doyle.
The Mass, appropriately, started with a rendition of Slievenamon and ended with The Ballad of John Doyle.
Symbols of his life that were brought to the altar included a picture of John and Ann on their wedding day more than 55 years previously; a hurley and sliothar; his eight All-Ireland medals; a photo of John Doyle, Jimmy Smyth and Christy Ring (with whom John shares the record of eight All-Ireland medals); and the jerseys of his beloved Holycross/Ballycahill and Tipperary, which were draped over the coffin.
Fr. Reidy, who played for Thurles Sarsfields and was an opponent of John Doyle's on the playing field, remarked on his spirit and will-to-win, which he said were indomitable. He said that Holycross could have been 7 or 8 points down in a match but while Doyle may have been behind he was never beaten.
As a 15 year-old Fr. Reidy said he felt intimidated lining up against Sarsfields in a football match with his first club Rahealty when he was given the task of marking John Doyle, who by that stage was 21 and had already won three senior All-Ireland hurling medals. But he didn't lay a finger on him for the whole match because he was doing a line with Fr. Ray's sister Ann, whom he later married.
As he had mentioned to another Tipp legend, Mick Roche, at the removal the previous evening, Fr. Reidy said that John was hugely competitive and loved a challenge.
He also spoke of his roguery and devilment, remarking on a match in which his son Michael received a stern lecture from a referee "for pulling late or pulling early", while John turned around to the crowd and said "I don't know where he got that from!"
He said that John didn't have an easy childhood. His mother died when he was just 6 weeks old, he had no brothers and sisters and was reared by his father. But his neighbours were a great support.
He also had an aunt in Dungarvan, Mary Stack (nee Doyle) and had very fond memories of the time he spent there.
Two years some of his friends in Clonmel, including Gerry Chawke and John Wall, organised a return visit to Dungarvan, which was also attended by some Waterford hurlers.
Fr. Reidy repeated Jimmy Doyle's quote that the man above must have looking for a good corner back so he sent for John Doyle.
The readings at the Mass were performed by daughters Liz and Colette, while the prayers of the faithful were recited by some of his 16 grandchildren.
His son Michael recited the Hurler's Prayer while his other son Johnny spoke on behalf of the family.
He described his father as a very gracious man, who was modest about his achievements, and someone who loved his family very deeply.
"Holycross was his pride and joy and his chest stuck out and his shoulders went back when he learned that the GAA development in the parish would be known as the John Doyle Centre", he said.
John Doyle is survived by his wife Ann, sons Michael and Johnny; daughters Margaret, Colette, Liz, Sandra and Anne Marie; 16 grandchildren, great grandchildren and other relations.