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Funeral was an occasion of laughter 

by Edited by Jimmy Rhatigan

A NEW book by John Scally pays tribute to one of Kilkenny’s favourite sons, the late Irish rugby legend Willie Duggan. Scally writes:

Willie Duggan’s funeral would have been expected to have been a desperately sad occasion. 

Instead it was an occasion of much laughter. The fact that Willie had insisted that the event be a party and that nobody was to wear black was the catalyst for the unique atmosphere.

In 2017 the 67-year-old died suddenly at his home in Dunmore, County Kilkenny. 

Willie was capped 41 times by Ireland between 1975 and 1984 and also played all four tests for the Lions during their 1977 tour to New Zealand. 

The high point of his career came in 1982 when he won the Triple Crown as part of a pack affectionately known as ‘Dad’s Army’ after the famous television series of the time.

Willie was a wit as was evident in his comment on a diminutive colleague: ‘Colin Patterson was the only Irish player to have a full size photo on his passport.’

The funeral Mass in Kilkenny Cathedral deliberately started 18 minutes late which was the average time Willie was late for training sessions when he played for Blackrock. 

Willie often joked that there was a Holy Ghost priest who coached rugby in Blackrock College who famously said: ‘The two most important things in life are the grace of God and a quick heel from the loose – though not necessarily in that order!’   

In her address during the funeral Mass, directed to her father, Willie’s daughter Helena said: ‘Growing up, we never knew you were famous, you never told any of us. 

‘We just thought you had lots of friends and were just bad at remembering their names.’

Helena noted how he would cry during the epic movies with ‘big music,’ how he would ‘stir the pot with all of us’ at home and sit back and laugh as chaos followed and how he ‘rang every bank manager in the country trying to track down mam, so she would go out with you,’ and how he bought an engagement ring in New Zealand before she had even agreed to a date.

The chief celebrant Fr Purcell, in his homily, prompted much laughter when he remembered times in Dunmore, ‘all the fighting we used do and the arguments and the lies we used tell each other. 

I don’t think I ever left Willie Duggan without having to go and Google some expression or other to see what it meant and let me tell you, sometimes it wasn’t pretty’. 

He also shared that Willie had made a joke at his expense claiming that he was a priest who had taken up rugby and that he scored a few tries but had not made any conversions yet.

Willie was fascinated with the newly evolving concept of teams warming up on the field before a game and Donal Lenihan recalled that after observing Ireland’s exhausting pre match routine Willie claimed that: ‘I could do the warm up or play the match but I couldn’t do both.’

Hugo MacNeill recalled how Willie had a problem selling an oversize sink. 

So he contacted a journalist to do a feature on it for the local paper. The journalist said he would be happy to give him a plug.

Sartorial elegance was not Willie’s forte. The most common description of him was that ‘on and off the field he looked like an unmade bed’.

Animal Farm

When I told Willie that I grew up in a small village in Roscommon he said: ‘You could be from a one horse town if there was a horse in it.’

Willie was very interested in the fact that I was brought up on a farm. He even suggested a new name for my goat. He suggested I call him ‘Vincent van Goat’. 

He caught me by surprise when he asked me: ‘Do you know what gets my goat?’

When I shook my head in defeat he coolly replied: ‘Rustlers.’

Willie caught me out perfectly once. He asked me in his most deadpan voice if I knew that Johnny Cash worked in Dublin Zoo. 

When I expressed shock at this startling revelation he calmly replied. ‘Yeah he did. He walked the lion.’

The Invisible Men

Moss Keane is one of the all-time greatest characters in Irish rugby and is often associated with his teammate, Willie Duggan for the way they played on the pitch and the way they celebrated off it. 

In victory or defeat Moss and Willie knew how to party after a game.

Of course Willie and Moss were kindred spirits. 

Gary Halpin once told me that for a dare Willie and Moss drank a jar each of invisible ink. 

They both had a bad reaction to it and had to go hospital. They only problem was that they spent hours there -waiting to be seen. 

A Dangerous Habit

When Ireland finally won its second Grand Slam in 2009 after 61 years Moss Keane said, ‘it was a long time between drinks.’

Phil Bennett recalled: ‘Moss and Willie read that drink was bad for you. So they gave up . . . reading.’

Love and Marriage

Willie was once asked his opinion of marriage, ‘Rugby is like marriage. The preliminaries are often better than the main event.’

Duggan was told that a young rugby player was taking his chances on the roulette wheel of love and getting married the following day. 

‘Congratulations, my boy,’ said Willie. ‘I’m sure you will look back on today as the happiest day of your life.’

‘But I’m not getting married until tomorrow,’ protested the young player.

‘I know,’ said Duggan.

Three years later a mutual friend asked Willie how the young player’s marriage was. Duggan replied: ‘I think his wife has just left him. He’s turning cartwheels out on the lawn.’

You don’t bring me flowers

Willie had a moment when he realised that his rugby ‘activities’ off the field more so than on it were causing him to neglect his wife a little. 

So on his way home from work one evening he bought her a dozen red roses and a big box of chocolates. 

He was eager to see how she would react to his grand romantic gesture. He walked through the door with a huge grin but was stunned when she burst into tears.

‘What’s wrong love?’, he asked in bemusement.

‘I’ve had the worst day ever. Our youngest son tried to flush a nappy down the toilet. Then the dishwater stopped working. 

Then our daughter came home bleeding because she fell on the pavement. And now to cap it all you come home acting so strangely that you must be drunk.’


Willie once had a brush with the law. A garda asked him, ‘Why are you driving so fast?’

Duggan calmly answered, ‘My brakes are faulty and I wanted to get home before I’d have an accident.’

Magic Moments

The other Irish player whose name is inescapably intertwined with was his back row colleague Fergus Slattery. Slatts shared Willie’s favourite story.

Will Carling interviewed Slattery before Ireland played England in Twickenham. 

He asked Slatts if the Ireland prepared differently for taking on the old enemy in Twickenham. 

Slatts first informed him that it was not such a big deal for Ireland to play there because half the crowd were Irish because they all came down from the racing Cheltenham Festival.

Slattery took Carling by surprise though by saying that the special quality Ireland brought to playing England was ‘MAGIC’.

When Carling was bemused by this Slatts explained: ‘Before the game the team gets together and picks some little boll***s like Will Ca . . . like Austin Healey for special treatment. 

In the first minute we kick the ball 60 feet in the air over the head of the little boll***s. The ball starts to drop 50 feet, 40 feet, 30 feet and then at 20 feet its action stations. 

Willie caught me out perfectly once. He asked me in his most deadpan voice, REFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF. The startled ref turns around and sees the prop with his togs around his ankles howling in pain. 

As he turns around the Irish team take the opportunity to give the designated boll***s an almighty thumping. And that is MAGIC.’   

Taken from John Scally’s new book 100 Funny Irish Rugby Moments which is available in all good bookshops now.

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