Joe Irwin (1925-2007)

Rockwell College Annual 2007-2008, pp. 168-170


Joe Irwin's death on January 23, 2007 saw the departure from this life of a great friend, an outstanding colleague and a larger than life personality.

There's a natural tendency in death to exaggerate a man's qualities, to attribute to him virtues his friends failed to recognise when he was living, to make him much larger than he was in life, but there is no danger of that in Joe's case.

Joe was a big man physically and he had the personality to fill the frame. There was no better company to while away a journey, to ease an hour during a free class or to punctuate the brief time over a cup of coffee.

And, how Joe loved these coffee breaks! He basked in the relief they brought as he spooned the three or four sugars into the cup and then took a drag of the cigarette after the first sip. His wife, Kitty, used to give out about his sugar intake, and the smoking, but she might as well have been talking to the wall. And then he would start telling a story which wouldn't be well started until the bell for class sounded and the end had to be aborted for a later occasion.

When Joe joined the staff at Rockwell in September 1968, having taught at Glenstal, Ennis C.B.S. and Cashel C.B.S. beforehand, his name had already preceded him as an A.S.T.I. activist. He used to entertain us with dissertations on CEC meetings, keeping us informed not only of what had transpired at the latest meeting but giving us enlightened projections on what was about to happen.

Skilled Negotiator

The years he served as a CEC representative were fairly turbulent times with a lot of change taking place in the Irish education scene. It was the time of the arrival of the community and comprehensive schools, which were met with ferocious opposition by vested interests in the status quo. It was also the time of the Ryan Tribunal on teachers' salaries which delivered nothing to A.S.T.I. members and led to a strike in 1969.

Joe was one of the leaders at the local level during these years providing a two-way communications line between A.S.T.I. headquarters and the Tipperary Branch. He was also to the fore in local dismissal disputes bringing his considerable negotiation skills to a number of tricky cases. He was an able dealer, a skilled operator, bringing calm reason and persistence to the negotiation table. He was seldom on the losing side in disputes.

In fact I often said he should have been in the diplomatic service. There was no better man when it came to negotiation. He had endless patience, never got tired, was capable of repeating the arguments in different forms and from other angles until the opposition conceded. He always had hours of time to wear the other side down.

Probably time was the least important element in Joe's life. A story had to be told, a difficulty had to be explained, a point of view had to be argued and the length of time it took didn't matter. I recall one night visiting him about 8 pm and when I returned home five hours later I realised I hadn't spoken for one hour during the lengthy conversation.

Joe was always good for a story and he was a tremendous raconteur. He was able to dramatise anything he told, using his acting ability to imitate the accents of the characters. His colleagues will have their own favourites but he had a number of great tales from his days at Glenstal and one I listened to on a number of occasions was the 'Case of the Missing Postman' in Stradbally, Co. Waterford. He brought wit and good humour to the telling and there was seldom time to hear the end of them.

Love of Drama

His commitment to drama, which had been developed during his years in the Dramsoc at U.C.D., was immense. He wasn't long in Rockwell when he commenced the production of the annual school play and he set such high standards that Rev. Aidan Lehane stated on one occasion that 'they were never ashamed of the play after that.' He had the capacity to get the very best out of the students, who were transformed by him on the stage and achieved levels of performance we did not believe possible. His production of 'Murder in the Cathedral' by T. S. Elliot will long remain with me as a most moving experience.

Joe was a popular teacher with the students. He didn't court that popularity but they recognised in him someone who had their best interests at heart, a friend who wanted them to achieve to their highest potential. An indication of the way he was regarded by the students was the popularity of his six sons, who passed through the college during his years as a teacher. They were well-regarded and never felt under any pressure having their father in the school.

Joe retired from teaching in 1990 and continued to lead a full life, producing plays with Cashel Choral and Dramatic Society, broadcasting on Cashel Radio, involved in projects with the Knights of Columbanus, taking pleasure from his family and his growing number of grandchildren. He continued to be good humoured, always with a story to tell and as entertaining company as one would wish to meet. It was a pleasure to have known him.