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Irwin conquered many hills for Jack and Jill

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Jonathan Irwin, the charity founder, is a charismatic narrator. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Jonathan Irwin, the charity founder, is a charismatic narrator. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Jonathan Irwin, the charity founder, is a charismatic narrator. Photo: Gerry Mooney

A book about a charity founded to benefit the lives of seriously ill children and their families certainly sounded like a worthy read, but would it be an entertaining one?

Much to my surprise I laughed as much as I cried during Jonathan Irwin's engaging memoir, Jack & Jill: The Story of Jonathan Irwin, which he wrote with journalist, Emily Hourican.

Irwin is one of Ireland's most innovative and charismatic business personalities. From lively anecdotes about Dublin, which he affectionately describes as delightfully seedy and tumbledown in the swinging sixties, to raucous parties with the likes of Brendan Behan, vivid characters populate the pages like the cast of an Evelyn Waugh novel.

As Irwin says himself "I have had the most incredible life in so many ways" though he goes on to qualify that at times it has been "scary and terribly sad too."

Irwin has experienced more tragedy then most people will ever have to endure but he is remarkably matter-of-fact on these matters. He describes his father's frequent suicide attempts with complete candour. He is not remotely glib, he simply does not appear to allow himself to dwell.

He has lost three children during his two marriages. For many of us it is impossible to fathom carrying on from such pain never mind channelling the grief into such positive work as that achieved by the Jack and Jill Foundation.

Irwin speaks with a huge depth of emotion about the losses his family have suffered but he also describes marshalling his resolve and focusing his energy into positive changes for other families living through what he and his wife Mary-Ann faced when caring for a severely ill baby.

Irwin is the son of Irish actor and irrepressible vagabond, John Irwin and English actress, Pippa Stanley-Clark. Unusually for the time, he was an only child, but far from being cosseted and doted upon, his parents, though loving, were distant.

When Irwin speaks about them it is with obvious affection but also a certain detachment. "They were great parents to have, exciting and unusual, but they weren't at all the Walt Disney model" and young Irwin was largely cared for by Anna, a "ferocious Austrian - terribly racist, but loyal and devoted to me."

At the tender age of seven he was sent to board in a bleak-sounding institution in Broadstairs, Kent - the cabbage centre of England - before attending Eton and eventually dropping out of Trinity College in favour of commercial experience.

At Eton Irwin dabbled in acting and apparently made a lasting impression.

One former teacher wrote; "I shall take the liveliest interest in Jonathan's future. One way or another I am sure he will fall on his feet."

This prediction indeed came to pass. Before Irwin became the dynamic founder of the Jack and Jill foundation he had already had a varied career from stints in television to marketing during the early days of Ryanair, but his instrumental work in shaping the Irish bloodstock industry has had a lasting influence and ensured that Ireland has become a major player on the international stage.

Irwin and Hourican sensitively weave a life story that is tragic and poignant but also funny and redemptive.

While at times it is terribly sad, it is also a rollicking good read.

Jack & Jill: The story of Jonathan Irwin

Jonathan Irwin with Emily Hourican

Mercier Press, €16.99

 

Sunday Independent