'He could light up a room with his big smile' - heartbroken girlfriend of young GAA star who died of suspected heart attack
The girlfriend of a GAA player who died suddenly on Saturday has said he was her "soulmate and best friend all in one".
Paying tribute to her boyfriend Pearce Branagan, Ellen McCrilly said: "He was the type of person who could walk into a room and light it up with his big smile and his stories."
Mr Branagan was a senior hurler for Clonduff GAC in Hilltown, Co Down. He died on Saturday evening following a cardiac seizure.
"Pearce was born with a heart defect, but he didn't want that to define who he was as a person," Ellen wrote in a heartfelt post on Facebook.
"From running the Belfast City Marathon to playing for his beloved Clonduff, he was determined to not let it control his life."
The 23-year-old was in his first year of teaching at St Malachy's Primary School, Kilcoo. His girlfriend said he was "an amazing teacher who made a big impact on so many".
A JustGiving page has been set up in memory of Pearce, raising money for the Children's Heartbeat Trust. His family have requested that donations be made to this in lieu of flowers.
"I can't thank the doctors, paramedics, first responders and police enough. Every individual who tried to save him is greatly appreciated by Pearce's family and myself," Ellen told the Belfast Telegraph.
She added: "I'm so grateful that I got to spend four amazing years with Pearce, for all the things we did together and trips we went on.
"He was such a beautiful person inside and out."
Tributes have been flooding in from the Hilltown area for the young teacher.
Newry, Mourne and Down SDLP councillor Laura Devlin said: "The community is shocked at the recent tragic death of Pearce.
"A young man who was deeply rooted in his community and someone who was an outstanding teacher was undoubtedly taken too soon.
"I have been speaking to parents who said not only was he a superb teacher and mentor but he also had an amazing rapport with both the children and parents."
Councillor Devlin added that her thoughts and prayers are with Pearce's family, friends and the communities of Clonduff, Cabra and Kilcoo. Meanwhile, head teacher at St Malachy's Primary School, Mrs Maura Mussen, said that Pearce was "a young and enthusiastic teacher with a real affinity for his pupils".
She said: "The lives of the staff, pupils and parents of the school were enriched by his influence.
"Pearce was just a natural teacher, he had a gift.
"We in Kilcoo were very blessed to have had him as part of our team and he will be missed by us all."
As well as being a popular teacher, Mr Branagan "enjoyed success on the playing field".
Mrs Mussen added: "He was involved in coaching the school team, and ran very popular after-school clubs in both science and sports."
The staff at St Malachy's have also extended their sympathies to the Branagan family and Pearce's girlfriend Ellen.