Last Friday 11th October, former Goffs supremo, Jonathan Irwin now CEO and Founder of Jack & Jill Foundation was made an Honorary Fellow of the Faculty of Paediatrics at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland
“Anyone who knows of Jonathan Irwin knows that his is a life less ordinary.
“Jonathan Hiatt Nicolson Dermot Irwin was born in England into an Anglo-Irish family of actors and academics. His first trip to Ireland was also his first contact with Irish paediatrics as his mother braved the Irish Sea during the second WW to visit Dr. Colman Saunders in Dublin. Immersed in the world of showbiz he has describe his childhood as ‘glittering. He attended school in Eton.
“Jonathan returned to live in Ireland in the late 50s initially as a student at Trinity College and then working in the horse industry. When he informed his grandmother of his plans she warned him that ‘We hung your sort up to 1880’. He has had much success throughout his long career in business and in championing sport, initially at Goffs, the Phoenix park racecourse, where he was responsible for bringing the Cartier Million race there and later with the Dublin International Sports Council and the Special Olympics.
“He hasn’t always been successful at work however. At one time he worked for Tony Ryan at Ryanair, alongside Michael O’Leary, where they had competing roles. Jonathan’s role was to make to Ryanair the most high-end airline in Europe. I think we know who won that one!
“Jonathan has been married twice initially to Mikaela with whom he had 4 children. Sam their youngest child died tragically from an accidental fall in Portugal in 2000.
“Jonathan and Mary-Ann married in 1991. They have 5 children together, 3 boys and two girls. Two of their boys have sadly died, John was stillborn and Jack died at 22 months.
“Jack Irwin was born well in February 1996. He suffered a catastrophic collapse in the hospital nursery at couple of days of life and was resuscitated. Jack survived but sustained significant damage; Jack could not swallow and was probably blind and deaf. His parent’s dreams were shattered and the heartbreaking task of keeping Jack alive began.
“Jonathan describes how the Paediatrician at the hospital was brutal but honest. Asking for a route map of care for Jack once he left their intensive care unit, it was made clear that there were simply no services in Ireland available to a baby like Jack. The paediatrician cautioned that Jack’s needs would threaten their marriage and certainly damage the childhood of his healthy brothers and sister. To escape this trap, he advised the only way out was to get him admitted to one of the children’s hospitals. Then and only then would the State have to take responsibility for him. This was something the Irwin’s were not willing to do.
“Jack lived for 22 months – a desperate and painful life. A mix of drugs, physio, postural drainage, seizures, reflux operations, gastrostomy and suctioning. The only saving grace was that he was cosy and warm and nursed around the clock by a dedicated band of nurses from the neighbourhood in Kildare.
“His short life showed his parents the ideal way in which little children like Jack could be nursed at home. Jonathan and Mary-Ann co-founded the Jack & Jill foundation in 1997 based on their experience, providing children and families with what the Jack & Jill foundation calls the gift of time. Almost 1700 children and families, all over Ireland, have now received that care. Jack & Jill has 11 liaison nurses and is currently involved with over 300 families.
“I have heard Jonathan tell his story on the radio many times. He is a wonderful raconteur. I’ve always been enjoyed his humility; I’ve heard him describe himself as a rag and bone man as he collected old crutches or mobile phones. He always makes me laugh, he has sometimes made me cry but he mostly fills me with hope and possibility. His nurses have told me over the years ‘he is the man who says Yes! and then asks what is the question?’ I know that when we hear him on the airwaves he is only there because he needs our help. Jonathan has raised over 40 million euro for Jack & Jill winning accolades along the way such as Global fundraiser of the year in 2011.
“As I reflected on this citation I was struck by the contrasts of Jonathan’s life so far. He is an old Etonian and a broken-down Irish horse dealer (his words!). He has known privilege and success but also great personal tragedy. Recently he has openly discussed his own person experiences with cancer in an attempt to get others, men in particular, to go see their doctors early. Through everything his sense of optimism and hope has prevailed, along with Mary-Ann, they have taken their very personal experiences and asked; what would help to ease this pain for other children, other parents, other families? What good can we share from Jack’s life?
“I believe that in honouring Jonathan here today that we also honour the parents of all the children we see for their determination, emotional strength and relentless love. I know, and have known, many children, Richard, Rose, Saorise, Oran and Erin, to name a few, who along with their families have benefited from the care of Jack & Jill, who have benefitted from the short life of Jack Irwin, who have benefitted from the personal courage and positive attitude to life of Jonathan Irwin.
“Dean, it gives me great pleasure to recommend Jonathan Irwin to you for Honorary Fellowship of the Faculty of Paediatrics. Jonathan Irwin, can I ask you to declare your intention of Honorary Fellowship to the Dean.”