As 2014 draws to a close, a small window of opportunity remains to remember another of the characters who never made it to the year’s end. In terms of character John Irwin was a larger than life Markets one in every sense of the word. For the most part he seemed not to battle with his weight but co-exist with it. At one point I think he topped the scales at around 50 stone.
The Jovial John attitude notwithstanding, that type of morbid obesity was something that was forever going to deny him the quality of life he merited. An inability to battle weight was always going to create a range of new battles in daily life. Even the most minor of tasks could at times be beyond him. Despite his philosophical attitude and laid back attitude, John’s journey was never easy because of the weight that more often held him down, than was carried about by him. Frequently, he would sit confined to the wheel of his car talking out to us rather than face the strain of emerging from it.
For a man that size he was always going to be the butt of jokes and this is what equipped him with such a swift and devastating return of serve. Like many others he learned to get by on his wits. Were it not for John’s quick tongue, social situations would have been much more uncomfortable. Once while sitting in a restaurant after a pony and trap meeting which he loved attending, his table was approached by young child. The boy stared and asked ‘Mister, is that your belly?’ When John replied that it was the child followed with ‘all of it?’ It might ring funny but the friend accompanying John that day often wondered why the parents, observing the exchange as if it was for their entertainment, did not call a halt to proceedings.
I had always known John by sight from childhood, having gone to St Colman’s school in Eliza Street with his younger brother. He was heavy then, “a man” to us even though he was only about 17. The first time I ever got to speak with him as an adult was in the living room of Tommy McReynolds' home on a Christmas parole from jail. Tommy was as a loyal a friend to John as he has been to me over the past 45 years. I would end up in his home on every parole as he always collected me from the jail. John reached out his hand to take mine and said ‘I’m pleased for you to meet me.’ I took to him instantly.
Despite his bulk he was always on hand to drive friends somewhere. Often he dropped myself and Tommy up to the airport as we set out for trips to Amsterdam, me regularly propped up with brandy before I even got into the car: back in the day when flying still had the capacity to unnerve me. John liked a drink himself but had this curious habit of putting such a small smidgen of water into his glass of Bush that I would opine about it not making the slightest bit of difference to the taste. The thing was neat. My opinion made not the slightest bit of difference to Big John, who chuckled and did the same for the next glass.
One evening he, along with me and Tommy McReynolds arrived in the Morning Star bar in Belfast City Centre. One of us was to attempt the 48 ounce challenge – to consume the stake. The bar staff said no one had yet accomplished it. The waiter, innocently presumptive, got ready to prepare John only to be told ‘it’s not me; it’s him’, pointing in my direction. When the night had ended and I had overcome the challenge aided by five or six pints of Smithwicks, John drove me to a PJ Harvey concert to join my wife already in the audience. He told me if I was fortunate enough to make it onto my feet I would not be able to do anything with them, swearing that despite his own appetite, the 48 ounces was beyond him.
That was Big John. Slow to move, quick to help. A man who never lost his wit until he lost his life.