GAA Football

Where are they now? The life and times of former Derry captain Joe Irwin

Joe Irwin (back, second from left), when he was captain of the Derry football team in 1985
Neil Loughran

Joe Irwin (Derry)

Age: 59

Club: St Matthew’s, Drumsurn

Position: Centre half-back

When did you play for Derry? 1980-1991

What do you do nowadays?

I was a roofing joiner but I suffered a spinal injury in 2013 and lost the power of my left leg. I was in a wheelchair and there was a possibility I might not walk again, but after 11 months I battled my way back out of it.

I had a fall from a scaffold about seven or eight years previous and had broken a disc in my back but didn’t know it, x-rays didn’t pick it up.

I ended up collapsing up at the football field in Drumsurn one night and a fragment of the disc when down to my spinal cord and paralysed me.

I never had an injury playing Gaelic football, I kept myself in good shape, but I was lucky I had a very good physio, Jacqui Doherty from Eglinton. She knew my history and she told me ‘if anybody’s going to get out of this chair, you’ll get out of it’.

Are you still involved in Gaelic football?

I haven’t been involved in the football this last four or five years but, to keep my mind right and keep me from going crazy, myself and my daughter Katrina took over the Drumsurn camogie team three years ago, although we’re not doing it this year. We’d a really enjoyable time and we ended up winning a junior championship last year for the first time in 17 years.

What do you remember about your first game for Derry?

It was a League game against Kildare in Ballinascreen, I started off at corner-back and we won by two points. I did nothing wrong, did everything simple and that’s what I was always taught to do.

I’d waited nearly a year to get onto the team, and when I got in I was in for a long time and I was totally committed to being in. I was proud there was a Drumsurn man on the team.

What’s your best memory from your playing days?

Without a doubt, the All-Ireland semi-final in 1987 [v Meath]. It was so special to play in Croke Park and represent my club, which was something I had a passion for all my life. I just lived for Drumsurn.

When we used to have county matches, there’d be no such thing as me staying behind for a dinner – I came straight back home. If the bus wasn’t coming home early, I’d have taken my car to get home and play.

I remember when I went out on to Croke Park that day just thinking ‘I’m not going to let Drumsurn down here’. We lost and it’s devastating, you don’t get over those things easily.

But that’s part and parcel of sport.

You either prepare to lose or don’t play the game at all.

And the worst?

We lost three intermediate finals with the club, and that’s soul-destroying. The one with Derry would be the Ulster final we lost in ’86 against Donegal – we didn’t turn up that day at all.

We learnt by our mistakes and I think that’s why we went on and won the Ulster final in ’87. A beaten team’s hurting, and we were more determined the next year.

Biggest character you played with?

Eunan Rafferty was a club-mate and he played in the latter stages when I was playing for Derry – he was a powerful motivator, and a great friend of mine.

Me and Tony Scullion were big buddies too, we roomed together and motivated each other. He was some craic - I remember the morning of the 1987 semi-final lying sleeping in hotel in Malahide and I heard a noise.

I woke up, looked at the clock and it was 6am, Tony was doing sit-ups and he said ‘hey, come on and we’ll go for a walk, I’m too nervous to sleep’, so the two of us were walking around Malahide from early in the morning.

Are you glad you played in your era rather than today?

Oh, without a doubt. They don’t trust the players today. Why have six forwards in a team when you won’t kick the ball to them? I could never imagine playing in a team with the likes of Greg Blaney, Eugene McKenna, Frank McGuigan – boys I played with in the Railway Cup - and not giving them the ball. That doesn’t stand to sense.

Any regrets?

Not continuing on for another couple of years with the county team. I was 33 when I finished, but I had got to the stage where the training got on top of me. It got to the point where the body just couldn’t take it any more, but I had a lot of great times.

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