Jonathan Irwin obituary: Charismatic Jack and Jill founder had a life ‘full of highs, lows and in betweens’

Bloodstock industry pioneer and children’s charity CEO is remembered as imaginative, persuasive, debonair and a true one-off

Born: June 21st, 1941

Died: December 10th, 2023

Jonathan Irwin, who has died aged 82, challenged narratives in two wildly different area of human life: how to “do” the thoroughbred racehorse industry and how to provide first-class respite care in health services, with the launch in 1997 of the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation.

Born in 1941 in wartime England, his parents John and Philippa (née Stanley-Clarke) Irwin were both actors. John later became a television producer.

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Irwin’s education at Eton College only came about as a result of his having a close relative who was a teacher there, but he loved it.

After a year reading history at Trinity College Dublin, he left, taking a job at a small bloodstock agency in Dublin, which was to have a decisive effect on the course of his life. Despite knowing nothing about horses, he was deeply fortunate to have as boss and mentor a former RAF pilot, Tim Vigors, who sent him to work as a groom to learn the basics of how to present a racehorse for sale.

Vigors was then developing the idea of expanding into the previously untapped US market, shipping Irish yearlings there and conducting some of the biggest deals in stallion sales of the time. Enthused, a 25-year-old Irwin established the first magazine for Irish bloodstock, The Irish Horseman, and began to explore something which his British rivals, such as the market leaders Tattersall’s, would not contemplate in the late 1960s: developing the Japanese market for bloodstock.

But to build this new business, Irwin had a problem. Ireland lacked the capital to compete. He conceived a game-changing idea, which became the Irish Stallion Investors’ Scheme (ISIS). He put together a small group of like-minded people to approach the then minister for finance, Charles Haughey, to persuade him to make income from stallion breeding tax free. Haughey, whom Irwin described as “highly intelligent”, immediately saw the potential of the idea and reformed the 1969 Finance Act to enable it.

The consequences were phenomenal, with ISIS eventually developing into the European Breeders’ Fund. Ireland was transformed into the Kentucky of Europe and, arguably, the most important thoroughbred horse-breeding country in the world.

The scheme was later heavily criticised as a subsidy for the super-rich and Irwin welcomed the reform of it in the 2007 Finance Act.

In 1973 the RDS was about to sell its leasehold site in Ballsbridge, threatening the future of Goffs, long the most important Irish bloodstock sales agency*.

Irwin, by then recognised as something of a wunderkind, put together a syndicate – which included the renowned American racehorse investor Robert Sangster – to buy the company and move it to a totally new site in Co Kildare, with purpose-built, modern facilities.

Within a year the plan was realised and a totally new Goffs was launched under the chairmanship of Patrick W McGrath, with a radically shaken-up way of doing business. An early version of sales conducted globally by telecast and high-end entertainment allowed it to attract clients who flocked to Kildare from around the world. Prices rocketed upwards, and by the early 1980s Goffs was a global player.

Irwin’s innovations included the Cartier Million races at the Phoenix Park racecourse, which became the first-ever $1 million sports prize fund in Europe. A hugely valuable event confined to graduates of the Goffs sales ring, the model is still replicated today.

However, the 1990s were to bring him in a totally new direction. He spent a brief period as marketing director with Ryanair. But then personal tragedy of a particularly acute sort struck him and his wife Mary Ann O’Brien when one of their twin boys, John, died before birth.

Their next son, Jack, was born in 1996 and developed severe brain damage due to complications shortly after this birth, which left him without sight or hearing, and reliant on a feeding tube because he was unable to swallow.

Discovering to their added horror that there were no respite services in Ireland then available to families in their situation, they set up the Jack and Jill foundation to provide just such a service to any family, regardless of background or circumstances. Jack died in 1997, aged 22 months.

Using his remarkable networking and business skills, Irwin became CEO of the charity, with a policy of recruiting a team of, as he described it “warm paediatric nurses” with both the right expertise and the right attitude to help such families.

His life was once again marked by unimaginable tragedy when his teenage son by his first marriage to Mikaela (née Rawlinson), Sam, was killed in a freak accident in Portugal.

Irwin persevered, and in 2003 the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation received the Charity of the Year Award from then taoiseach Bertie Ahern; in 2011 it received both the Irish and the Global Fundraiser of the Year Awards. He was also involved in Dublin International Sports Council and the Special Olympics and, more recently, the Horses of Hope Equine Centre at Castlerea Prison.

Irwin’s model for patient care, the current CEO of Jack and Jill, Carmel Doyle, told The Irish Times this week, was “that the money follows the patient”, not the individual institution supposedly providing the service. This emphasis often brought him into what Doyle described as “a healthy tension” with the HSE. Receiving only 20 per cent of its funding from that source, the charity raises the rest itself.

A statement from the foundation described Irwin as “unique”. He was, it continued: “Articulate, charismatic, debonair, persuasive, driven, imaginative, flamboyant; a true one-off and the ultimate showman.”

In a piece for The Irish Times in 2015 about writing his memoir, Irwin said: “It is a bittersweet story. A glittering nightmare. Full of highs, lows and in betweens. Some nights I would be beyond exhausted after spilling the story and reliving the nightmare of losing three precious sons, John, Jack and Sam.”

Irwin is survived by Mary Ann and their children, Lucy, Phonsie and Molly, and by his first wife, Mikaela, and their surviving children, Pirate, Jago and Luke.

*This article was amended on January 24th, 2024

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