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IN-DEPTH: Mark Irish - Loss, Love And Learning On The Job

Spring sunshine beams in through the window of the Coombe Dingle pavilion as Mark Irish reflects on a period more challenging than any person should have to experience.

It’s just over 16 months since Irish’s young son, Reggie sadly passed away at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Southmead Hospital. But the 35-year-old is open, honest and admirably dignified when talking of his grave loss and how it has shaped his everyday outlook.

“It was a tough time for us as a family,” he says. “Little Reggie was born at 24 weeks and six days old, weighing just 689g and bless him, he worked his hardest to try and stay with us, but we lost him at 117 days old.”

“I kind of just live by the day now and take everything as it comes.

“The one thing that I’ve learned from the whole experience is don’t be afraid to speak your mind.

“If you’ve got something to say then say it. In those tough times you’ve got to ask some difficult questions, but one thing is for sure: I’ll never sit in meetings that will be as difficult as any of the ones I sat in at the hospital during that period.”

From the day Reggie was born and throughout his cherished life, Irish and his wife Clare set up camp by his bedside, ensuring one of them was present at all times. Mark, who had recently been appointed academy forwards coach, would head into training from the hospital and return the minute the session had finished. It worked as a release, a sanctuary, an escape.

“You never forget,” says Irish. “Reggie will always be a part of our family and he brought us so much joy in those 117 days he was with us.

“But work is a release for me, being around the place, being around the lads – it just takes you away from it for that period but it’s never gone from your thoughts.”

Listening to Irish talk so openly and bravely about Reggie and his family’s grieving process is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking, but he seems determined to see his son as a positive influence on his life.

He credits his wife, Clare for being supportive and understanding of his need to maintain rugby commitments during even the toughest of times, but admits his daily trip from the hospital to the training ground was an agonizing one.

"In those tough times you’ve got to ask some difficult questions, but one thing is for sure: I’ll never sit in meetings that will be as difficult as any of the ones I sat in at the hospital during that period.”

Mark Irish

“The hospital was a very intense place and Clare was in there all the time,” he says.

“The most difficult thing was that I was leaving Clare and Reggie to come into work, but I needed those little breaks, I needed to be able to go out and come back in.

“I’m so grateful to Robbo (Andy Robinson), Mike (Hall) and John Harrison; they were awesome with the support that they gave us as a family during that period. If I needed to go into hospital or do anything they said: ‘just go’ – there was never any problem with it, so credit to them, as people.”

Irish has vivid memories of his playing days but one of the more poignant ones is of a squad visit to Frenchay’s Children’s Hospital. He recalls seeing the parents there and only now does he know what they were going through.

“In your head you’re thinking about how difficult it must be for those parents in there, you don’t know until you’ve been in there,” he says.

“You go into places like that feeling like you don’t know enough about it, but when you’re in that situation, you really do know.”

Support for Irish and his family wasn’t restricted to people inside the club and the proud Bristolian is eternally grateful for the outpouring that has followed their loss. Irish sees it as a ringing endorsement of the rugby community’s ability to rally around one of its own in challenging times, whether offering an ear or simply some loose change.

“We set up a Just Giving page for Reggie to raise money for the charity Bliss. The page got to over £7,500 and there was a bucket collection at one of the games last Christmas that raised a lot of money, so we’re really grateful to all of the very generous people out there and it will be amazing to see how that money is spent, but more importantly how it will help families with premature and sick babies in the NICU.

“The Bristol Wanderers have been hugely supportive as well and raised an incredible amount of money for the cause.

“A group of ten of us also recently cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats for Motor Neurone Disease, so that was 20 months ago and was for my wife’s friend’s father, Brian Challenor, who has sadly now passed away. The name of the charity was ‘Cycle for Brian’ and we cycled the length of the country which was a lot of fun and for another worthy cause as well.”

Despite the heart-wrenching events of the past 16 months, Irish continues to thrive as a young, up-and-coming coach. He’s here at the Bristol University sports ground this week to work with the England Students side, in addition to his role as academy forwards coach at Ashton Gate.

The students are preparing for their second fixture of the season, which they would go on to lose 26-15 to France Students at Coombe Dingle, having scrambled to a 36-36 draw with Ireland the week previous. It’s Irish’s second year in both the students and Bristol Academy set-up and he’s enjoying every minute.

“I love my role with the academy, I love being in that development area. I’m ambitious with where I want to get to but I just want to learn.

“With the environment changing and Pat (Lam) coming in alongside other new coaches, it’s going to be an exciting place to be. I hope that myself - and Sean (Marsden) in the academy - can work with those guys and improve.

“With the England Students, we’re basically trying to get a season into 12 days, so probably the most difficult thing is the short turnaround,” says Irish.

“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to get everything in place. We had the trial day a few weekends ago and that was followed by further preparation in going out to watch the guys.

“The difficult thing with this process is that you’ve got to pull together so many different combinations from different universities and colleges – and to try and pull that together in such a short space of time is the biggest skill. It’s credit to some of the boys’ leadership skills that we’re able to do it.”

On the subject of credit, Mark Irish can take plenty for the discovery and development of two of Bristol’s brightest young talents: Sam Jeffries and Ollie Dawe, both of whom have had a sharp rise to prominence this season.

Loosehead Dawe was named in the U20 Six Nations team of the tournament after helping England U20 to a Grand Slam title, while Jeffries, a member of last season’s England Students squad, has quickly become a Premiership regular at Ashton Gate.

"I love my role with the academy, I love being in that development area. I’m ambitious with where I want to get to but I just want to learn."

Mark Irish

“It’s a prime example, isn’t it, of Sam playing in the England Students side, playing against Ireland, played against France and then dropping into a full-time environment at Bristol,” says Irish.

“He’s an intelligent man, a very good athlete and is now starting in the Premiership. For the boys in here, they see that it can happen and a large majority of the group want to play professional rugby.

“When myself and Mike Hall went to watch Ollie we just saw the fact that he was 18 years-old and playing loose head in National One. He’s pretty durable – plays week in, week out – and our question was: how much has he had put into him from an strength and conditioning perspective and a coaching point of view?

“He’s proved himself in his first season and gone on to do great things with England U20s this year. With Jeffers it was pretty similar.”

Irish played 146 times for Bristol during an eight-year career at the club and, as a player, is recognised as someone who gave his heart and soul for the blue and white hoops. As a coach, he is lauded for his personable approach, attention to detail and wealth of knowledge.

But as a person, Irish is someone who wrestled with the heartache of losing something so precious and bounced back, with great dignity and an inspiring outlook on life.

It’s the measure of the man.

By Will Carpenter.