Hundreds of mourners packed Edenderry Methodist Church, and the ancillary halls of the church, to pay tribute to Niall Irwin, a much-loved family man who contributed much to the business life of Portadown and Northern Ireland in general.
The church was filled an hour before the start of the thanksgiving service - and that said much of the esteem in which 67-year-old Niall was held.
Niall, a director of the long-established family bakery firm of WD Irwin, died after an illness that he fought with much fortitude and courage and Portadown is very much the poorer for his passing.
Outside of business, he contributed much to the social and sporting life of the town and his many interests were represented by people from all over Ireland. It was indeed a thanksgiving service for a life well lived and the family have been encouraged by the hundreds of messages of support from all over the country.
One message in particular spoke volumes for the regard in which Niall was held. It came from a long-serving worker and it spoke of the love for him, mentioning in particular the Christmas morning phone calls he made every year to the workers. “That was typical of him,” said the letter. “He was much more than a boss to the workers. He cared for them and was always interested in their welfare. He often phoned many of them on Christmas morning to wish them well.”
During his childhood, the Irwin family lived at Woodhouse Street, beside the family bakery business.
Niall attended Portadown College and from an early age it was evident that he was keen to join the family bakery business.
In 1968, when he was 17, he moved to Leeds to attend Thomas Danby College to study City and Guilds Bakery Diploma. During his time there, he learnt extensive baking knowledge as he got access to a range of bakeries on the mainland, including small craft business and chocolatiers to larger plant bakeries and this knowledge would stand him in good stead for the future.
He returned home from Leeds in 1971 to begin his career as production manager in the family business. These were difficult times in Northern Ireland but there was a strict ‘no politics’ policy in the bakery and Niall and his father, Kenneth Irwin, ensured there was a workforce from all the community and the bakery still carries that ethos today.
Niall introduced new techniques and equipment and was always seeking methods to improve the bakery. He and his brother Brian, who joined the firm in 1976, established the Irwin brand as one of the most successful in the country.
He also contributed much to the bakery industry body, the Northern Ireland Bakery Council.
With Manufacturing NI he played a significant role in retaining the Industrial De-rating policy for local manufacturers.
Manufacturing Northern Ireland’s chief executive Stephen Kelly said, “Niall was enormously generous to many groups and causes, particularly in sharing his experience, time and considerable wisdom. And that was very evident in the campaign to retain the industrial derating.
“He enjoyed holding people to account and was a fierce advocate for the sector, ensuring that the conditions were right to allow firms to grow and to compete in markets at home and abroad and provide jobs. He contributed much in making great bread and bakery products and a better Northern Ireland.
“He will be hugely missed by all those who worked with him.”
Niall contributed his time generously to the Irish bakery trade. He was an energetic President of the Irish Association of Master Bakers in 2012 and he was held in such esteem in the bakery business throughout these islands that he was awarded Honorary Life Membership of the Scottish Bakers Association.
Last year he and brother Brian attended the Bakers Hall in London where they were both clothed in the Livery of the Worshipful Company of Bakers, giving them the honour of becoming Freemen of the City of London.
One of Niall’s biggest challenges was helping oversee Irwins bakery move from Woodhouse Street to new premises in Carn in 1994 and it says much of his and the other directors expertise that the move was made seamlessly with no loss of production.
Mr Michael Murphy, chief executive officer at Irwins, joined in the tributes and he said, “Niall was passionate about work and extending his family values to the people who worked in the bakery. We are very much a family business and Niall was at the heart of this.
“He was interested in everyone, no matter who you were, what you did or where you came from and he was always interested in seeing the young people progress. He would walk all the lines and by lunch-time he knew everything that was going on right across the business, both inside and out.
“He was enormously generous to many people, groups and causes, sharing his experience, time and considerable wisdom. He was the heart of the bakery and he will be greatly missed.”
As well as the bakery business, Niall took much pride at the progress of Irwin’s sand and aggregate business.
But his life wasn’t all about work and outside the bakery business he was generous with his time and money to many causes.
He travelled to Uganda in 2012 with Fields of Life and became involved with the Water Of Life projects raising money for water well drilling rigs. He also fundraised tirelessly for the Irish Bakers Benevolent Society.
On the sporting front he was President of Portadown Boat Club, where he was a driving force in the development of the club.
The service was conducted by the minister of Edenderry Methodist Church, the Rev Alan Wardlow and there was a reading by family friend, Peter Thompson. Wilson Graham was the soloist.
Niall is survived by his wife, Kay, sons Ross and Stewart, sister Lyn and brother Brian. He was predeceased by his parents, Kenneth and Patsy.
Ross said, “We have been greatly touched by all the tributes to Niall and we want everyone to know that we are very grateful for all the messages of sympathy.”
He is interred at Kernan Cemetery.
Donations in lieu of flowers are to Cancer Focus NI, c/o Milne Funeral Services, 59, Seagoe Road, Portadown, BT63 5HS.