It often happens that, when a devoted partner passes away after a long and fulfilling marriage, the one left behind feels that “life’s journey had run its course”.
This was the theme of a tribute paid on Saturday afternoon to Mr Jack Mulligan at his thanksgiving service in First Portadown (Edenderry) Presbyterian Church. He died last week, eight weeks to the day after the passing of Mrs Barbara Mulligan, his wife of 59 years.
The retired Portadown College teacher died in hospital after a long illness. He was 84 and taught PE, careers and geography. He was a talented rugby player and coach, playing at various levels – the senior game for Dungannon (and for Portadown during their decade at top level) and at junior level for Lurgan and Portadown. British Lion Rory Best, one of his charges at the College, called to see Jack in hospital, prior to travelling to New Zealand to play in the current All-Blacks series.
Jack is survived by daughter Deborah Mawhinney (husband Kenneth), sons Stephen (wife Kim) and Ashley (wife Sherryn), six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
There was a private family committal on Saturday morning. And in the afternoon, at the service of thanksgiving, son Stephen delivered the tribute, recalling how they had been blessed by two wonderful parents.
He stressed there were many facets to John Rodney (Jack) Mulligan, who was born on March 10, 1933, in Windsor Avenue, Lurgan – a devoted family man; a talented and fit sportsman; a teacher with a strong sense of vocation; a keen traveller; a singer and musician; a devout Christian.
He was the younger of two sons, born to Frances and Billy Mulligan, and remained close to brother Norman who spent most of his adult life in London. Their father was a railway man, and the family moved to Belleek, County Fermanagh and later to Cootehill, County Cavan. It was, according to Stephen, in Cavan that they learned to run like the wind (and to protect themselves) as the local lads didn’t seem to take too kindly to the Northerners!
Their mother, Frances, died from TB in 1942 (she was buried in Cootehill). Their granddad later remarried and they returned to Lurgan, with the sons going to Methodist College. Jack boarded for three years – he watched the wartime bombs rain down on Belfast, and later returned to Lurgan where he met Barbara.
Stephen told mourners at First Portadown, “From school, our dad headed to Stranmillis to train as a teacher, before taking up a post in Carrick PS and then Dromore PS.
“Mum and dad married in 1957. His heart was set on teaching PE so they moved to Belfast while dad completed some further studies at Stranmillis and then it was off, west of the Bann to Cookstown High School, before coming to Portadown College in 1964. By that stage, they had two children in tow. Dad absolutely loved his job at the College. It was never a case of ‘throw them a ball, or just pick two teams and play a game, but always a proper lesson’.
“He never did a job half-heartedly. It is no coincidence that Deborah, Ashley and I all became teachers because we saw his example, his influence and his enjoyment in his work. Nor was it a coincidence that so many boys over the years have gone on to be PE teachers.”
At 18, he made Lurgan Rugby Town Firsts, winning the Towns Cup and, over the next few years, won trophies with Lurgan, King’s Scholars, Dungannon and Portadown. He played in over 20 cup finals at Ravenhill, captaining a number of sides to league and cup success.
Portadown rugby stalwart Marshall Matchett, recalling Jack’s speed and brilliance of thought, said that he played for a marvellous Dungannon side (League and Cup winners) which included Ulster players like Ken Armstrong, Alan Jackson and John Attridge - “he was a marvellous winger or centre”.
“Jack also played a major role during Portadown’s years at senior level, as a super player and coach,” said Marshall. “He was a dedicated and principled expert at coaching and playing the game.” He also recalled that Jack, an all-round sportsman, had a trial with Leicester City at one stage.
Stephen recalled a trip to France where the referee was “a trifle biased”. Jack was immaculately suited, as ever, even in the sweltering heat. Stephen said, “The College were getting battered… literally. Ashley had just had his nose broken and things were not going well. So, dad took off the jacket, walked onto the pitch, and told the referee he was going to handle the rest of the match, or else the game was over!”
He also played volleyball, and in 1975 - along with other teachers - was instrumental in setting up the NI Volleyball League and captained NI for a number of years in the late 70s.
He loved basketball, playing and helping set up a club in Cookstown, coaching school teams, and in later years introduced the game in First Portadown. And he was also instrumental in helping Polish migrants to form a team.
They needed a place to practice on a Monday nights. Edenderry saw the opportunity to reach out to these men and Jack jumped at the chance to be get the tracksuit on again. “After all he was only 75!” said Stephen. “Real friendships blossomed and dad looked forward to those times each week.” His wife often pleaded with him to give up, but he refereed and played right up until he was 83!
His travel bug was nurtured by an overland five-week trip to India in 1969 - via, Scotland, England Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – when he led three staff and five boys in two VW Dormobiles. They did the same thing a few years later, the purpose being to provide and deliver ambulances to mission hospitals in India. His book ‘Indian Summer’ tells the story of this adventure. After this, in the 1980s, came rugby tours to Romania, Portugal, France, Italy, Holland and Switzerland.
Jack and Barbara’s travel adventures continued when he retired in 1996. They became involved with Aldor Holidays, taking groups of people all around the world. Jack lead the group, and Barbara, a nurse, looked after everyone. They took groups to Canada, USA, South Africa, Israel as well as numerous UK and European destinations. They also travelled to Nepal as recently as 2009.
“We are really blessed that, throughout his period of illness, dad’s actual suffering was relatively limited,” said Stephen. “Not long after his diagnosis I went with him and mum to meet with the consultant. He gently explained dad’s illness and that there was no proposed treatment. He indicated, his best opinion on life expectancy. Dad, thanked him, but assured him that he would not die a single day before God, his Saviour, had planned it, and before his purposes were fulfilled.
“As a family, we have had some of the most precious times imaginable in recent days with dad. We want to acknowledge the care and attention that both mum and dad received over recent months in Lisniskey Residential Home and appreciate the presence of staff here today for this service. We also want to acknowledge the dedication of Deborah and Kenneth in looking after mum and dad over the past year.
“In addition, we want to thank the staff of Lurgan Hospital who were so exceptional with dad and with us, in recent weeks. Caring for him to the highest of standards and allowing him to journey those final days with dignity.”
The service of thanksgiving was conducted by Rev Robin Brown, minister at First Portadown, with Joan McKittrick presiding at the organ. Hymns were ‘When I Survey’, ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Thine Be the Glory’.
Donations in lieu of flowers are to the Lurgan Hospital Patients’ Comforts Fund, c/o Ian Milne Funeral Directors, Seagoe Road, Portadown.