Devastated mum of tragic teen John Irwin says family may never know what caused sudden death: 'We all held him tight... it was so hard to let him go'
A mother has described the heartbreaking moment she held the hand of her young son as he passed away, hours after collapsing at school.
John Irwin died in hospital last Wednesday morning - four days after celebrating his 16th birthday.
He had taken ill the previous afternoon at City of Armagh High School, where he was a popular Year 12 pupil.
His heartbroken mother Diane still does not know what caused her son, who she said was a fit and healthy teenager, to collapse.
In a moving interview, she recalled a "quiet and unassuming lad" with twinkling eyes and a boyish smile.
John had turned 16 the Saturday before he passed away.
A quiet but popular teenager, he loved working on the family farm near Tynan and attended St John's Parish Church every Sunday. The weekend before his death, he was helping his father Keith tend to sheep on the farm.
Diane recalled how John's highlight of the year had been the birth of a lamb from his pedigree ewes. The lamb was called Rambo.
John was a prefect at City of Armagh High, where staff recalled a pupil who was always kind, courteous and polite.
Diane said her son never had any health issues.
"He was a fit, healthy young lad and there was absolutely nothing wrong with him," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"I couldn't remember when he had last been sick.
"When I checked, it was 2004 when he was last with his own doctor. In fact, he wasn't even sick, he was in getting his pre-school jab.
"You can just imagine how fit he was. He seldom even had the flu, let alone anything else."
Last Tuesday John had attended school as normal, and had passed his sister in the corridor just minutes before collapsing.
Diane recalled the shattering moment when she received a call to say John was ill.
"I got the phone call at about 3pm," she continued.
"They had phoned and had actually got hold of Keith, and he phoned me. Keith said the school was looking for me and said that John had fainted.
"So I phoned the school back and got hold of one of the teachers who had been with him.
"I asked her had something happened to John, and she said, 'Mrs Irwin, where are you? We need you to come in now'.
"So I asked her what was wrong with John, and she said the paramedics were with him.
"I don't know why, but I asked was he breathing, and she said no."
Diane rushed to the school to be with her boy.
Two ambulances were already on the scene, with paramedics trying desperately to revive him. John was rushed to Craigavon Area Hospital, where medics continued to battle to save his life.
"I asked if they had a heartbeat, and at that time they hadn't," Diane added.
"They were continuing with CPR. There was a team of resus cardiologists and they tried everything, including shocks and adrenalin. Nothing was spared.
"And eventually we did get a heartbeat. We got him back for a while. We were able to get him stabilised and up to the intensive care unit.
"They had him in ICU for a while and of course we thought we had got John back - every parent's hope."
However, all too quickly that hope was cruelly shattered.
Doctors told Diane that her son's blood pressure was falling.
It became clear that they were losing him.
"They continued to increase the medication, but you get to a point where you can only do so much - I knew that," she added.
"They said they had been doing as much as they could, and so we began to understand that our time with John was short.
"At about 1.30 or 1.45 that morning we were told John was beginning to slip away.
"The family were all there. Our minister, Rev Matthew Hagan, was also there.
"At 5.25am John slipped away.
"The nurse had come in and told us it would not be long, and I had been holding John's hand the whole time.
"Just before he slipped away, Keith took his hand on the other side of the bed, and we had two children on either side.
"Every one of us held him - his arms, his hands.
"We just held him as he slipped away.
"And it was so surreal - so hard to let him go.
"But I know he was going to a better place.
"It was so peaceful. He wasn't in pain and he didn't suffer."
Diane said her family will always be grateful to the school staff, paramedics, and doctors and nurses who did everything they could to save John.
"The care he received was exceptional," she added.
John's funeral at the weekend was attended by hundreds of people.
City of Armagh High pupils formed a guard of honour for their friend's final journey.
Diane said the reality of losing John is only just setting in.
"Last night was the first night," she said.
"You try to get back to normality - get back to a normal family life - and I was just sitting on the sofa and I just thought to myself, 'This is real, John isn't coming back, he isn't coming through that door'.
"There is such a void in this house. John was a very quiet child, and anybody that you'll meet will tell you exactly the same thing about him.
"John could have sat in a room and not spoken. He would have listened to everyone else talking and he'd have said nothing. But then, when he did speak, it was worth listening to.
"He was such a quiet-natured young lad.
"Many a night here, after we'd finished the dinner and the dishes were still sitting there, he'd have said to his dad, 'Come on, we'll get up now and get these dishes done and give mummy a hand'.
"That was John. I'd have been washing dishes on my own and John would have just lifted the tea towel and come over and dried them."
John was due to sit his GCSEs this summer and had got a job at Dunbia Butchery Academy, which he was due to start in July.
The man who interviewed him had told his mother that she had "a real star" in John.
Diane described how she had been planning to help him with his revision.
"I would always be very involved in what my children do. I live my life through my children. Whatever they become involved in, I'm never very far behind," she added. "I would always have revised with my children. John was my fourth child to sit his GCSEs and I had it all planned in my head. My time was going to be dedicated to John until he had his GCSEs over.
"It was only last Wednesday, after John had passed away and we had come home, that the realisation sort of sunk in that I don't have that to do, and I can't believe that."
Diane recalled watching her son walk on to the bus to school last Tuesday. The next time she saw him, he was battling for his life in hospital.
Her final image is of her son at peace, resting in the funeral parlour with a smile, similar to the one he had while back at home with his family, tending his beloved sheep.
"We saw him in the funeral parlour, and he had the most beautiful smile, and I remember saying to my husband, 'He's smiling Keith. That's my John'," she continued. "That smile says so much to me.
"It shows he is at peace, and he's telling me, 'Mummy, don't worry about me'.
"It's such a comfort to have that smile."
Almost a week later, the cause of John's death is still a mystery.
Diane said they might never know what caused him to take ill.
"They have not been able to find anything," she added.
"We've been told it could be weeks or months - if they ever find anything. You've heard of stories where they never find anything.
"For me, my son is buried and that's it."
Diane said the family's deep Christian faith is helping them through the difficult days.
She takes comfort from the fact that John is in heaven.
"There is one more star in the sky and heaven has gained another shepherd," she added.
(A poem written by the
Irwin family in memory
A cheeky smile,
A twinkling eye,
A tilted head,
Things not said,
That’s wee John.
Five roasties or six,
A chocolate pudding,
Fried soda bread,
A pancake or two,
That’s wee John.
A well-hammed calf,
A Dachshund dog,
A sheep with a horn,
A stick from blackthorn,
That’s wee John.
A lively, lovable brother,
A helper to mother,
A fine loyal son,
A friend to all,
That’s wee John.