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Coronavirus: We can't give dad the funeral he'd planned, says grieving daughter of Ulster rugby hero James Stevenson


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James with his late wife Gwen

James with his late wife Gwen

James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

James with his late wife Gwen

James with his late wife Gwen

James with grandchildren Pamela and Christopher

James with grandchildren Pamela and Christopher

James with his late wife Gwen

The heartbroken daughter of former Ulster and Ireland rugby star James Stevenson, who died from Covid-19, has said she still cannot believe the disease took him so quickly from the people who loved him.

Mr Stevenson, a highly respected ex-principal of Belvoir Primary School in Belfast and better known to his friends as 'Stevie', was 91 years old but even though doctors gave him only a 50/50 chance of survival, his family were convinced he would pull through.

The powerful lock forward from the late 1950s, however, passed away in the early hours of Wednesday morning at Lagan Valley Hospital.

His daughter Nicola Anderson (56), a retired banker, told the Belfast Telegraph how she had visited his hospital bedside wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) a week before his death, adding that she never thought it would be the last time she saw him alive.

"Before he was admitted to Lagan Valley I used to visit him every single day to keep his spirits up and to make sure he was all right, especially after mum died in 2012," she said.

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James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

"It was very difficult not being able to be with him at the end because of this awful situation."

Nicola last saw her father "for a couple of minutes" on April 21.

"He was on oxygen and I was fully gowned up so it was hard to say whether he recognised me or not," she said.

"At that point the doctors had given him a fighting chance of survival; it was only at the beginning of this week that they said they thought he wasn't going to make it.

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James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

James Stevenson in his rugby playing days in the 1950s

"I always believed he was going to get better so losing him like this was a tremendous shock."

She added: "If it had been normal circumstances I would have been sitting with him all the time ... and I would have been able to say goodbye."

Mr Stevenson, who attended Harding Memorial Primary School and then Belfast Royal Academical Institution (Inst), won nine caps for Ireland in 1958, playing alongside the likes of Syd Millar, Jack Kyle and Tony O'Reilly.

His debut came in a Test against Australia at Lansdowne Road - a no-holds-barred match Ireland won 9-6 in front of 33,000 fans.

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James with his late wife Gwen

James with his late wife Gwen

James with his late wife Gwen

He later became an administrator with the Ulster branch of the IRFU, and then chairman, before ultimately becoming its president.

The father of two, who lived in Drumbo, Co Down and qualified as a teacher in 1948, had lost his 80-year-old wife Gwen to ovarian cancer in 2012.

Nicola, who is married to former Invest NI employee Graham (65), with whom she has 27-year-old twins Pamela and Christopher, told how her parents had actually "planned their funerals" shortly before her mum died.

With a private service due to take place today, Nicola said she was disappointed that, unfortunately, she "definitely couldn't" give him the send-off the family wanted.

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James with grandchildren Pamela and Christopher

James with grandchildren Pamela and Christopher

James with grandchildren Pamela and Christopher

"It's only going to be my brother Peter's family and my family there," she said.

"But we hope to have some sort of memorial service if things ever get back to normal."

Nicola, who was extremely close to her dad, said he was a "gentleman" who "wouldn't have hurt a fly" despite being "such a big, strong rugby player".

She also admitted that she is dealing with her grief by "taking one day at a time".

Mr Stevenson's son Peter (60), a special needs classroom assistant who was diagnosed with a brain tumour two years ago, said his dad was "very independent" and had lived alone since his beloved mum died.

He explained that he was taken to Lagan Valley Hospital after initially being given a Covid-19 diagnosis at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald on Easter Wednesday.

Peter also revealed that Van Morrison was a pupil of his father when he taught at Orangefield Boys' Secondary School, before he subsequently became principal at Knockbreda Primary School for half a decade and then head of Belvoir Park Primary School for 25 years.

Peter's wife Karen, a school vice-principal with whom he has two children, Simon (23) and Benjamin (21), said her father-in-law had "a full life", adding that he was a "true inspiration to his grandchildren".

During the mid Seventies, Mr Stevenson, a grandfather of four, joined the IRFU Charitable Trust - a group which helps and supports seriously injured players - on which he served for 11 years.

Following on from his parents, who were members of The Mount Salvation Army, Mr Stevenson played in several brass bands and was recently made the honorary president of Dundonald Community Concert Band.

In a memoir penned before his death, Mr Stevenson, a keen swimmer and water polo player in his youth, affectionately recalled the first time he met his late wife Gwen in Portrush on the north coast.

"He was taking part in a swimming and diving display at the Blue Pool," he said, referring to himself in the third person.

"I believe he was wearing a ladies frock and carrying an umbrella as he went off the top board."

He told how the happy couple later married at Stormont Presbyterian Church in 1955, welcoming Peter and Nicola into the world in 1959 and 1963 respectively.

"From the start of their marriage they formed an excellent partnership," he wrote.

"Stevie was the practical DIY man, Gwen was the administrator. She managed their passage through life."

Referring to his interests other than rugby, Mr Stevenson said he "had passion for brass bands" and said he was a "reasonable player" having started out "as a seven-year-old in the Salvation Army".

Finally, he described himself as "a man of many interests, energetic on the playing field, able in his profession of education and a pleasant social friend".

Elaine Barr, owner of Willowfield Private Funeral Home, paid tribute to Mr Stevenson, her former headmaster at Belvoir PS and a friend.

A celebration of Mr Stevenson's life will be held later.

Belfast Telegraph