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Tributes to Arnie Clarke who drowned in desperate bid to save dog in Co Down river

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Arnie Clarke with partner Nichola

Arnie Clarke with partner Nichola

Arnie Clarke with partner Nichola

A close friend of a man who lost his life suddenly at Tollymore Forest Park has told how he died saving his pet dog.

Arnie Clarke (56) entered the swollen Shimna River near Newcastle, Co Down, on Thursday. It is understood he slipped as he tried to rescue the dog after it got into difficulties.

Mr Clarke, an Antrim native, who had been living and working for Michelin in the Pays de la Loire region of western France, had been out walking with his partner and her mother when the tragedy occurred.

Gerard McAuley, a former manager of Antrim FC who had known Arnie for over 40 years, said his friend's death was a great shock and a source of devastation for everyone who knew him.

"No-one had a bad word to say about Arnie, he'll be missed by a lot of people," he said.

"He was supposed to be heading back to France next week for a short time before coming back home for good.

"It's an unbelievable tragedy."

Mr Clarke, who was well-known in sporting circles, entered the water after slipping as he tried to rescue the dog.

"His dog went in and he went in after it and saved it - that was the type of him," said Mr McAuley.

"He'd gone walking at Tollymore Forest Park with Nichola and her mother. He wasn't someone who took the dog for a walk down the street. He loved to go places."

Mr McAuley said Mr Clarke, who previously worked at the Michelin plant in Ballymena, was planning to enjoy his forthcoming retirement in a new home in Antrim when he returned to Northern Ireland.

Describing his friend as a "character", Mr McAuley said he did not know anyone who knew Arnie and didn't like him.

"He was Leeds United mad and he loved rugby too - he was probably home for the Six Nations," he said.

"Arnie loved life and he was full of life. There's a photo of him on Facebook sitting in a bath outside sipping a pint of Guinness - that just sums him up!"

Both Antrim FC and St Comgall's GAA paid tribute to Mr Clarke following his sudden death.

A statement from Antrim FC said: "Arnie played a lot of games for the club and he was a tenacious battler in our midfield for a number of few years, he was a great trainer and all-round club man.

"He did not like to be beat on or off the pitch. While living in France he would often ask about FC results and was due to finish in a couple of months.

"He will be missed by all who knew him. You just never know what tomorrow holds."

St Comgall's GAA Club's Facebook page referred to everyone's "great sadness" at their friend's passing.

"He came through the juvenile ranks at the club and was a senior by the age of 17/18," it said.

"He never missed training and always loved a challenge both on and off the pitch.

"Arnie always loved the craic after the game was over.

"He had always looked after himself and could be seen walking his beloved dog when he was home from France. He only had a few more months to do with Michelin and he would have been home for good."

Mr Clarke's funeral is due to take place on Monday.

A spokesman for the NI Ambulance Service said they had been called to the incident just after 2pm on Thursday.

A second man was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital, but his condition is not understood to be life-threatening.

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