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Joe – I hardly knew ye….but

November 1, 2013

J J McPartlin, Scotland, Harlequins, Barbarians, captain of Oxford University, teacher and raconteur, has died in Folkstone, aged 75.


Joe was also my cousin – well to be precise, my second cousin, and, though I met him only once – and even that is a dim memory and maybe false, he was one of my heroes.

His grandfather and mine were brothers who emigrated from Co Leitrim. Eventually, my granddad settled in Edinburgh, and his in Glasgow. The families kept in close contact through the next generation. As cousins, Joe’s dad and mine were very friendly, and I have good memories of my Uncle George staying with us when I was a child.

All things move on, however, and with the passage of time and the vagaries of geography, my generation of the family is more distanced. For all that, Joe has long figured in my thoughts.

In my first year at secondary school, I suffered from an overbearing English teacher. I liked English, but this guy terrified me. It didn’t help that he was a burly rugby player at county level – and he knew my one game of schools rugby had converted me to cross country running! However, one morning my mother gave me a clipping from the paper. It was a paragraph stating that Oxford Blue, JJ McPartlin, had been selected to play for Scotland v France at Murrayfield.

“That’s your cousin,” she said, “show your English teacher. He might be interested.”

It was an inspired piece of mum psychology and my relationship with the teacher was transformed. Over the years, as Joe played for Harlequins and the Barbarians, my teacher and I would have wee chats about his progress. The teacher was also a centre, and so was particularly interested. I, on the other hand, had no idea what he was talking about, but nodded often and made reference to games I had noted in which Joe was playing. Though strictly speaking he was my second cousin, I was more than proud to claim him as merely ‘cousin’.

Many years later, playing cricket for Holy Cross in Edinburgh, a relatively new player was chatting about education. Noting my name, he said, out of the blue:
“ McPartlin? You related to Joe McPartlin, the rugby player.?”
I was delighted to point out the connection, whilst admitting we weren’t in touch.

“Well”, he said. “He was an inspirational teacher and I’ll never forget the time I had with him in the classroom and on the playing fields. A great man!”

I know, as a teacher myself, how hard won, yet sincere, such statements are, and here was another reason to be proud of ‘Cousin Joe’.

Though not a rugby fan at all, living almost in the shadow of Murrayfield, it’s impossible not to pick up some of the buzz on international weekends. I became aware of Joe’s other fame as a commentator on the game, an after dinner speaker, and a man with a rare turn of phrase. Folk who knew the connection commented on his skill as a centre – The Scotsman’s Norman Mair wrote: he was ‘the complete centre-three-quarter; master of the half-break and the perfectly timed pass.’ His bons mots were widely quoted: a conversion was described as ‘the greatest conversion since St Paul”, his coruscating take on those who played after him for Oxford University: “I’ve seen better centres in a box of Black Magic”.

Coincidentally, about a decade ago, my brother-in-law and his wife went to live near Oxford. The route along the Woodstock Rd to their village from the town centre passes an impressive school set in extremely well appointed playing fields. I never pass the place, as a teacher myself, without commenting on how good it must be to work in a school with such great facilities. I have now discovered that, unknown to me, that school, St Edward’s, was where Joe taught for his whole career – another link uncovered!

When my son enquired about applying for a place at Oxford University, it was St Edmund’s Hall, Joe’s old college, that he approached. I have often walked in its quad and wondered if I could sense my cousin’s presence there. To be honest, though, I had a keener sense of him when I visited the Iffley Rd sports complex, where Roger Bannister ran the first 4 minute mile and where the university rugby club are based!

Although we weren’t in contact, Joe was present in many areas of my life – teaching, sport, my attempts at after dinner speaking. Without his ‘influence’ over my English teacher and the upturn in our classroom relationship, I may not have ended up taking an English degree – who knows!

In a final, comforting, connection, it happened to be my son, now an online journalist, who received the news of Joe’s passing and put up the first words about his life on the net. A bitter sweet moment.

Joe McPartlin was a larger than life character – whose influence – as a sportsman, teacher and raconteur – touched many lives. I am proud to be his relation and will continue to be inspired by his achievements and accomplishments.

Like all such characters, he had his faults, I’m sure, but, arriving at the Pearly Gates, I know he has the quickness of both word and feet to sell St Peter a dummy, and go sailing through. I only hope he can get his dad off the celestial golf course and into the 19th Hole.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alistair Cane permalink
    November 20, 2013 10:00 pm

    Sean, an excellent post. I had the privilege of being ‘taught’ by JJMcP at ‘Teddies’ in the 80’s – although with more success on the Rugby pitch than in the Geography classroom. His memorial service was packed to the rafters and you may like to read the many comments in tribute on the St Edward’s LinkedIn page:

    You were right to be proud of him – he was a great man.
    All the best

  2. PPat O'Neill permalink
    August 3, 2014 8:41 pm

    My family knew Joe socially later in his retirement and he was indeed a wonderful man. Full of stories about his extraordinary life. Have watched many a six nations match in his company. He is sadly missed in our house.
    Pat O’Neill

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