John Dowling: Big celebration of life of Sheffield champion race walker and Irish music lover

A huge wake has been planned to celebrate the life of a much-loved member of Sheffield’s Irish community and champion athlete.

By Julia Armstrong
Thursday, 24th February 2022, 9:05 am

John Dowling, also known as Jack, died aged 93 in hospital, surrounded by his family, following a long illness.

He had an amazing career as an ultra-distance walker and holds the record as the only person to have walked both the length of Ireland and from John O’Groats to Land’s End, one of many records he held.

Able to complete race walks of 100 miles in under 24 hours – he raced six or seven times a year – he was selected to take part in big events such as the famous Paris to Roubaix race walking challenge and the Race of the Century, a 1,000-mile event in New York in 1988.

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Long-distance walker John Dowling, when he was 80 and taking part in the Great Yorkshire Run to raise funds for St Luke's Hospice in August 2009

John turned up alone, without the back-up that other competitors had, and it is widely acknowledged that he should have been an Olympic athlete. His niece Madge O’Callaghan made a radio documentary about him, called My Uncle Jack.

He said in the documentary that his first impression of Sheffield was that it was a dark place but he grew to love it.

She traces the story of John’s race-walking career and gruelling early years, taken away from his widowed father, aged five, and put in an orphanage. Aged 11, he went from that happy time to the brutal Greenmount Industrial School in Cork, where he suffered terrible violence, finally managing to get away as a teenager.

John later campaigned for justice and met Irish president Mary McAleese to receive an apology for what happened. He was compensated by the Residential Institutions Redress Board, which looked into the abuse suffered by children in industrial schools and other institutions.

Musician John Dowling pictured at the Dog and Partridge pub, Sheffield with a painting of him by artist Keith South, pictured with landlady Ann Flynn, in November 2008

When is John Dowling’s funeral?

John, who lived in Gleadless Valley, came to Sheffield in 1949 from Waterford in Ireland to work as a miner. He didn’t like the pits and, following a spell in the RAF, became an insurance agent. A chance meeting with someone who saw his potential led to his race-walking career, firstly as a member of Sheffield United Harriers.

John also used his sporting ability over the years to raise many thousands of pounds for charities including the NSPCC and for St Luke’s Hospice, which looked after his daughter Theresa when she was terminally ill with cancer.

He and late wife Dorothy, who he met in Sheffield, would have been married for 70 years this month. Dorothy, who was deaf and wrote the first children’s book featuring British Sign Language, died 11 years ago. The couple had four children – Pat, Robert, who also died from cancer, Theresa and Jacquie.

Pictured at the National Centre for Popular Music, Paternoster Row, Sheffield, where traditional Irish music workshops were being held, organised by the Sheffield Irish Forum. John Dowling is seen, second right, with fellow musicians including Phil Brown, Brian Howard, Steve Flude, Dermot Carney, Danny Meehen and Diz Feeley

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The family stretched over five generations with the arrival of John's great great grandson, Oscar. He also leaves 13 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren.

John was very well known as a singer, musician and music teacher in the Irish tradition. For decades he played in Monday night sessions at the Sheffield Irish Centre in Pitsmoor, the Dog and Partridge and most recently at The Grapes, both on Trippet Lane.

Bucket list trip with Sheffield Eagles

John Dowling, who has died aged 93 in Sheffield, pictured at his confirmation aged 13. He was then a residential pupil at the notorious Greenmount Industrial School in Cork in his native Ireland, where he suffered terrible abuse like many children in institutions at the time

One of John’s other sporting passions was rugby club Sheffield Eagles, of which he was a lifetime member. His daughter Pat Crabtree remembered that in 2019 John, who by then was suffering poor health, managed to travel to Wembley to see them beat Widnes Vikings in the RFL 1895 Cup.

The trip was on his bucket list, along with a special visit home.

Pat said: “A couple of years ago, for his 90th birthday, we took him to Ireland for his ‘existing wake’, a party with his relatives. He had a really bad chest infection. He wanted to go but he was was really ill when he got there.

“He sat there and played music and really enjoyed the craic!”

The same determination got John to The Grapes every week for his music sessions. The last one was shortly before his death.

Pat said: “The wonderful stories that I've had since my dad died - everybody saying the inspiration that that man’s been in Sheffield, what’s he’s done for the Irish community, the money he’s raised for charities and St Luke’s.”

John Dowling, who has died in Sheffield aged 93, at Sheffield Town Hall, where a civic reception was held in celebration of St Patrick's Day 2009. He is pictured, right, with the Lord Mayor Coun Jane Bird and editor of The Star Alan Powell

John’s funeral will take place at Hutcliffe Wood Crematorium on March 11 at 11am and his wake at The Grapes will be filled with the live music he loved. Landlady Ann Flynn is putting up a marquee outside the pub with Guinness bars to cope with the crowds.

John Dowling, who has died in Sheffield aged 93, with his great great grandson Oscar
John Dowling, who has died in Sheffield aged 93, at his 'existing wake' with his Irish family three years ago on his 90th birthday
John Dowling, who has died in Sheffield aged 93, at one of his 'bucket list' events - watching Sheffield Eagles play at Wembley Stadium in 2019