The life and death of Joe Owens

The plaque erected in honour of Joe Owens

Joseph Charles (Joe) Owens was born in Strokestown, Roscommon Ireland in 1941. As he approached manhood he was confronted with a scourge common to so many young Irishmen during the period 1940 to the mid 1970s – unemployment. There were no Celtic tigers flashing their stripes across Ireland’s hills and by ways back then. There was, instead, an environment of depression which witnessed mass immigration of the cream of Ireland’s youth to many lands in search of a job. The chosen spot for the vast majority was the old foe – perfidious Albion.

Joe arrived in London circa 1959 and found employment with building contractors such as Wimpe, The Green Murphy and John Lang. Being an Irish Folk fanatic Joe often frequented to Irish pubs where musical legends such as Margaret Barry, Paddy (the pecker) Dunneand a young folk group The Dubliners (who later went on to become world famous) charmed the hearts of the sons of Roisin Dubh.

Following a number of return visits to Ireland and working periods of up to six months at a time in England, Joe finally migrated to Australia in 1965. His first job in the antipodes was at Mt Tom Price in Western Australia. His next stop was Melbourne where he worked in a variety of occupations, principally painting and rigging. He spent 6–8 months working in Bougainville (PNG) before he returned to Melbourne to live and work out the remainder of his life.

I recall visibly at this point in his life Joe was fast becoming a very much sought after entertainer in Irish venues. He was extremely adept on the guitar and tin (penny) whistle and knew more songs than any singer I have ever known. The years of listening to and learning songs from the people mentioned above and included others, provided him with the ability to take us down musical avenues that we had never known existed. Joe ‘had more front than Dolly Parton’. Nothing angered him, nothing! He was always composed and self-assured and more than the average touch of the Laneddin about him.

Another item of which Joe excelled was Gaelic football. I played with him in our first premiership in 1967 for the St Kevin’s club when we beat the more fancied Sunshine Shamrocks. He excelled in the centre, had a great pair of hands and was always on top of his fitness range and never took a backward step. He was fearless and let his opponents know it! I played centre full back and one of my duties was to ‘kick in’ the ball. I knew my kicks would never be fruitless. The Roscommon man would almost always rise above the pack and grab the leather leaving opponents in his wake. He also represented Victoria in a number of interstate footy festivals.

I feel very confident writing this item about Joe Owens. We were bosom comrades: He lived with my family and I for quite some time. My missus used to say that Joe was a very unusual man and he couldn’t have found a better mate than me as I invented being unusual. It may not find favour with some, but I am compelled to state that Joe Owens had one of the highest moral codes I have ever found in any person and stood fast by the faith of his forebears. 

Joe got married early in 1972, and guess who was his best man? Yes, he overlooked a ‘Melbourne Cup field’ of mates and selected me to do the honours. I cannot remember much about the wedding as I was as full as a state school. Thank god Joe was sober! Soon after, he went to work on the bridge. He used to tell me yarns about some of the characters who worked there and what great mates they were.

On 2 December 1972, Joe and I and a few others had decided to decorate a hall in Preston as we were conducting a social function that very night to celebrate another Gaelic footy premiership victory. At approx 4.30pm I received a telephone call from a chap named Peter Crosscadden (Belfast) to tell me that Joe had been killed on the bridge. (I don’t wish to go into the details) I was too shocked to cry. I hastily organised a meeting of as many of our footy club players and members as I could get at my home to discuss Joe’s death and subsequent burial.

To cut to the chase, Joe’s funeral was said at St Augustine’s Catholic Church located at the Spencer Street end of Bourke Street. The crowd spilled into the street, and there was not a dry eye in the entire congregation as Joe’s friend, the famous Welsh folk singer Declan Affley (RIP) sang The West’s Awake, the unofficial anthem of the province of Connaught, which embraces the county of Roscommon.

A major ‘whip-around’ was conducted to enable Joe’s remains to be sent back to his homeland. Joe Owens was dead! The soul of Irish folk music in Melbourne was dead! The centre-field footy position was dead! All of these jewels are buried with Joe.

I thought Joe would live forever, given the breadth of his living ability. He should not have died in this manner that he was taken, in the manner in which his 35 comrades were taken two years prior.

There is nothing more to say or write. All is written indelibly on the hearts, of those of us who knew and loved him. All has been spoken as sure as the last images over his grave have been spoken – but we will meet again Joe! Of that there is no doubt.

For oftimes in O’Connor’s van, 
To triumph dashed each Connacht clan,
And fleet as deer the Normans ran 
Thro’ Corsliabh pass and Ardrahan;
And later times saw deeds as brave, 
And glory guards Clanricarde’s grave, 
Sing, Oh! they died their land to save 
At Aughrims slopes and Shannon’s wave.

(From The West’s Awake)