WHEN Paddy O’Brien started his working life in 1953 as a messenger boy, he never thought the route would lead him to bring joy and friendship into the lives of so many elderly people.
“It was two weeks before I told my mother what I was doing for a living, “says Paddy.
“I used to come across people living alone and I’d do messages for them, like going to Curran’s Bakery for a loaf or to the Post Office to post a letter. My mother told people that I was a delivery porter!”
Paddy was a loyal employee and a conscientious son.
“I handed up my 25 shillings a week wages to my mother. There were 11 of us. She gave me two shillings pocket money for myself.
“I was only meant to stay with the company on Pope’s Quay, Booth Brothers, for a short stint,” says Paddy.
“I ended up leaving the company after nearly 36 years as Managing Director.”
And his mother could boast about her successful boy.
“When I was made Sales Manager, I got a company car,” says Paddy. “I often brought my mother with me when I was on a trip and I’d surprise her, stopping for dinner at the Grand Hotel in Fermoy. She said with the lovely meal and carpet on the floor, she’d live to be 100!”
Paddy, who celebrates his 80th birthday next week, gets similar royal treatment from his own family.
“I was invited to go on honeymoon with my son, Ronan, who lives in London, and his wife Suzanne,” says Paddy.
It was a trip of a lifetime.
“We went on a three week holiday from Cork to Heathrow to Singapore to the western coast of Australia.
“Suzanne and Louise, who is married to my son Brian, in Blarney, are like my own daughters. They are so good to me, keeping an eye on me and making me lovely dinners.”
Paddy, well known in Cork circles for running the popular Over 60s contest and for his valuable role with the Irish Heart Foundation as former Regional Manager for 18 years, lost his wife Pat of 37 years to cancer 14 years ago.
“I was broken-hearted,” says Paddy. “She was so beautiful and so kind. Pat helped me so much with the Over 60s competitions, on the phone booking venues around Munster, ordering batches of tickets and typing letters. She was my right-hand woman. I met her when I was 20 when I was out walking dad’s greyhounds. Then I bumped into her at a dance. We got to know each other and that was that.”
Paddy got to know the chasm of loneliness after Pat died. He had known it before when he was a messenger boy too all those years ago..
“I was out in all weathers,” says Paddy. “I saw poverty all around me; in Shandon Street, North Main Street, Blarney Street. The area that Cork people called ‘Sandca’, lived in damp, cold tenements without electricity and not enough to eat. My mother often made a bastible cake so I could split it and share it out.
“Some of the tenants had never married. They used to tell me they were so lonely. Some had been abandoned by their families. They saw no-one and they were affected by loneliness,” says Paddy.
“I witnessed their loneliness first-hand. I did errands for them and I often called to see them on a Saturday afternoon.”
And he cheered them up.
“I sang in the church choir,” says Paddy. “So I sang for the elderly people that I called to. I like to think I brought a bit of sunshine into their lives.”
Paddy, realising that there were no social outlets available for elderly people, and that loneliness was rampant and soul-destroying, started organising social events.
“I realised that there were no clubs or community associations for the elderly,” says Paddy.
“I began organising get-togethers for them and bringing bands to entertain them.”
Some of the people who came along, not used to having a voice, began to discover their voices and the Leeside singing talent soon became apparent.
“There was great talent among the men and women,” says Paddy.
“And seeing the enjoyment everybody got from joining in and making connections with others was brilliant.”
Stars were born.
“I started the Over 60s singing competition,” says Paddy.
“The talent and interest was phenomenal. We charged 30p a ticket. And it just took off. I ran the show at the Cork Opera House for 25 years. Then we moved to City Hall the last 17 years as the popularity of the competition grew and the audiences got bigger. Even people with tickets queued up for front seats for the show. They want to get close to the stage.”
From humble beginnings in a few community centres, more than 42 years ago, the Over 60s competition heats now take place in 22 areas across the city and county.
“The Irish Heart Foundation benefits from the proceeds of all the competitions,” says Paddy.
“It is important to raise awareness about heart disease. It kills over 10,000 people in Ireland every year. The Over 60s competition has raised in excess of half a million euro for the Heart Foundation.”
Paddy is proud of other things too.
“I often meet people who come up and tell me that their dad was in the Over 60s competition and what a great thrill it was. It brings them great happiness.”
Other people feel the joy too.
“Bishop Buckley says the competition brings communities together,” says Paddy.
“He has never missed a final. Simon Coveney is another great supporter of ours.”
Paddy didn’t think that he’d be happy again after Pat died.
“I was a victim of loneliness,” says Paddy. “Nothing prepares you when the one you love passes away. We had 37 years happy together. When Pat died; I missed the company.
“Every day was the same. People meet you and sympathise with you at the funeral. They shake hands with you. Then they are gone. It is so important to keep up contact and get involved with people or join a club after losing someone. Loneliness is a killer.”
Paddy wants older people to be heard; to have a voice.
“I firmly believe there should be a Minister for the Elderly,” says Paddy. “Someone to champion the elderly and give them adequate representation at national level. To be a voice for people who had no voice. I visit people in nursing homes, just to have a chat,” says Paddy.
“Loneliness is a serious problem. It’s a disease that kills people.”
Paddy spreads goodwill.
“Our Over 60s contestants, past winners and finalists often visit the people in the nursing homes and sing for them. It brightens up their day.”
Paddy, dapper, courteous and charming, always brightens up someone’s day. He hasn’t changed much at all since I first met him about 20 years ago. He gained an MA at UCC and a People of the Year award in 2010.
Paddy is fit and healthy approaching his 80th birthday, on September 10.
“I like to get out and walk and I don’t take any medications at all. I never smoked and I must have been in my late thirties before I took a drink.”
Like the participants in the Over 60s competitions; he is always turned out just so.
“I remember when I was a young lad, coming home from work, I’d spot our neighbour, Larry O’Toole going in his front door. I used admire his suits,” says Paddy.
“And I said; when I grow up; I am going to have suits like Larry!”
The admiration is mutual.
“Larry calls me from Canada every month,” says Paddy.
He has made good friends over the years. His birthday celebrations will include his nearest and dearest.
“My sons and their wives are joining myself and Betty for a meal on the Saturday night. Then another dinner is planned with family and close friends on Sunday.”
Betty came into Paddy’s life when he was at a low ebb, feeling the scourge of loneliness.
“I used to go to the Holy Hour in the church just to say hello to someone.
“Betty and I, we like the same things,” says Paddy.
“And we get on great while still having our own independence.”
Paddy, like his late mother, wants to live to be 100.
“You know, the best thing about being alive and well is to be able to have a choice,” says Paddy. “To have the choice to get up, make a meal, go outside. It is the greatest thing. So many people don’t have those choices. I thank God for my health and my strength every day.”
And he thanks God for the people in his life.
“I am blessed with my sons, their wives and my grandchildren,” says Paddy.
“My supporters in the Over 60s, like Humphrey O’Sullivan, who is involved with the Over 60s now for 30 years, are amazing people.
“The Evening Echo has supported us from the very beginning as well as the sponsors of the competition.”
So life is good for Paddy O’Brien?
“Life is great at 80,” says Paddy.
“I feel better and healthier than I ever did.”
“The only regret I have is that I would love to be starting my life all over as that messenger boy all those years ago.”
His mother would be well proud.