He was slightly puzzled as he surveyed the scene. “I’m looking for Cahill’s Garage,” he told me. I showed him where the garage once stood, near the end of the street, on the left as you went to Fermoy. It’s gone with years and a Medical Centre has been built on the spot.
“Many years ago, as a Sales Rep, I used to call to Cahill’s and dealt with a lovely man there, Michael Murphy.”
I knew the late Michael well and Paddy described him to a tee.
I was meeting Paddy for a coffee and a chat and it turned out to be more of a long lunch in a local café. The food was great and the company mighty, we had a great time altogether.
The purpose of our get-together was to converse about the Over 60s Talent Competition, which Paddy has organised with decades. About a month ago he rang me, ‘out of the blue’, as they say, to ask would I help organise a Local Heat here in my parish area.
It wasn’t that I said no or yes, but on the phone I hesitated a little as, to be honest, I’d read extensively about the Over 60s but still knew little enough.
I do recall back in the days of RTÉ’ Radio’s Corkabout hearing Donna O’Sullivan and Alf McCarthy often mention the name Paddy O’Brien. The Over 60s Talent Competition is now justifiably regarded as the biggest event in Ireland for people over 60.
Born in Spangle Hill, Paddy was one of a family of ten. When he was growing up in the late 1940s he said Spangle Hill was still regarded as ‘nearly out in the country’.
Educated, as so many thousands were in Cork, by the Christian Brothers, he left school after just a year in Secondary Education. His father worked in Guinness’s and rearing a family of ten was no easy task.
After being at Mass one morning in St Mary’s, Popes Quay, Paddy set out on the road to employment. He randomly picked a house on the quay and knocked on the door.
An imposing but genial man answered. “Excuse me, sir, I’m looking for a job,” was how he put forward his ‘CV’.
“And what can you do?” came the answer.
Well, Paddy outlined the various skills he had accumulated growing up in a large family — cleaning, tidying, getting shopping, delivering things here and there. He must have made what they’d now call ‘a good sales pitch’ because he was offered a job as a Messenger Boy there and then — no Contract, no Terms and Conditions, no mention of severance pay or overtime.
So, at the age of 14, Paddy O’Brien had got his first job and his employer was Mr Fred Knuttell. Paddy didn’t know it at the time but it was literally a job for life.
Fred Knuttell worked for the Dublin-based firm Booth Bros. who supplied mechanical parts for cars and lorries and had contracts with garages and factories all over Ireland.
That was all in the future for young Paddy. The first thing he had to do was go home and tell his mother. Now, he well knew that he term Messenger Boy mightn’t go down well with Mrs O’Brien so the teenager used some verbal dexterity to make the position sound a bit better — I think that’s called poetic licence!
He told me that when he got his first wages after a week, the sum of 25 bob, he was over the moon! “Many years later,” Paddy told me “Brendan Bowyer had a hit with a song called I Ran All The Way Home, well that’s exactly what I did and handed the money to my delighted mother-and she gave me two shillings for myself”.
Even as a teenager in Cork city, Paddy became aware of the loneliness that can befall people living on their own, or old couples or siblings who had few callers. He got paid as a messenger boy but recalled also the hundreds of times he would be asked to get ‘de paper or a loaf of bread or something from the Coal Quay or the English market’ for a neighbour.
Those days and little kindnesses stayed with Paddy O’Brien all his life. Mr Knuttell was responsible for his first job, his first trip to Dublin in a motor-car, his first overnight stay in the capital and his first ever trip on a plane to England. He worked for Booth Bros for more than 30 years, firstly from Dublin and then from his native Cork city. He loved the work as a Sales Rep — “ I met wonderful, decent and caring people everywhere, like Michael Murphy in Cahill’s Garage”.
In 1976, Paddy organised the first ever Over 60s Talent Competition in Cork — the rest is history, but lads what a history! He told me that the main aim initially was just to organise a social event where people could meet and have entertainment.
From the start, the event was all about participation — winning a Heat or a Final is just a nice bonus.
They say big oaks grow from little acorns and certainly that seed planted by Paddy 43 years ago has grown and grown. He is acutely aware that despite all the many improvements in social care, home help, respite care and active retirement and elderly care, loneliness and isolation is still a huge problem.
I know when I go on my own to Lourdes in November or December, people say ‘God, John it must be awful lonely for you out there in winter with no one around?’ But that’s being alone, which I value now and then — far different from actually being lonely.
We know well what rural isolation is, but people who live in Cork city amidst hundreds of thousands of others can sometime be extremely lonely. I get many lovely letters myself from people and invariably they end with ‘Call some day for a chat’. It’s a busy, busy world and so many people are, as they say, cash- rich but time-poor. It just seems to be the way society is gone.
As we spoke, I couldn’t help thinking of Ralph McTell’s song words which came out 50 years ago;
So, how can you tell me you’re lonely, And say for you that the sun don’t shine?
That song, The Streets of London, talks of homeless people, those who haven’t even a roof over their head, but people can have a house and if they’re profoundly lonely there, is it a home?
Paddy told me a story of one lady who said the milk cartons are awful. She recalled long ago when the milkman would call with the glass bottles of milk, she’d hear the clink, clink of the bottles and open the door and have a few words with him. Now there’s no clink, clink anymore.
When Paddy’s firm, Booth Bros, felt the wrath of the Depression in the ’80s, he was blessed to get employment in Cork with the Irish Heart Foundation for whom he still does a huge amount of voluntary work.
We chatted for ages and before we parted I said: “Look, here goes, in the name of God, we’ll chance having a heat of the Over 60s in Bartlemy.”
So on Tuesday, April 23, please come along. If you can sing, dance, play an instrument or as Dinjoe used to say ‘tell a funny incident’ and if you live anywhere within 20 miles of here there will be a welcome on the mat and Paddy O’Brien will be here.
We shook hands and as I headed back to farm work on a raw February day, I’d a pep in my step and a warm glow from meeting such a wonderful man.