During the service on Sunday mornings I tell the children a story, which I usually preface with a little bit of banter – a few questions. At one of the very first services I ever took here, in 1996, I asked the children, ‘Who is the most important person in this congregation?’ Sorcha Pollack said, without hesitation, ‘Paddy McElroy’. Paddy, who was sitting where he always sat, two rows up from the front, heard Sorcha very clearly, and smiled his approval – wonderful man that he was, he wasn’t without a little vanity!
I wondered what Sorcha thought the word ‘important’ meant. Did she think it meant ‘most famous’? If she did, she was probably right. Paddy had certainly attained some degree of eminence as an artist, and if he wasn’t the most famous person in the congregation, he was certainly one of the most famous, and his beautiful sculpture, which graces the eastern wall of our church will be a testimony to his brilliance and skill as long as this church stands.
Did Sorcha mean that Paddy was the most popular member of the congregation? There’s a case to be made for that, too. Everybody knew and loved him, and he had time for everybody. He greeted newcomers with a handshake or an embrace; he was the first to congratulate the speaker at the end of the service, and his kind words of encouragement strengthened the confidence of even the most hesitant preacher. And he would sit outside the door, after the service, drinking coffee and smoking one of his distinctive ‘More’ cigarettes (was there a little affectation there?), engaging everyone who passed by in conversation, allaying the suspicions that many visitors had that this was a place for stuck up prods!
But there was nothing ‘stuck up’ about Paddy. He was at home in the company of all classes of people, and he made everyone feel comfortable in his. He had no airs and graces, no pretensions. He told me how he had once sat beside a beggar on a park bench, and at the end of a lengthy conversation the beggar had felt sorry for Paddy and offered him his scarf! I know of no one else who could meet someone so intimately that a beggar would mistake him for a companion of the road.
Paddy was a true democrat. When I came here the congregation used a service book which had been compiled by Rev. Saville Hicks in the 1920s. Paddy loved the slightly archaic language and the noble sentiments, but it seemed to me a little too old fashioned and I gradually weaned the congregation off it. At every AGM without fail, Paddy would get up and sing the praises of the old book and ask when we would be using it again. But it was never a popular move, particularly with the younger members, so Paddy didn’t get his wish. But he never complained. He never threatened to leave. He never had a tantrum. If the majority preferred to do things another way then he would go along with them. Such a spirit is rare, even among Unitarians.
Perhaps Sorcha meant that Paddy was the wisest person here. Maybe he was that, too. His venerable, avuncular appearance gave him the air of a philosopher, and his quiet words of advice were offered – and sought – by young and old alike. He certainly taught me a thing or two. I’d not been here more than a few weeks when he took me for a stroll around St. Stephen’s Green, pointing out the statues and the monuments and giving me a potted lesson in Irish history. Sitting on a bench was a man who was talking to himself, the sort of person one would generally go out of one’s way to avoid. Paddy said to me, ‘You’ll find a few disturbed people in Dublin. They’ve got a right to be here, too.’ I think of Paddy’s compassionate and tolerant words whenever I see people with signs of mental distress. Paddy had the kind of pragmatism that springs from a long and passionate involvement with life; he knew from experience what was possible, and he realised the pointlessness of beating oneself up over things one couldn’t change. ‘You’ll never change the world,’ he said to me one day, after I’d been complaining about the enormity of Dublin’s social problems. ‘Do your bit and relax.’ Just after my arrival here I was telling Paddy about the difficulties of coming from a small town in England to live in a big city like Dublin. ‘What are you worried about?’ asked Paddy. ‘Just look at it like this: you’ve got a whole new audience to tell your stories to!’
Paddy’s wisdom sprang from his long experience of life, but it came, too, from his commitment to learning which never wavered even in his eighties. He did courses at the People’s College throughout his mature life, and was taking Isabella Evangelisti’s class in art history right up to just a few weeks ago.
Paddy knew how to laugh at himself – a sure hallmark of the wise person. He was a great admirer of women, and fancied himself as a bit of ladies’ man well into his old age. He told me once how, a decade or so ago, he was standing up on a bus when he noticed a young woman looking up at him and smiling. ‘She fancies me,’ thought Paddy. ‘Once you’ve got it you never lose it.’ She was still smiling at him when he caught her eye again, but this time she said, ‘Would you like this seat?’ ‘How are the mighty fallen,’ was Paddy’s wry and honest comment.
And he was laughing right up to the end. Cal Courtney and I were sitting by his bedside just ten days ago, listening to him as he ate his lunch. ‘I don’t know whether it happened, or whether I dreamed it,’ he said, ‘but there was a man here yesterday who was going to give me an injection to make me sleep. But a woman came up who told me she was writing a Ph.D. thesis on the women in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I said to her, “I don’t care if you’re Jesus Christ come to read me a chapter from the Gospels. Just let him give me the injection, and let me get some sleep.”’
He was ready for sleep. ‘Death is nothing,’ he told us just a few days ago. ‘Just a long sleep.’ If that’s the case, then Paddy has got his wish. But he never discounted the other possibility - that consciousness might continue afterwards. If it does, then we can be certain of one thing: Paddy McElroy, poet, painter, sculptor, raconteur, the most important person in the Dublin Unitarian congregation, is regaling a whole new celestial audience with his incomparable stories!
Dublin Unitarian Church 14 February 2008