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20 years as vendor defines his life

Wed, Feb 19, 2014

Jennifer May
Ireland’s Big Issue

Paul O'Connor

Photo: courtesy of Ireland’s Big Issue

Paul O’Connor has been selling Ireland’s Big Issue for over 20 years in the north central town of Athlone. Funny and upbeat, he is well-known (and welcome) outside the Bank of Ireland. In addition to the magazine, he often doles out advice, practical help and kind words to his grateful regulars.

“Many of the older people come to him for help, because they know and trust him,” says Deborah, O’Connor’s wife of 20 years. “So even if he’s not selling many copies, he’ll still stay around for the people he’ll meet.” She describes him as a gentleman: quiet, very soft, a man who always puts others first. He is a wonderful husband and father to their 14-year-old daughter, Ruth.

By his own admission, O’Connor was not always so upstanding. In his early years, while training as a sewing machine mechanic, he discovered alcohol.

In 1976 he moved to a London squat off Tottenham Court Road and began abusing drugs. “I started smoking hashish, then dropping LSD; then I became completely addicted to amphetamine sulphate,” O’Connor said. “There were bouts of going home to my mother’s, getting together and going off again to London; like a snowball coming down a cliff, my drug use got steadily worse.”

After moving to Dublin in the 1980’s he began using heroin. Anxious for a new start, O’Connor moved to Hamburg with his brother, who found his behavior too chaotic.
Stints in rehab would help temporarily, but drugs retained their lure. By 1993 O’Connor ended up in Roscommon Psychiatric Hospital.

A few weeks after his release he met a man on the street who told him a “man of God” was giving talks in a local church. “I thought, sure I’ll go and see what happens,” O’Connor said. “I’d nothing left to lose at that stage.”

One night the place was full for a prayer meeting. O”Connor stood at the back, slightly skeptical, watching others line up to be touched by the healer. He eventually took his place in the line. “I experienced power flows from the top of my head to the soles of my feet,” he said. He has neither touched, nor desired, alcohol or drugs since.

Because there was no work in the sewing machine trade, O’Connor had been unemployed, but one day he saw a man selling the Big Issue and asked him how he could try it himself. He continued attending weekly prayer meetings at the church, and one evening met Deborah. When they decided to get married, they funded their wedding from his magazine sales.

“I remember him going up to the credit union every day for nine months lodging the money from selling the magazine to save for the wedding,” Deborah says. “We had our reception in the Jolly Mariner in Athlone, and 150 people attended, so you could say we got married off the money from the Big Issue.”

The couple continues to be deeply involved in the church, while O’Connor sells the Big Issue every day. “When there were no jobs and everyone was out of work, I had a job selling the magazine,” he says. “That allowed me to provide for my family.”

At Christmas 2012, O’Connor’s speech became slurred and he had difficulty swallowing. After numerous tests he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, a degenerative neurological condition that affects the motor neurons, the cells that control voluntary muscle activity in the body. There is no cure.

O’Connor hasn’t let such a devastating diagnosis defeat him: “The minute I was diagnosed with MND I said, ‘right Lord, this is not going to defeat me one bit, I am going to defeat it.’ With the strength and support of my wife Deborah and my daughter Ruth, and the kindness and support of our church [the River of Life Christian Church], sure if it gets any better I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Although he is now unable to eat and receives nourishment through a peg feeding tube, O’Connor remains upbeat. “Sure that’s great stuff,” he says of the liquid food. “It gives me so much energy I could have run down to the bank today, let alone walk.”

“He’s amazing, and to be honest it’s his positivity that’s keeps us going,” says Deborah quietly. “He still goes down to town every day selling the Big Issue; there are some days where he may be tired, and he may only last two hours, but generally he is there at the same time every day.”

Last summer O’Connor took part in a sponsored walk organized by the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association (IMNDA). The “Walk to De-Feet MND” was July 20 on the grounds of Castletown House in Celbridge, County Kildare.

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