It was with a heavy heart that we heard of the sudden death of Paul McMahon, a former trustee, a volunteer and friend. Paul first came into our lives in 1984 when we had just inherited the semi-derelict listed buildings known as the Dalgarven Mills. In despair, at getting little interest or help from those bodies, both local and national, who from their publicity should have been at our elbow from day one, I had begun literally with a newly-bought heavy hammer and a big chisel to do it myself. This was during the University vacation, which in those days meant exactly that, when out of the river Garnock climbed four young men, boys really, stripped to the waist, and sodden. One of them approached me and politely said ‘Excuse me, what are you doing?‘. In reply, I said ‘It’s slightly more important that I know what you are doing since it is my river you have just scrambled out of!’. Unabashed, the tall one, who was Paul of course, explained that waiting for the time to go to University or College, he and his friends had decided to wade from the sea to the source but had decided that Dalgarven was far enough! I offered them a drink of water, which they accepted, and then they asked the question ‘do you need any help?‘ – I thought they were joking. So I said ‘yes: be here at 7.30 tomorrow morning!’. And they were, God bless them, the four of them: Paul, John, Martin and Vincent. They did anything they were asked, and in Paul’s case, most of the things they were told not to do! It wasn’t long before he asked if he could help by breaking some rocks to help with the rebuilding. I wasn’t sure, but in the days before Health & Safety, I thought it was worth a chance. So he took the big hammer and the chisel, went outside, knelt beside a large piece of whinstone and struck it a mighty blow – the hammer came back immediately, hit him just above the eye, split it open and knocked him backwards. ‘A&E I think’, said my wife, who was bringing the daily sandwiches.
It is worth mentioning that during his long stay with us Paul was regularly served a diet of what you called ‘boak rolls’ which my wife called ‘sandwich spread’. What we didn’t realise, was that this was only to be the first visit that Paul and one or more of us made to A&E! On the second occasion, a new volunteer turned up, and Paul, ever helpful, offered to show them the building. ‘Stay on the planks’ I said, the floorboards themselves being rotten with woodworm. You probably know the rest of the story! Apparently he only went through the floor to waist-depth, but that was far enough for the rusty nail to get him! By this time, we had approximately seven youngsters plus students from the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde working on a daily basis. They dug out silt-filled pits, usually after I had cautioned them on the danger involved, since I had no idea how deep they might be, having been feeders for the now missing water wheels. It was of course Paul who leapt in and disappeared up to his oxters! The good news was that the grin never left his face, and he kept all of us amused during the long hot summer days.
Paul on the right
Paul at the back left
As it was and now is again, thanks in some measure to these youngsters.
As it happened, he did not get the offer he was expecting for further education, and he stayed on working at the Mill, sometimes totally alone, sometimes with the odd help, for more than a year. By this time, I was driving round the countryside picking up second-hand Victorian flooring, which was of course full of long blacksmith-made iron nails, and Paul sat happily knocking them out and filling buckets with them, listening to his music and waiting for the boak rolls to arrive.
As those of you who knew him would expect, he worked his way into our other activities, which included amateur drama. You didn’t have to be a genius to realise that this young man had an in-built acting factor, so it was without trepidation really that I invited him to take a small walk-on part in a play of the type commonly known as a Scots comedy, which I was directing. The play included an almost static scene set in a country cottage in which a group of superstitious peasants drank from a large jug of what was supposed to be whisky, actually irn bru with the fizz taken out to protect them from the evil spirits that seemed to surround and fill their lives. The cast included several quite elderly ladies, many of them pillars of the society, and all went well for the Wednesday night, the Thursday night, the Friday night but on the Saturday, the play disintegrated into a series of splutters, coughs, sweary words and very bad acting, because, and you must have guessed, Paul had seeded the irn bru with a half bottle of vodka.
He became at my request a Trustee of the charity, which we setup to run the Museum and Visitor Centre. He never failed to attend, even when we discovered he walked, not having the money for transport. He used his skills to make us a video of the interior of the Mill that we still use, and there are his ghosts in almost every corner…
Vaya con Dios