SOME biblical scholars call it the Pauline conversion, the moment when the Pharisee persecutor of the Christians, Saul, was blinded by a light on the road to Damascus and became a disciple for the Lord. For Paul Galvin, the menswear merchant on William Street, Tullamore, the revelation wasn't quite so dramatic, but its personal ramifications were no less life changing.
For him, it was a slow burner, sparked on what he says was an unlikely trip to Medjugorje, a site of Marian devotion in Bosnia-Herzegovina since six local people reported apparitions there in 1981.
The hardworking and proud upholder of a retail business built by his parents John and Della, it was 2008 when he first had his Medjugorje experience.
Galvin for Men was riding high on the Celtic Tiger at the time. Quality labelled garments were being snapped up in a store where superior customer service was always a core value, regardless of the economic climate. But a kind of emptiness still lurked within the man who had stepped onto that shopfloor a few days before his 17th birthday, having left Tullamore CBS the November before his Leaving Certificate.
Sitting in a couch in his Durrow home, treating the Tribune to black coffee and fig rolls, Paul at first struggles to find the right words to explain how he became devoted to his faith.
So he gets up, leaves the room and returns holding a newspaper containing an interview with Aine O'Neill, presenter of the Life & Soul show on RTE.
He has some quotes from the woman underlined. The broadcaster told of how she once returned home from Los Angeles and had a good life, a “good career, money, living situation” but was nonetheless thinking: “Is that it? I had all that, and I was still feeling empty.”
“It resonates with me,” says Paul. “I remember saying during the Celtic Tiger, everybody was flying, every business was flying. Every business in the country was getting better and better. It was unrealistic really.
“I suppose, I could remember coming home from work and it was just a feeling... everything in the world was telling me it was wonderful and I should be deliriously happy, but just that feeling, is this it? Is this what it's all about?”
“I went to Medjugorje in 2008 and it was later that year that the economic crash hit.”
When it is put to him that surely he isn't suggesting a causal link between the recession and his maiden pilgrimage, he doubles up in laughter.
“I'm not responsible... the banks are to blame!” he exclaims. “Galvin had nothing to do with it!”
Smiles come easily to the man. He has a relentlessly positive outlook and clearly enjoys life. On one shelf in his home you will spot beer bottles from countries across the world; on another will stand a statue of the Virgin Mary, draped in rosary beads.
Much travelled, (though he dismisses any globetrotter perceptions by saying he has never been to Australia, New Zealand or China) he likes to bring home mementoes which have meaning for him, resulting in some striking original paintings from various parts of Africa hanging on his walls.
His life now is one of flights to Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Zambia, and of course, Medjugorje, his personal goals perhaps a little different from when he flew back from Antigua with a bottle of Carib beer.
He used to regularly work 70-hour weeks when he was manager of Galvin's in Tullamore, the store founded by his parents in 1949. He started there in November 1977, became manager in 1988 and signed off on its sale to one of the staff, Leslie Keenaghan, in November 2017.
“If I was to look back over the years, being single, I'd have assumed I'd stay working until I dropped because I would have been, maybe, afraid to retire,” he says.
“I'm not big into sport so I don't have a lot of pastimes. And that takes me back to 2008 when I went to Medjugorje for the first time and I still don't know why because it wasn't really on my radar.
“I wasn't particularly religious. I'd have gone to Mass on Sunday, if I was away for a weekend or holidays it wasn't a big deal [to miss Mass]. But I never stopped going to Mass, I'd say the odd prayer.”
Because he wasn't a great forward planner when it came to holidays, he used to travel to places “at the drop of a hat”. The same happened with Medjugorje.
“A couple of weeks beforehand I just got it into my head and I said I'll go. There was a group going from the west of Ireland and I went with them.”
Now, 11 years later, he talks about the massive sense of peace in the place but admits the impact wasn't immediate.
“My first time there, on the first two days I was thinking that if I got a plane out of here to Malaga I was gone. But by day four I'd have stayed for a month.”
He has met two of the visionaries and describes them as “ordinary people” whose experience drew thousands of others to their village when it was still in a Communist-controlled country.
Today, even without official formal recognition by the Catholic church, Medjugorje is an ever thriving and vibrant centre of prayer and devotion.
“If I am talking to people coming to Medjugorje, I say, believe whatever they want to believe. But there's a sense of peace out there. And everybody says that, it's just hard to describe.”
Paul also speaks of how Medjugorje is about the people the visitors meet, the stories they share, the burdens they unload.
He tells of a good friend of his who “was going through a hard time financially from the time of the recesssion” and who reached the point where he decided it would be best for everyone else in his life if he ended his own.
“He hit the wall and luckily his wife copped that he was depressed because he had a plan ready to check out,” says Paul.
With the help of medication he “got back on track” and Paul kept in touch with him. “He wouldn't have been laughing at me going to Medjugorje but he'd have zero interest in going himself. Last September I was bringing a crowd out in October and I said to him 'Come along and if you want to go to Dubrovnik on the beer on day two, I'm not stopping you'.”
A few days into the trip Paul sat down with him for a coffee and asked how he was getting on. His friend replied: “Put it this way, including my decision to get married, this is in the top three best decisions I've ever made.”
On the plane home he said he still had his financial problems, he was still at risk of losing his business, but he said, “I know my back is covered, I know I will be looked after, it's just like I've handed things over, what will be will be.”
The man, who lives in Dublin, is bringing his father and a cousin out on his next trip. “To see that change in people's lives, it's incredible to be part of something,” says Paul.
Paul now runs trips to Medjugorje twice a year and assures first timers that it is not all about Masses and decades of the rosary.
“There's great craic. I've had some of the best conversations over a few pints in a pub over there. One of the pluses is, it's only two euros a pint,” he laughs.
After that initial trip in 2008, Paul returned in 2012 and 2015. By then he had “started to get back into the faith”.
“I started to go to Mass in the mornings. 7.45am was good for me, I found it a lovely way to start the day.”
Prior to that, he had developed an interest in charity work abroad. He had become very friendly with Clara man Ronan Scully, the Tribune 'Thought for the Week' columnist who works for Self Help Africa. Paul had travelled to Africa to see projects undertaken by that organisation and was impressed with what was being done.
Also, he came across an organisation called Mary's Meals, a charity founded by Scotsman Magnus McFarlane Barrow which organises meals in schools in impoverished parts of the Third World.
“A lot of kids in Africa don't go to school. And a lot of those who do go to school are hungry, so they are not learning,” explains Paul.
Mary's Meals' “simple solution” is to feed children at their place of education and they do it cheaply – founder McFarlane Barrow says €15.60 is enough to feed a child for a year.
Paul Galvin is part of Mary's Meals Offaly, which was founded in May and took on a school in Malawi with an enrolment of 592.
Mary's Meals Offaly committed themselves to feeding those schoolchildren for a year. “So that's €9,235. But the generosity of the people already is unreal. We started in May and we were giving ourselves the year to raise the money and we already have €12,000 in the bank.”
Self Help Africa helps people to help themselves, laying the foundations for projects which will have long-term economic benefits. Establishing credit unions can be crucial, issuing short term loans of €50 or €100, which would be “reasonably substantial” in a place like Zambia.
“We were speaking to a woman who had been involved in this and she was on her third loan when we met her,” stated Paul.
“All her kids were going to school, they were all well fed. She had built a shed of about 10 metres by five metres and she was rearing about 200 chicks at a time out of it.
“We asked her through an interpreter what issues she was having with regard to the loans and she looked and said ‘I can’t borrow enough’.
“And I just thought an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur regardless, if it’s in Zambia, or Tullamore or New York, it’s the same thinking. This woman, she could see the standard of living, she could see her kids having a better lifestyle and she wasn’t going back.”
Paul will travel to Africa again next month and is off to Medjugorje later in the year. Meanwhile, back at home, he hosts a prayer meeting every Monday evening in his house, from 8.30pm to 9.30pm. He says about 40 people gather for some singing, some prayer and a “little talk in the middle”. Then every eight weeks there is a Mass which attracts an attendance of up to 70.
“My faith would be hugely important to me. It would be the big thing in my life now, definitely.” He says the general decline in religious observance is “understandable”. “I often look back and think when the churches were packed, when I was a kid, were people there because they really wanted to be there? Or was it because it was expected of them to be there?” He adds: “But I also think there's a deep longing. An awful lot of people are looking for something. There's an emptiness in their lives, I'm not saying they're necessarily looking for religion but there's not necessarily a huge level of happiness out there with an awful lot of people.”
There was a time when Paul would never have thought he would be retired, hosting prayer meetings and helping Third World charities.
And if he hadn't made that first trip to Medjugorje? “Would I be retired now? Probably not, I would probably been afraid to retire. I've just moved on. I've never been happier than I have been in the last 10 years.”
Anyone interested in contacting Paul about his charity work or prayer meetings can telephone 087 8375407 or email email@example.com