Out in the middle of Port Philip bay, reeling in flathead and whiting, Paddy Garrity would tell his kids and grandkids stories about his childhood in wartime England.
Born in 1937, Paddy grew up in Seaham, a coastal town heavily bombed by the Germans during the second world war.
Playing outside one day with a neighbouring child, the air-raid sirens went off and the children were whisked into a bunker before the bombing began. When it was over, they emerged to see the body of a neighbour’s mother, who hadn’t made it in time.
It was not something Paddy often spoke about – the trade unionist and passionate arts advocate was better known for his joviality and larrikinism.
“People hold that trauma inside of them,” says Sean Garritty, his youngest son. “He didn’t talk about much of it until he was older. It all just blew me away.”
Paddy migrated to Australia at 14. He worked as a mechanic, and lied about his age to get his driver’s license early.
A 15-year stint as a merchant seaman kept him away on coastal cargo ships, returning home only once a week to his first wife, Maureen, and their four children.
“I loved my dad, but I loved him more as he got older,” says Sean.
After Paddy and Maureen separated in the 1970s, Paddy overcame alcoholism and moved to Tasmania, where he became the secretary of the Unemployed Workers Union. That involvement typified what would become a lifelong advocacy for the marginalised and the oppressed.
“He just always had a moral compass,” says Rory Smeaton, his grandson. Rory recalls watching a news story about a man who was dragged out of a Nike store for protesting against working conditions for factory employees, dressed only in a belt and sneakers – only to realise it was his grandfather.
“That was him – he would strip off bare naked in the middle of Bourke Street mall to shine a light on huge corporations that were doing wrong,” Rory says.
Paddy met Mary Price, who he spent the rest of his life with, at a 1985 party after a Palm Sunday rally.
“He was cheeky,” Mary recalls. At the time, she was putting on a theatre production with a group of fellow nurses, and the duo bonded over a common interest in the arts.
Paddy was then working as an arts officer at the Williamstown Naval Dockyards, organising art classes and poetry workshops. He was struck by a conviction that the arts could change the lives of working-class people.
Paddy played a key role in founding the Footscray Community Arts Centre. In 1996, he began to turn then-empty rooms in Melbourne’s Trades Hall into arts venues, including for shows as part of the Melbourne Comedy festival, Fringe festival and the Songlines Indigenous music festival.
He had a vision for the Trades Hall as a centre for arts, culture and activism, says Jim Rimmer, who worked there with Paddy.
“He wanted to share it with everyone,” adds Sean. Paddy would bring his grandchildren to work and point out to them the building’s bullet holes from a 1915 shootout.
“He created the bar at the Trades Hall, where he’d more often give out free drinks than sell them,” Mary says.
Paddy was especially supportive of young people, activists, and people from marginalised communities, including refugees and First Nations people. “He himself could spin an amazing story,” Jim says. “His real genius was that the whole enterprise was built around creating spaces for other people to tell their stories – often communities whose voices weren’t heard.”
In his later years, Paddy and Mary bought a permanent caravan on Wilsons Promontory, where they would spend extended weekends and Paddy would take his tinny out to go fishing.
Paddy moved into an aged care facility in Williamstown nearly three years ago, his health frail after treatment for prostate cancer and a bad bout of whooping cough that affected his lungs. Sean didn’t see his father in his final six months, worried about the risk of infecting others with coronavirus if he visited.
“They were really trying their best to keep it all at bay, but unfortunately it got in there somehow,” Mary says. Paddy tested positive for Covid-19 three days before he died.
“It’s possible that because he’d got the virus, that was just the last thing that his lungs could cope with,” Mary says.
But, she says, the timing of the infection may also have been coincidental. “He had the most wonderful care and comfort and was very happy in the facility,” she says.
Paddy died in his sleep, aged 83, on Sunday 16 August. Limited by Covid-19 restrictions, a small funeral was held at Altona Memorial Park on 25 August.
When it’s possible, the family plans to have a large celebration of his life at his beloved Trades Hall.
Source: The Guardian