Imagine if you suddenly began hearing voices in the air that followed you wherever you went; heading to work on the train, or out walking on a busy street. Voices that offered wise, accurate and relevant information.
This is what happened to an unassuming public servant named Patrick McMahon in 1978. While working as an official in the land registry in Dublin, he became aware of invisible entities communicating with him. For a man reared without electricity or running water, in the Catholic claustrophobia of rural Co Clare, it was a disturbing development, and he tried his best to block it out. But visions of other civilisations and other ages kept flooding his mind.
“Was it the devil and all his cohorts of evil spirits playing tricks on me?” he wondered. “Was I simply going mad?”
What became clear was that life couldn’t continue as before, with this constant deluge of information that was as loud and clear as a person standing right next to him. He needed to gain control of it, and after three months of leading what he calls “a double life”, he finally learned to shut off the flow and return to normal. This should have been the end of the story: a bout of stress-related psychosis, a temporary mental anomaly, like many of us have experienced.
Yet, once McMahon realised that he was able to start and stop the communication at will, he became more at ease with it, and began to realise that it provided eerily accurate and relevant information. Not only that, but much of it was wise and profound. He described it as “a vast vista of never-ending, evolving consciousness, which put all the happenings of day-to-day existence into a totally new perspective”.
Over time, he began writing down the thoughts that were coming to him, imagining that, if they had any validity, someone somewhere might publish them posthumously and anonymously in the far distant future. But Dublin in the 1980s was too small to keep such things secret, and soon people began to hear about this quiet Clare man who had access to uncannily precise information about their personal lives, their past and futures.
Even the briefest encounter with McMahon could offer moments of revelation; he would tell you things about yourself that no one else could have known, and that you might never have even imagined yourself.
When I first met him in 1990 he said to me, “Your father wants me to tell you the word ‘toenails’”. I was startled, as my father had died the previous year and one of our moments of most intimate connection were the times when I’d cut his toenails (for a fee of £1 per nail). No one knew how much it meant to me as a teenager, and to him as a septuagenarian; it was a moment of closeness that we cherished.
From that instant, McMahon had my full attention, and he went on to impart guidance about how my life would pan out. Any doubts I may have had at the time were allayed in the intervening years, as each prediction turned out to be true. He told me I had been an early anthropologist in a previous incarnation, recording notes on remote cultures, but all my notes were destroyed before publication, and that in this lifetime I would likely continue reporting on far-flung destinations. I ended up doing exactly this, in books, TV series and travel articles.
With such abilities, McMahon’s desire for a quiet, anonymous life was futile. People began to seek him out at home and at work; every one of them desperate for an insight, an answer, a moment of clarity on what to do, where to go, how to live. It was exhausting, yet exciting too. He felt humbled to have a gift that was of such value to people.
The Grand Design series
By 1987, friends convinced him to allow a slim volume of his writings to be published anonymously as The Grand Design, Vol I. The book outlined a vision of life on Earth as a learning experience aimed at growth in awareness, with each soul being entirely free to choose how it wishes to evolve towards wisdom over a series of lives. Short chapters covered topics such as evolutionary growth, free will, the limitations of religion, and reincarnation, in a lucid, common-sense way with information he was receiving from his internal voices. There was a particular emphasis on the idea that we each have a team of soul advisors or guardian angels, seeking to make life in a physical body easier and to offer guidance in times of uncertainty.
One might imagine that such thoughts would have been greeted with derision, or dismissed off-hand in a pre-Oprah era, but in fact the book sold out fast and, as it was being republished, McMahon wrote a second book, also “channelled” from his disembodied spirit sources. In all, over the next 15 years he published five volumes in The Grand Design series that sold more than 30,000 copies, largely through Easons. A former chief buyer of Waterstones described it as the central primer for Irish people setting out on a spiritual path in the late 1980s.
An early appearance on the Gerry Ryan Show on RTÉ Radio increased his followers exponentially, as his humble, reticent demeanour and clear descriptions of the spiritual framework within which reality is contained made his more outlandish claims palatable to people. It struck a chord with those questioning mainstream religion, as well as the growing number of spiritual seekers wondering if there was more to life than they could perceive through their physical senses.
“People sought him out constantly,” says his wife, Maura Lundberg. “The issues they raised tended to reflect the restrictions common in society at the time. There were enquiries about intimate relationships, career, family life, religion, health, and especially philosophical questions relating to his books. From the moment that people came to hear of him they reached out for insights and answers.”
In 1999 he began to publish works with a different tone and theme; these, he believed, were channelled through him by Margaret Anna Cusack, a 19th century poverty activist and women’s rights advocate, who became renowned as The Nun of Kenmare. These books focused on what happens to the soul after death, and they brought a whole new audience of people yearning to understand the afterlife.
The urgency and desperation with which grieving people reacted to his insights further increased the requests for help and guidance. People wanted to know how their deceased friend or family member were faring. What were they doing? Did they have a message for those left behind?
The intensity of the questioning became overwhelming. McMahon had by then stopped answering the phone and had an answering machine to record the thousands of people who regarded him as being in touch with the divine, and sought solace from him, wanting advice about the future and the dilemmas in their lives.
“He responded to as many of these calls as he could,” says Lundberg, “and right up to the time of the onset of his deafness, in late 2017, he was still taking phone calls from many.”
‘A gentle, honourable man’
In time, McMahon realised that the only viable way of coping was to teach others how to tune in to the information he believed he had access to; otherwise he was just perpetuating their dependence on him. He began teaching six-week workshops in which people would learn to foster their own inner voices (or spirit guides) that he claimed were communicating with everyone, gently trying to offer guidance.
By this stage, the literary agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor, had secured an American book deal with Hampton Roads Publishing for him, and his books were being translated into German, Spanish, Swedish, Polish, Italian and Russian. In 2010, O’Connor secured him an international deal with HarperCollins for a book exploring life after death, and the role of angels in helping the bereaved to cope.
“I read Paddy’s book, A Free Spirit, which explores life after death, when my mum passed away,” says O’Connor. “I wanted to know what that transition was like for her. I was riveted and I asked Paddy would he write his own story and weave this information through it. I felt that way it would become more accessible and that lots more people would read it.
“He was reluctant to write about himself, but I really wanted people to get a sense of him, to know this gentle, humble, totally authentic and gifted man. I also felt the information was really important . . . And so in 2010 HarperCollins published There are No Goodbyes. It immediately became a bestseller and I sold rights in many languages.”
These international works brought him a new level of renown, though he never reached the level of stardom attained by other New Age figures, primarily because he was so humble and reticent. There was something uniquely Irish about his take on metaphysics, managing in tone and language to eschew the gushing sentimentality of American New Age literature, and present bewildering esoteric notions in a way that was accessible to Irish audiences.
It's hard now in an age of Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle and angel shops to convey quite how radical and influential McMahon was in the late 80s and early 90s. His annual talks at the Body, Mind, Spirit Show in the RDS were seminal occasions and the publication of each new book was a major event for the coterie of spiritual pioneers.
Liam Ó Maonlaí of the Hot House Flowers remembers the impact of first being given a copy of The Grand Design, and the excitement of tuning into this aspect of existence. “I liked Paddy’s way of expressing ideas,” says Ó Maonlaí. “He was so sincere in the things he said. A gentle, honourable man.”
The psychic and healer Catherine Campbell describes McMahon’s impact on her life as utterly transformative. “I got a phonecall out of the blue one night from a man with a gentle voice who said, ‘I would like to meet you.’ The next day he called again and said, ‘I need to see you as soon as possible, can you come tomorrow.’ I found myself agreeing to go, and when I arrived he said, ‘I believe you know Oberon.’ Oberon is my main spirit guide who I have known for years, but had never ever told anyone his name. I asked Paddy how he knew the name and, he said Oberon told him. I asked him then how he got my unlisted phone number and he said spirit had given it to him. He then went on to say that I needed to get over my fear of people knowing about my gifts. And so, I set up a healing practise and, right from the beginning, it was successful. All I can say is Paddy not only changed my life, but the lives of thousands.”
In an article like this, in a factual newspaper focused on evidence-based, rational thought, it is hard to say anything conclusive about this unusual, otherworldly man, who died in March. Some may dismiss him as a deluded oddball with an overly vivid imagination, but in a time before spiritual awareness or mindfulness was fully accepted in this country, McMahon was beacon of light for tens of thousands of people who saw him as a source of sense in a nonsensical world. He brought a message of self-love and self-worth that was directly opposed to what much of religion and society was peddling at the time.