IAN Paisley’s failure to appear at a DUP dinner in Co Antrim on Saturday was the first sign of his latest health problems.
His popular News Letter column appeared in the previous day’s edition as normal and “The Doc” was in fine form, reminding us of the need to make the most of what we have in the time we have been given.
These wise words appear alongside his unmistakable image – the octogenarian preacher-politician almost sizing up the reader through narrowed eyes, his lips stopping just short of a smile.
At first, only those in his closest circle of friends and family were aware of the unfolding drama.
But within 48 hours of the former North Antrim MP missing dinner with the party faithful, news of his hospital admission would have spread across the province and been reported around the world.
By Monday afternoon the News Letter was getting calls to say that Dr Paisley, 85, had been rushed to the Ulster Hospital after taking ill at about 5pm the previous evening.
Ministers in the Free Presbyterian Church, even some outside Northern Ireland, were being phoned by the moderator, the Rev Ron Johnstone, with requests to pray for the church’s founder.
Those who spoke to the News Letter were unsure about Dr Paisley’s exact illness but all believed him to be gravely ill, with suggestions that he was on a ventilator.
That morning, at the DUP’s weekly Assembly group meeting, the party’s MLAs had been told that Dr Paisley was seriously ill though they were given little information on the nature of his condition.
By mid-afternoon on Monday the news was being reported by the Press Association and broadcasters.
Journalists began to converge on the Ulster Hospital, trying to find out more about the former first minister’s condition, and in Stormont’s corridors MLAs asked for information about the DUP founder.
Baroness Paisley gave a statement, which was released by the Southern Health Trust rather than the DUP, which simply said: “Baroness Paisley confirms that her husband, Lord Bannside, is currently being treated in the Ulster Hospital. She requests that the family’s privacy be respected at this difficult time.”
At the bottom of the statement, in capital letters, was added: “NO FURTHER STATEMENT OR INFORMATION WILL BE ISSUED AT THIS TIME.”
Since then there has been no comment from the Paisley family on Dr Paisley’s condition, something which the Rev Johnstone – who met the family at the Ulster Hospital – said was out of their concern for others who are in similar circumstances.
Even some of his closest political allies have little knowledge of his exact condition. One party colleague said: “We were just told he was unwell and in hospital. That was all.”
One of the disappointed dinner guests at last Saturday’s North Antrim DUP dinner was long-time associate Maurice Mills.
The Ballymena councillor recalled: “He was due to be at the DUP dinner on Saturday night past in the Rosspark Hotel, but there was an apology in for him from his son Ian saying he couldn’t attend because of some flu or other.”
A party colleague of Dr Paisley’s, Mr Mills said that although a lot of people struggle to imagine the DUP founder – now known as Lord Bannside – not being around, “the fact is we are all mortal”.
Mr Mills, who first met the firebrand preacher at a Ballymena gospel rally in 1955, said: “We trust that the Lord will spare him for a few months or years yet.”
He added: “I’d like to think he will be able to get his autobiography finished which will be interesting. I wish Dr Paisley all the best and I hope he revives and we are spared to meet him again because his presence in Ulster means a lot given the fact he is undoubtedly a man of God.”
There has been great concern for Dr Paisley – who despite his age has maintained a challenging schedule between the House of Lords, his church, News Letter column and writing his memoirs – after it emerged that he was in intensive care.
But it is not the first time that the 85-year-old has been seriously ill.
There had been fears for his life around 2004 when he lost weight and looked gaunt. However, he made a good recovery from heart problems and returned to his hectic schedule with renewed vigour, going on to lead Northern Ireland as first minister for a year.
Some worshippers attending his farewell sermon at the Martyrs Memorial last month said he appeared remarkably well for his age.
One member of the congregation said: “I have rarely seen him in better form. Steady on his feet, it was typical Paisley cracking the odd joke with a jibe. He may have looked 85, but he was in fine form, really good.”
Dr Paisley’s five children – twin sons Ian Jnr and Kyle, who is also an ordained minister, and three daughters, Rhonda, Sharon and Cherith – were among the crowd of more than 3,000 people for his final address before officially retiring.
“I am exceedingly happy that I’ve had the privilege of being the preacher here for 65 years, and that’s a long time,” Dr Paisley said at the time.
Lisburn photographer John Kelly was asked by Dr Paisley to be the official photographer for his church farewell service on January 27, Dr Paisley’s last public appearance.
Mr Kelly recalled: “I met the family in the minister’s room at 7.30pm that night and I could not get over how relaxed he was even though it was a massive occasion.
“Obviously he has been used to that sort of an event but it must have been phenomenal to have walked out into that sort of a crowd.
“I went up to get my place in the balcony opposite the pulpit and I couldn’t even get down because people were standing in the aisles, in every corridor and out in an overflow hall – it was just bunged.”
Mr Kelly, who has written a book about the churches of Lisburn, said that the atmosphere was “electric” and the vast crowd sang two of Dr Paisley’s favourite hymns – ‘Tis old, yet ever new’ and Psalm 124, ‘Now Israel may say’ – with great zeal.
On the night, Dr Paisley spoke from the large pulpit in the Martyrs Memorial and told how that was where he “loves to be”. He told the congregation that he did not know how long he had left in this world but was convinced that he was going to heaven when he died.
Those comments echoed similar references to the end of life’s journey and heaven in his final sermon as minister of the Ravenhill Road church in December.
By Wednesday, the Paisley family’s bedside vigil was dominating the local media and making news bulletins worldwide.
A joint statement by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson urging the public to pray for the former first minister reinforced the extraordinary change in the relationship between Mr McGuinness and Dr Paisley in recent years.
At the request of the Paisley family, there have been no condition reports from the Ulster Hospital since Monday’s statement confirming that he was being treated there.
But religious leaders across the province have been calling for people to pray for the former Free Presbyterian moderator and on Wednesday evening members of the Martyrs Memorial congregation gathered to pray for their pastor at the weekly prayer meeting.
On Thursday it emerged that Ian Paisley Jnr had received over 400 text messages of support, calls from all over the world and the promise of prayers for his father from hundreds of church congregations.
The complete silence from the hospital, on the instructions of the family, is unusual in the age of rolling news channels and multiple daily updates on high-profile patients’ conditions.
Last night a senior doctor contacted the News Letter to say that the family’s silent decorum as they wait around Dr Paisley’s bedside was a welcome return to a bygone era.
The doctor, who asked not to be named for professional reasons, said that it was “refreshing”.
“This is the way it used to be before we had endless public relations attempts by hospitals while people are unwell,” he said.
“That causes significant hassle for doctors and nurses. The Paisley family have adopted what is much more the traditional way of doing things.”