Cathal Cullen, 65: ‘Two guards drove in the gate to tell us our son, Cormac, was dead’

Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 11:30

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Cathal Cullen lives in Bamford, Co Kilkenny

I was one of 12 children. It made you fend for yourself. You grabbed what was on the table, because it mightn’t be there too long.

I grew up about a mile outside Arva, in Co Cavan. My father, Charles, was the local schoolmaster. My mother, Ann, had left school at 13. She was a dressmaker and had a sewing machine in the kitchen. She made all sorts of clothing for people in the local community, and she’d work all hours doing it. She made coats, dresses, suits, wedding dresses.

The fittings happened in the dining room. It was a very social thing for her. Lots of people came to her. People linked to her, shared stories with her. It was only when she died we realised how many people knew her in the community and what a big place she occupied within it.

When I was 17 I wanted to become a priest. I had this notion that if I became a priest I could save people from sin, from hell and damnation. It was awfully naive. I had a very simplified notion of life.

I spent five years with the Columbans. Three of them were in Templeogue, going to UCD to do an arts degree. I wanted to leave very soon after I went in, but I also wanted to test my vocation. I probably realised within a month of going in that this wasn’t right for me, but it took me five years to make the decision to leave. I found it very hard in UCD, seeing guys and girls in love with each other. Oh, Jesus, I felt awful lonely and so isolated.

I wouldn’t give up easily, and I wouldn’t walk away without being sure I had made the right decision. At the end of May 1972 I walked out. Leaving was a huge relief.

I went to Maynooth and did the HDip. In 1973 I applied for a job with the Presentation Sisters in Kilkenny city. I initially didn’t want to come to Kilkenny, because I knew nothing about it. I was so, so, so glad that I made the decision. I taught religion and English, and a bit of history and business. After four years I became vice principal, at 27.

I met Catherine in the Willow Inn in Friary Street. It was smoky and full, and I saw Catherine across the room. Eight months later we were engaged, and the year after that we were married.

I became principal, and I spent 35 years at the Presentation school. I retired in 2009. I always had this notion that I’d retire early, because I wanted to get out when I was still excited about the job. I’ve seen people hanging on for the last few pounds of the pension. They get tired, and they lose energy.

I went with a huge sense of loss about leaving the school, but I’m so delighted I retired. It’s crazy to think people might have to stay on at work in the future until they’re 70.

What I love about retirement is the freedom to make choices. I get excited getting up every day, because there is always the possibility of doing something interesting.

We had three children in our family: two girls and a boy, Cormac. Cormac was a bright, intelligent, very sensitive person. He suffered a lot from depression. He was always looking for answers. He had a heaviness about him. Catherine would know just from looking at Cormac how he was, just by the expression in his eyes. We were always looking for professional help for him, and we did get it.

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