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

Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Photograph: Dylan Vaughan


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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.

Cormac died of an overdose on October 31st last year, three weeks short of his 30th birthday. He was living at home when he died. He had been here about a month, and he was going downhill. He never stopped talking and being more negative about himself.

He was a plumber and welder, but he wasn’t employed at that stage. He was feeling down, feeling depressed. We were constantly helping him. It is extremely difficult to watch someone you love suffer. It was a constant worry to us for years that he could die in this way.

At 6.15 in the evening two guards drove in the gate to tell us he was dead. People came to us, took things over and ran our lives for us in the days that followed. We didn’t have to think of anything. The support we got was like a protective wall around us, and we are still getting fantastic support from people.

Cormac was here in the house for two days before he was buried, and a sense of peace seemed to emanate from him. The only thing that makes sense to us is the absolute belief that he is in a good place now. He had found living too difficult.

I do have a strong faith in a higher power, and I have no doubt that Cormac is in the care of that higher power. At one moment my heart can be breaking when I think of him, and in the next I think he is now finally getting the peace that he wanted all along.

We can talk about his death as a family, and that helps. The more people talk about it, the better it is. We can reminisce and cry and laugh. I feel it has brought us closer as a family and to other people.

Cormac’s death has made me realise even more fully that life is very much a journey. We can’t legislate for how it turns out; all we can do is our best. It has also helped me to be a little less judgmental.

I’ve become hugely conscious of gratitude. We have to keep reminding ourselves what we have to be grateful about: family, friends, even the movement of the trees.

Everyone must get the maximum out of every bit of life. Life is so much for living. His death has made me love life even more.

I want to be healthy. I want to continue to be able to dream, and to have plans, even if they’re never realised. I want to continue to love my own family and my family of origin. I want to continue to see the good in things, even if the bad is being pushed on us all the time.

I want to live to be 140, so I can do all the things I keep telling myself I want to do. I want to do the camino. I want to publish a book of short stories. I want to work in an underdeveloped part of the world for a few months at least.

I want to be around to see my daughters be happy in their lives and to see my grandson grow up, and I want to be with Catherine for years and years and years.

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