‘My dad would literally give his right leg for me’
Three fathers and their children reflect on the value of their relationship and what it’s taught them about life
Evanne Ní Chuilinn and her father, Cathal Cullen: “We are probably both very loyal, strong willed and sensitive”
Plenty of things can go unspoken between fathers and their children. For this Father’s Day, we asked fathers and their sons and daughters to reveal how they feel about each other, what aspects of themselves they see in each other, and what their relationship has taught them about life.
The RTÉ sports broadcaster Evanne Ní Chuilinn talks about her father, Cathal Cullen, and his sensitivity, loyalty, and propensity to spoil her as a child.
Evanne on Cathal
“I was his eldest daughter and he made me feel really important and really special. That can backfire because not everyone has that opinion of you in life! I always wanted to make him feel I felt the same way, so I’d make a fuss of him on Father’s Day and spoil him and make him sit down and not being running around like a lunatic. He’s always doing something.
“I don’t know how he couldn’t but shape the person I am. I’m really lucky. He has definitely made me into somebody who is very independent, confident, I learned a lot from Dad. My parents would have made sure I was exposed to the arts. Sport was my own thing, that’s my interest and I nurtured that myself. My parents are into the arts and I had a really rounded upbringing… Dad’s quite sensitive, maybe more so than other men of that generation. He grew up with 10 sisters, so he’s sensitive to other people’s feelings. He knows when to hug me and when not to.
“One of the earliest memories I have of my dad was how adorable he was the day of my First Holy Communion. It was the 1980s, so nobody had money, and everyone had clapped-out Renaults, us included. After mass, we went to Dunmore East for the day, which was a big treat, but Dad wanted the car to be befitting of his princess, so he splashed out on black faux fur seat covers. It was the sweetest thing, and I don’t even know if he realised how much that meant, or that it still resonates with me. My dad would literally give his right leg for me, and he’s thrifty at the best of times, so to go and purchase brand new seat covers was a huge deal, and a sure sign that I had him wrapped around my little finger, aged seven.
“I am very driven, and I actually think that has something to do with just how much my dad believes in me. I always wanted to show him he was right to believe so blindly in me, so I would always demand high standards of myself. He wasn’t a pushy parent by any stretch, but I must have been aware that when I did well, he was happy to celebrate that.
“We are probably both very loyal, strong willed and sensitive. All of those traits have positive and negatives, but they are not what you’d lick off a stone, so I am happy they’re the parts of my own personality that my dad has shaped.”
Cathal on Evanne
What is your best memory of each other, or the best time you had together? “One from Evanne’s early childhood is of when I would be cutting the lawn. We – or maybe Santy! – had given her a toy lawnmower. She used to follow me around the garden and say that she was “lawning”. My mistake, of course, was that I didn’t continue the training and she could have become my professional lawn mower. I also remember sitting in an Irish pub in La Zenia in Spain and watching The Sunday Game. I was sitting on my own when Evanne appeared on the screen, interviewing people as they went into Croke Park. Such a moment of pride and joy – my little ‘princess’ on TV. And I never said a word to anyone. I think I just wanted to keep it – and her – all to myself.” What do you think you’ve taught each other? “When Evanne was a small child she used to come up to me sometimes and say, ‘Daddy, don’t be disappointing’. She meant that I should not be disappointed in something that she had said or done. That phrase stuck with me forever and it taught me to try and be a lot less judgmental and critical. Believe me, I have still a huge journey to go, but I do try to see the best in people now and try to ignore the faults or mistakes.” What is your favourite thing to do together? “I enjoy the times that I can sit down with Evanne and chat about the things in our lives – maybe over a drink.”
Philip King, the musician, broadcaster, filmmaker and founder of Other Voices, has five daughters, three of whom are triplets Molly, Ellen and Juno. Philip has given “the triplets” an appreciation of the arts and a sense of place rooted in west Kerry. Here, those three young women reflect on their dad.
Ellen on Philip
“Some of my fondest memories of spending time with Dad involve hanging out in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon reading out articles from the weekend papers to each other on different topics that interest us, talking them over, and generally relaxing in each other’s company.
“He’s definitely taught me the value of being yourself and not changing your views or opinions to fit in. His excitement and passion for the arts and how he expresses himself artistically is something I’ll always admire.
“He’s a very caring, positive and hard-working person. We’re actually very similar people which is probably why he used to sometimes drive me crazy when I was a teenager! I think we’re both stubborn, emotional, closet introverts, with a propensity to overthink things. I’d also like to think we’re both very loyal to the people we love. I love going to the cinema with him. It’s something we’ve done together since I was a kid… always staying until the very end to watch all the music credits and discussing the use of music.”
Juno on Philip
“Dad would would drop us at our school gates and gleefully beep the car horn twice before shouting ‘slán a cailíní!’ I cannot begin to articulate my adolescent mortification. I learned a great deal about music from my dad, his own passion for it is infectious and he has so many fantastic and colourful stories about his own experiences in that industry. Both my parents are the reason why I find music so magic and restorative.
“Dad also instilled in me a deep appreciation of place and community. We were about six years old when we moved from suburban Sandymount in Dublin to Ceann Trá, a village at the most westerly tip of Kerry. This is a place that had such a profound effect on Dad as young man when he went to learn Irish there as a student. It is the same for me, Molly and Ellen. It’s only now that we’re older, that we recognise how privileged we are to call it home. It is a place rich with culture and community, and has informed so much of my identity.
“My sisters and I always joke that we have too many feelings, I think Dad is probably responsible for that, he’s a sensitive and emotional soul. Like him, I can’t keep my heart in my pocket. I often catch myself sometimes, after I’ve said something or reacted to something in a certain way, and think, ‘that was very Dad’.”
Molly on Philip
“I think all the best parts of a relationship are in the everyday, or the seemingly mundane. Whether it’s both of us standing in the wings watching a gig we’ve worked on together and catching each other’s eye when something really magical is happening, blasting whatever music Dad’s really into on the way to school as we drive past Ventry Bay, or stopping into the Reel Dingle Fish (best chipper around) for ‘pre-dinner chips’, and hiding the evidence in the wheelie bin outside the house before returning.
“From him, I’ve learned to look around my surroundings and be grateful for where I grew up, and what that has given to me. So much of my identity is wrapped up in being from Ireland, and growing up in a Gaeltacht rich with language and music. All the way through our childhood he’d say as we were driving around West Kerry ‘just look at where we are. Aren’t we just so lucky?’ and I carry that with me. I live in London now and have a photograph of the Atlantic right above my desk. The pull home is a strong one. He has spent most of his life wanting to get back to west Kerry and I think I’ve caught the same bug! He taught me never to take where you’ve come from for granted.
“We’re quite different in many ways, but I think we both have always ultimately stuck to doing things the way we wanted to do them, even if that wasn’t the ‘normal’ thing to do. When I was a teenager, I was struggling a bit with how I wanted to look and what I should be wearing to fit in. I remember chatting to Dad before going out one night and dithering over why I didn’t feel comfortable wearing the same clothes as everyone else. He said: ‘Well Molly, I think in life you’ll have to get used to the fact there’ll be many times where most people go right and you’ll go left, and that’s ok’.
“I love travelling with Dad. Usually it’s for work – we both travel a lot on our own at the moment and when a rare occasion crops up when we’re both on the same flight or in the same city, there’s fierce excitement. Bags of crisps are bought, the paper is shared. Dad’s notebook is out with his Stabilo Point 88 pen. Most people who’ve met Dad will notice an infectious enthusiasm – he revels in the small things as much as any of the big. He’s a constantly affectionate and encouraging father in life and in work. ‘Great to be together isn’t it Mol!’ Absolutely.”
Philip on fatherhood What do you think you’ve learned from your daughters?
“Tolerance, and never to decide to cut your child’s hair at 8:30 just before going to school, and that singing and denim was not always a universally popular combination.” What parts of your personalities do you see in each other? “Thank goodness I embedded impeccable musical taste in all the girls. They knew Frank Zappa, Séamus Begley, Joni Mitchell and Elvis Costello before the age of reason.”
What is your favourite thing to do together? “Going to the cinema all together from a very early age was always an occasion. We laughed and cried at the pictures. Now with everybody gone from Kerry, we try and make dates to go to the pictures together. We have a very happy memory of coming out of the Phoenix Cinema in Dingle on a starry night having seen Nicholas Nickleby. How lucky were we to have a cinema in a small town like Dingle.”
Marlon Prendergast Spollen (15) has grown up with a backstage pass, thanks to his father Brian Spollen’s career as one of the leading music promoters in the country with MCD, booking large festivals and outdoor concerts, and the country’s biggest gigs across electronic music, hip-hop and rock. Here, the teenager, mid-Junior Cert, reflects on his dad, and vice versa.
Marlon on Brian
“I’ve kind of grown up backstage at concerts. I rarely go out with the crowd. I just want to listen to the band. I think when Dad needs to be – when someone is out of line – he’s a disciplinarian. He explains to people what they’ve done and why. But he’s also really generous with us. He gives us a lot and I’m very thankful for that.
“People always say our voices are similar. I remember I was talking on the phone to someone and I gave him [Brian] the phone and the person thought they were still talking to me. He repeats himself a lot. He pauses in his sentences a lot of the time. Often I’d have to finish his sentences and guess what he was going to say. At the dinner table he might say, ‘Marlon, bring me the…’ And I’ll have to say ‘jug?’ ‘Yes!’
“We both love California and have our holidays there. We get to hang out, and spend time together, and eat great food and go to Universal Studios. One thing I’d like to do [with Brian] is go to Comic-Con or E3 [the Electronic Entertainment Expo]. And we really enjoy cooking together.
“He’s taught me that you can’t always expect things to go the way that you want. I guess what it comes down to is always have a Plan B ready. You can’t just walk into a room and expect that everything goes your way. That’s something he told me. Dad has taught me that I need to be tough in life.”
Brian on Marlon
What do you remember about when he was born?
“We’d been in the hospital for 36 hours walking up and down. Rachael was finally ready to go into the delivery room. The Americans were invading Iraq. We were waiting on the epidural guy, and this doctor arrived wearing a rubber butcher’s apron and rubber boots and this ginormous needle. I shouted ‘it’s the butcher of Bagdad’. Within 10 minutes she was like ‘do you want to go and watch the war?’ I went and watched the CNN guy riding on the roof of the tank over the border. Then Marlon arrived.”
What would you do if you both had a day off?
“We would probably walk the dog. We like cooking together. I would have to drag him out of the house to walk the dog, then we’d just have a laugh. He’d talk about video games, endlessly, and I would listen. But not understand.”
What is Marlon’s dominant characteristic?
“Marlon is so creative. I think he was nine or 10 when he was ripping up clothes and putting them back together, and painting on to clothes. Even when he was very little and he had very long hair, he wouldn’t let us cut his hair. Anything to do with art, like projects in school, he has a definite vision about how he wants something to look like in the end and how he wants it to be presented. He’s nearly as tall as me. I bring him shopping and it disgusts me that everything looks good on him. I send Rachael pictures going ‘this is so annoying’.
“But the things that shock you about humans that come from you are that they’re their own people, I guess. It’s not when the baby says ‘no’, it’s when they have a genuine opinion on Trump or the Eighth Amendment or something and you’re like ‘woah! You’re a person now!’ It’s amazing. Marlon has taught me how his generation are so understanding of each other.”