Irish millionaire and best-selling author Bill Cullen tells Christina Farrell why he receives phone calls from the Vatican
Bill Cullen has a lilting brogue that, just occasionally, betrays his rougher Dublin roots. He is cultured, funny and never without something to say. As a child, growing up in the Summerhill tenements, he tells me that he and his siblings made their own entertainment telling tales.
“I used to listen to my grandmother – Ma Darcy,” he says. And so the young “Liam” Cullen’s head was filled with the exploits of wild chieftains and Irish heroes. He was, he insists, expelled from school at 13 for playing soccer – the English game – a traitor to his country. That might be slightly wide of the mark. Cullen’s school attendance was a mercurial thing, but who cares – he is a truly old-fashioned Irish raconteur. You could listen to him for hours: curl up in a chair with a glass of Jamesons, and let him talk.
Bill Cullen is a wealthy man – chairman and owner of the Glencullen Motor Group with a turnover of £250 million. His life story is a rags-toriches tale of a boy from Dublin’s south side who became one of the richest men in Ireland, a man who has dined at Buckingham Palace and entertained presidents.
His best-selling autobiography, It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples, told a story of appalling deprivation but indomitable spirit. It is a world away from Frank McCourt’s dark telling of Irish poverty. “We got a call from the Vatican,” he tells me.“They were thrilled that Penny Apples had knocked The Da Vinci Code off the top spot in Ireland.” In Cullen’s world, warriors roam the streets of Dublin’s fair city and the warriors, predominantly, are the women – Ireland’s mothers of the 40s and 50s with their rosaries wound round their fingers, their lips in silent prayer and an endless stream of hungry children pulling at their apron strings. Cullen’s “Ma” remains his inspiration, the woman who taught him to make a deal, to cajole and seduce, to make sense of a tough world. “Remember,” she told him. “You will never meet a man better than yourself, son.” He outlines his winning formula in his latest book, Golden Apples: Six Simple Steps to Success. He advocates standing before the mirror each morning and reciting: “I am terrific.” Isn’t this just a little selfindulgent, I ask? But Cullen sells his self-affirmation ideology with the passion of an American evangelist pushing religion. And anyway, it was Ma Darcy’s inspiration. Don’t argue with grandma.
“Muhammad Ali – Cassius Marcellus Clay – made his name at the Rome Olympics in 1960,” he tells me.
“Cassius was a famous Roman general and Ali went to the Colosseum and closed his eyes and he could hear the Roman mob shouting ‘Hail Cassius’– he knew he was destined for greatness. He said ‘I am the greatest.’” Did the little Liam Cullen know he was destined for greatness? “I was a confident kid,” he admits.
There is now little religion in Bill Cullen’s life. Divorced and remarried, he says he goes to Mass three to four times a year but will regularly pop into church to converse awhile with his long-dead parents, to seek again that place of “sanctity, holiness and calm”. He admits his failings – “I worked 20 hours a day, I was never home” – but insists, that his childhood faith instilled morals and values that have persisted. His primary motivation has always been “do unto others as they would do unto you”. Yet, as a small boy, the Catholic Church dominated his life. His mother would take him to Mass in the early hours of the morning before setting off on the streets selling and bartering the now famous penny apples. This devout woman who embraced the Mass and loved her religion was a street fighter too.
Cullen says she had plenty of “Lee-A-Roady”, a Gaelic word for “balls”. In one remarkable extract in Penny Apples Mrs Cullen, her belly swollen in late pregnancy, grasps the poker to see off the sheriff and his men sent in to evict a neighbour.
Did this strong woman willingly defer to the authority of a hierachical Church, dominated by men? “Our home was devout,” he recalls. “We said our prayers; we said our rosaries. We went to Mass. My mother accepted the situation she was in. She loved the Church.” One of his mother’s proudest moments was when Bill Cullen was asked to provide the popemobile for John Paul II’s historic visit to Ireland in 1979.
I’d always presumed that popemobiles were designed to a specific, rather standard Vatican specification. Bill Cullen laughs: “They sent me a drawing.We had to have a turret for blessings.” They settled, finally, on a converted white Ford van. The auspicious deal meant he secured four VIP tickets for the openair mass in Phoenix Park. “To his dying day my father would tell people: ‘I’m the fella who got communion off the Pope.’” Cullen speaks today of a new Ireland, frequently alluding to the Celtic Tiger – the economic revolution that brought wealth and job security to a nation that had previously exported its young. But with prosperity has come a failing of faith, destroyed too by clerical sexual scandals and Ireland may no longer be regarded as Semper Fidelis.
Bill Cullen regrets the new order: “We don’t have the Church in our lives,” he says. “Children today expect instant gratification. They don’t have the values that we had.” As a boy he served on the altar for 11 years and says he witnessed abuse. He recalls walking into the sacristy and seeing a priest and a boy together: “I said: ‘What’s goin’ on here?’ I was tough and independent, no one touched me, but then we didn’t really know what was happening. Ireland was an innocent country; sex happened in the dark. In our house it happened on Sunday afternoons when I took my brothers and sisters to the park to leave my parents in peace. We grew up in one room; it was the only opportunity for intimacy that they had.” There is a kindness in Bill Cullen; an unwillingess to apportion blame. He is currently president of the Irish Youth Foundation (IYF) which, to date, has raised more than €40 million for projects in Britain and Ireland, north and south of the border. IYF exemplifies Cullen’s pragmatism.
In one regeneration project the IYF renovated apartments and then allocated tenants a share of the equity – a simple idea that gave people pride in their surroundings. He has recently returned from talks with Downing Street on the foundation’s “Bridge Project” – the judiciary, instead of passing sentence, sends firsttime offenders to the IYF for four months. It gives them work experience, training and a renewed sense of selfrespect. The scheme has an astonishing success rate; 90 per cent don’t reoffend.
“If you put a young person in jail, you create a criminal,” says Cullen. “Does anybody look to see where these kids came from? Does anyone look at the circumstances of their lives?” The Church too deserves a second chance. Priests and religious have been unfairly blighted by the cruel and pernicious actions of the few. “I have worked with many great priests,” he says defiantly. “Priests and religious, men and women, who dedicated their lives to the poor. I recently received a letter from an old Irish priest in Africa. He was 75 years old and had been a missionary for over 50 years. He told me he felt he couldn’t come back because ‘priests are despised at home’.” Catholic devotion to the poor went out from Ireland to the Missions. Every Monday morning Cullen’s mother would press a hard-earned penny into his hand for the “black babies”. He is disgusted at the corruption that has seen aid transformed into luxury for the despots who rule some of Africa’s nations. Effort, not money, is the answer.
“In Africa it was the priests and the nuns who stayed with the poor, who made a difference and that’s the same today,” he says. “It’s easy to raise money, for the G8 to donate billions. What Africa needs is people’s time and energy. If Bob Geldof wants to make a difference he should look to the Church.” He should look to Bill Cullen too.
Royalties from Bill Cullen’s memoirs It’s a Long way from Penny Apples (Coronet £6.99) go to the Irish Youth Foundation.
Golden Apples: Six Simple Steps to Success is published by Hodder Stoughton priced £16.99