(Photo: James Fennell)
1931, Friday afternoon, 3:55 p.m. The manager of the CDR Railway Stores in Letterkenny was just shaking out his keys to close up for the day when he heard the familiar clopping on the cobblestones. The lanky kid grinned at him from behind the trap, urging his donkey down the ramps. ‘Well, good afternoon, Lieutenant Balbo,’ said the storeman. ‘By the skin of your teeth again.’
The boy hadn’t known who Lieutenant Balbo was when the storeman first cracked the joke. But he soon learned all about Italo Balbo, the fiery Italian aviator who led a fleet of twelve flying boats on a transatlantic flight from Italy to Brazil in December 1930. Balbo later became one of Mussolini’s key advisors.
Danny Cullen was eleven years old when he first started showing up at the store with his donkey and cart. His mission was straightforward. The shed was full of margarine, the new butter-like spread which was being advertised by companies such as Stork, Floss and Bluebell. Letterkenny’s bakers had taken a shine to the spread and young Danny had stolen a march on his rivals to ensure they were supplied accordingly. If he played his cards right, he could deliver two cart loads of margarine every evening. And if the margarine stock was low, he could always take a load of sixteen-stone bags of sugar up to the Oatfield sweet factory on the Ramelton Road instead.
‘The margarine came down every Friday,’ he recalled. ‘There’d be six, maybe eight, tonnes of it. It all had to go. So I went all round, delivering it to the bakers and shops and houses. Me and Neddy. That was the donkey’s name. I’d sit up on the trap and whistle and sing and off we’d go on our rounds. Oh, yes, I was as strong as any man, but I enjoyed the work.’
Based at Rosemount Lane, just off Letterkenny’s Main Street, Danny’s family had been in the delivery game for at least three generations. ‘My great-grandfather was going around with a horse and cart long before the railways came,’ he said. ‘So it was always something I was going to do. But I started young, when I was still at school. I used to get out of school at three o’clock and that gave me an hour to run through a garden and a field and get Neddy and the cart.’
When Danny left school in 1934, he graduated to a pony and a slightly bigger cart, and his younger brother Vincent duly took charge of Neddy. Hand-me-downs were part of life for Danny and his four brothers, as well as his younger sister, Rosaleen.
The Cullens had been prominent members of Letterkenny’s Roman Catholic community for many long decades. Danny’s mother, Minnie, came from a rather different stock. Her father was a well-to-do English Presbyterian called J. J. Kerrigan who served in the Prince of Wales’ Own Donegal Militia, later incorporated into the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He retired with the rank of sergeant major and then bought a pub on the Market Square in Letterkenny with his wife Mary Carrick, Danny’s grandmother, a publican’s daughter from Castlefinn, County Donegal.
‘I was raised as a Catholic,’ says Danny. ‘But, as my mother always said, one religion is as good as the other and there is no difference between anyone. My grandfather was the same. He was a Presbyterian, but he held that it was the same God who listened to your prayers no matter who you were. But when he came to Letterkenny before the First World War, he took a walk around the town. He noted that the Protestants and Presbyterians had much bigger shops than the Catholics, and that the Protestants wouldn’t employ a Catholic. He thought that was a terrible mistake. It wasn’t like that when he grew up there, before he joined the army, when nobody knew what religion anyone was. But when he saw how it had changed in Letterkenny, he turned Catholic and he never missed a mass after that.’
However, while J. J. Kerrigan may have had liberal views on religion, this did not save his oldest daughter, Minnie, from becoming estranged from the family when she married a Catholic haulier called Paddy Cullen from Letterkenny’s Port Road. Minnie was born near Dover in England in 1892 but grew up in Letterkenny. As a child, she had been a terrific musician and played both the piano and harp with much gusto.
Minnie’s two brothers, Jack and Eddie, were both in the Royal Irish Constabulary, but resigned after independence. Jack later settled near Downies in north Donegal where he ran the Harbour Bar for a short period. Danny’s grandmother died while staying up with him and is buried in Carrigart. Both of Minnie’s sisters , Susan and Daisy, married officers of the Civic Guard (later An Garda Síochána), settling in Dublin city and Ardagh, County Longford, respectively. Susan’s son, Canon Desmond O’Dowd, became parish priest in Cootehill, County Cavan.
Sometime after Minnie’s marriage to Paddy, J. J. Kerrigan died suddenly while in Belfast and Minnie was unable to make the funeral. Many years later, she met up with her sisters and sought their forgiveness, but the wounds ran too deep and peace was not to be made.
Paddy and Minnie had eight children, seven boys and a girl, of whom two boys died at birth. They lived down the Major’s Lane, near Puddle Alley, an area that is today more fragrantly known as Rosemount. Apparently, four houses at the end of this terrace were built for four Belgian army majors and may have been something to do with a British army camp outside the town at Sprackburn.
Danny was always a cheerful soul, with a long and frequent belly-rumbling laugh. When we talked, he constantly ventured back into his memory to find anecdote after anecdote that made him, if not everyone else, chuckle.
Before he went into haulage full-time, Danny spent two years drawing water to a stonebreaker operated by McCauley’s on the Lower Main Street. He says life in twentieth-century Letterkenny was often a hard slog. ‘When I was a young fellow, there was very little work here. There were no factories and it was a very poor town. I remember once I was helping a man from the P&T [the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, which was divided into An Post and Telecom Éireann in 1984]. We had the big drums for the telephone cables and a woman came out from one of the estates and asked if she could have the drums for a bed. And she wanted the chaff to stuff a mattress. Some people literally had nothing in them times.’
‘I was twenty-two years with a horse and cart,’ he said. ‘And then I was twenty-three years with a lorry. I went into competition with the guys I worked for.’ He was actually invited to become manager of the same railway stores from which he had been gathering sugar and margarine for all those years. However, Danny could see which way the future was headed and he strongly suspected that the days of the railway were at an end. Sure enough, in 1960, the railway line between Strabane and Letterkenny was closed. Henceforth, Letterkenny’s main access channel was by road.
In 1955, Danny bought his first lorry, a second-hand Ford. ‘I had luck with her. She done well for me and I got a good start. I was well known to all the firms in Letterkenny because I had been on the deliveries for so long. I gave a good service. I was always on time. If I promise someone I will be there at a time, I will always be there on time. Punctuality. Being late is a habit but so is being on time.’
With the lorry, Danny was now frequently journeying down the long road to Dublin, a round trip of nearly 500km, gathering up crates and boxes of anything and everything. His main clients were Eirimports, Tennant and Ruttle, Ferguson Televisions and, latterly, Lucozade. ‘I was sixteen years on the Dublin run. ‘We’d go down, get the crates and make sure they weren’t damaged and that they got to the firms on time. It was heavy work. But I did powerful well with it.’
Danny married Nuala McGarvey in 1947 and they raised seven sons and a daughter in a house which he built at Gortlee, Letterkenny.
Danny was thirty-two years old when his father passed away. Paddy Cullen’s demise prompted something of a religious awakening in the youngster. ‘My father was not a very healthy man,’ he said. ‘He was a heavy smoker. I used to give out to him and say, “You know, you are shortening your own life!” and then he got ill and he was riddled with cancer. He was suffering terribly, night and day, with terrible pain. And then one day he asked for the Green Scapula.’
Green Scapulas are unofficial Catholic devotional charms, the origin of which is traced to a revelation by the Blessed Virgin Mary to Sister Justine Bisqueyburu in Paris in 1840. The charms reputedly do much to resolve inner healing, specifically for those suffering from diseases like cancer. Danny had his own Green Scapula and passed it to his fathe. When he returned three days later, Paddy was sitting up in the bed with a broad smile.
‘How are you?’ Danny asked, somewhat incredulously. Paddy held up the Scapula and replied, ‘Between this and a few prayers, I’m sleeping night and day.’ He died some days later but Danny insisted there was no pain.
Danny had several more stories of people he had known or heard about who had benefitted from the mysterious pain-relieving qualities of the Green Scapula, and Blessed Salts.
For the last six months of his life, Danny Cullen kept the Green Scapula pinned to his vest and constantly rubbed it upon his lips. He passed away peacefully in his own bedroom, with his family by his side, in September 2009, and was buried wearing the Green Scapula. Cullen Transport is now run by his sons Cyril and Danny Jr, continuing Donegal’s oldest haulage business into the fourth generation.
With thanks to Cyril Cullen.