‘God bless Facebook’
That was the phrase that kept going through my head in Glasgow Crematorium. As I listened to the minister conducting the funeral service I was wondering if what I was thinking was blasphemy. This was the funeral of my first cousin John Cullen who I had just physically linked up with, after 58 years, a few weeks earlier in Turkey. I had often read of families especially siblings who through DNA had reconnected after so many years and frankly never thought that I had anything in common. Little did I know.
John was the son of my father’s brother, James, who had emigrated to Dumfries, in Scotland, from Armagh, just after WWII. James and his family returned for holidays in the early 1960s. My 9-year-old memory of 17-year-old John was of a debonair young man who could saunter into the bar of our local pub Mary Ann’s whilst we played in the parking lot across the road. Not long after this John joined the British army, followed by his younger brother Brian. The 1960s were the start of a volatile time in Northern Ireland and gave birth to “The Troubles.” For security reasons, John and his brother and indeed family were unable to holiday in Armagh. Time moved on and John spent 29 years with his regiment.
On leaving the army he took up a post as facilities manager in a Glasgow school and subsequently, upon retirement, moved to the Aydin Province on the Aegean coast of west Turkey. It was while he was living here that we started to connect on Facebook. His Facebook postings reflected a thoughtful and humorous person. Having never visited Turkey and desirous of further acquainting myself with John, I booked a week’s holiday, with my wife, in a hotel near where he lived. I was slightly daunted at me, an Irish nationalist, meeting up with someone who had spent almost three decades in the British Army and during the era of The Troubles.
Our first meeting was outside the hotel in Didim where he had taken upon himself to make sure that we had the room with the best sea view. Banality was the tone of our conversation as we walked the seafront. When we sat for a meal John immediately said “Turkish, not tourist prices” to the waiter and as we ate he gathered the unused sugar and condiments to take home. I wondered was this the parsimony that Celtic neighbours mildly libeled the Scots with! However, we were to learn that this frugality was not meanness. During the week there, John treated us to a day cruise in the Aegean. It was on this trip his humour shone through, some young Turkish females who due to a combination of loud music, hot sun, and copious amounts of alcohol were encouraging us and fellow passengers to dance. John adopted a prayerful pose on his knees that exempted him from the robust gyrating invites. We visited Ephesus, Miletus, the House of the Virgin Mary, the ruins of Didyma, and an ecumenical church service and during all these visits I got to know John and value him firstly as a friend and then as a cousin.
John knew all the local restaurants, often well away from tourist areas. It was in one of these hostelries that I broached the elephant in the room, my nationalistic tendencies, and his British army membership. John recounted how his, Armagh-born, father wouldn’t sign his military enlistment forms as he was just shy of 18. His Scots-born mother actually forged his father’s signature! He also informed us that even though he was in the British Army, that didn’t mean he didn’t want a united Ireland and he broke into a rendition of Kevin Barry.
As John was the oldest Cullen cousin, he had pronounced himself ‘Chieftain of Clan Cullen’. Marie, my wife, and I had discussed a family get-together should we ever host John in Armagh and have an inauguration party. Jokingly I mentioned this to John as we left to return to Ireland and he replied, “You might see me sooner than you think”.
Six weeks later we were at a dinner party at my brother’s house, in Armagh when a call came from Scotland informing us that John had died in Glasgow from a heart attack. Marie was in tears as she too had grown to like John; strangely my initial reaction was one of relief. Despite the sadness of his passing, I was relieved that I’d met, gotten to know, and really like my cousin whom I’d previously spent 58 years not even thinking about.
The final words of The Parting Glass embrace and embody John and his philosophy, “And gather as the evening falls and gently rise and softly call goodnight and joy be to you all goodnight and joy be to you all”. ♦