Brigadier General James P. Cullen died at his home in Scarsdale, New York on 8 December 2017 at the age of 72. He was born in Queens, New York on 27 January 1945 to Agnes Gorman and Patrick Cullen but came to Ireland and to Rahan, Co. Offaly when he was four and spent almost four years in the Offaly parish before returning to New York where he took his first job soon after. Thereafter Jim never stopped working, giving of his time whether for remuneration or in a voluntary capacity.
Either way the service was extraordinary because Jim had a first class brain and huge commitment to his clients and the voluntary activities he loved. Nothing was by half and his way of doing things was thorough. His military training served him well and he brought to everything he did an awesome level of detail, but never more than was necessary to get the job done efficiently.
Jim was a great friend to Offaly History and wrote of his early years for the 2005 Offaly Heritage journal an article about how much he loved his mother’s homeplace.
My mother, Agnes Cullen, was born at the Lough, Curraghmeela, Killoughy, in 1907, and died in her 95th year in Rahan. One of a family of seven, she and her three sisters immigrated to America. Her three brothers stayed in Ireland, although Eugene spent several years in England during and after World War II before returning home. The girls followed the typical path worn by so many before them. My mother’s sister, Bridget went to New York in the late 1920’s. She stayed initially, like so many young girls from Rahan, with Mary Ellen Grennan, who had emigrated from Rahan years earlier. Mary Ellen was a housekeeper and cook at a large rectory on 34th Street in Manhattan. She would find the Co Offaly girls jobs, and occasionally, immigrant boyfriends from back home. Bridget, in turn, brought out my mother in 1931. It was not an easy time. The Depression was in its second year. The women became maids. They worked six and half days each week, having only Sunday mornings off to attend church. Some of the employers were in rapidly declining circumstances, and were barely able to keep up pretenses. The employers paid maids very little. The girls lived frugally in order to send a significant part of their earnings to their parents at home.
My aunt Bridge returned from America with her husband, Jim Keegan, after WWII ended. They had lived in the States for almost 20 years, but Jim Keegan never felt comfortable in the New York life style. He returned to purchase a farm in Ballykeenahan. The farm had been in his family for over 250 years but had passed out of the family through marriage. Jim’s grandfather went to California in the Gold Rush of 1849 with a friend from Rahan, but both he and his friend also returned to Ireland. The land was too great a magnet for the Keegan clan to resist.
My mother married my father, who was from Sligo, in 1944 and I came along in 1945. My father went into a disastrous business venture in 1947. He invested their meager savings with a partner in a pub in a terrible location. The partner turned out to be his own best customer, and the business venture was lost after a year and a half.
My Aunt Bridge was my mother’s closest friend and knew our desperate economic situation in the States. She suggested that my mother send me over to stay in Ballykeenahan until circumstances improved at home. My mother agreed, although with understandable reluctance. I was four at the time, in 1949, and about to blaze my own version of the “Wrong Way Corrigan” story.
I spent the next three and ½ years in Ballykeenahan, which were the happiest and most secure years of my young life. Jim Keegan was an ideal foster father and taught me, in his own quiet way, a great deal about nature and values. I loved Ireland from the first day here, which reflected the love of my aunt and uncle. I went to school in Ballykilmurry, where I was taught by Miss Killeavy and where Jim Keegan’s aunt, Mrs Horan, was the principal. One did not misbehave in Mrs Horan’s presence, as I learned the hard way. Miss Killeavy was a wonderful teacher, of whom I was very fond.
The day finally arrived when I had to return to America. I obtained my first job there when I was nine, stacking bottles in a candy store run by a couple who had fled Hitler’s Germany. The pay was 25 cents per hour. Other odd jobs followed, including newspaper delivery boy, busboy and help in a restaurant that provided its own peculiar lessons.
By 19 years old Jim had done his first real estate deal and others would follow. Many were for his law office clients. He fully understood how to maximise site value and was in demand by charitable and builder clients. But that was later. First it was long distance lorry driving to put himself through university and law school. This was followed by a spell in the army, joining as a Private First Class, but soon advancing to an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. By 1992 when Jim was just 47 he would end up as Chief Judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals (IMA) with promotion to the rank of Brigadier General. It was the highest position in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate Reserve and he was fully on top of it for four years.
A real estate and human rights attorney, Jim was the co-founder and first President of the Brehon Law Society, served on the Advisory Board of Human Rights First, was President and Chairman of Friends of Sinn Fein, Inc., was the treasurer of the Construction Industry World Trade Center Disaster Relief Fund and a board member of the 4th JAG Alumni Association.
For many retirement would be for leisure but now Jim became a private lawyer near Wall Street and probably did not stop until his most recent illness of the last two years. Jim brought to property law, human rights law and to his beloved causes in Northern Ireland the same relentless passion for excellence. This was so obvious at the time of the Irish Times in-depth analysis of the Sinn Féin funds in the U.S. Jim was president of the Friends of Sinn Féin in New York and there was nothing the investigating journalists could do to trip him up. He was on top of his brief. It was the same with his letters to the Secretary of State Northern Ireland in the matter of security force murder gangs and miscarriages of justice.
Jim Cullen played an active role in the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, acted as an international civil rights monitor in Northern Ireland, testified before the U.S. Congress in the case of murdered human rights lawyer, Patrick Finucane and assisted with the inquiry into the killing of Rosemary Nelson. A true leader and inspiration to many, the Graymoor Franciscan Friars (near New York and West Point) awarded him the Graymoor Award (2014) for his human rights work. This must have been all the more special to him as his old friend and parishioner, Fr Aloysius Craven of Rahan, Offaly had been stationed at Graymoor until his death in 1996.
Less well known was Jim’s advocacy for proper judicial procedures in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan. He had no time for the Neocon contempt for fair procedures and lined up with other retired U.S. generals to fight the notion that the Enemies of the State must be beaten by illegal methods. ‘In alliance with the human rights group, he and his once-uniformed colleagues lobbied major politicians to support a ban on coercive interrogations.’ (Haberman, New York Times, 13 Dec. 2017). Cullen’s case was vindicated when President Obama invited him and the other retired generals to the White House on the night of his inauguration as president to announce the closing of Guantánamo Bay detention centre. On 22 Jan. 2009 the sixteen retired generals were on hand to see President Obama sign the executive order. Closing it would prove difficult, however, even for the new president.
Jim Cullen was generous to his friends and his causes. He always made time from a busy day to show visitors the Five Points, Wall Street, West Point, and so much more including Gettysburg, Antietam and General Hand’s home at Rock Ford Planation, P.A. Hand was born in Clyduff, Shinrone and was adjutant to Washington in the War of Independence. For those lucky enough to get the Civil War tour it was organised with military precision, but there was no rush once friends embarked with General Cullen.
Jim Cullen last spoke to Offaly History in March 2016 and his lecture was recorded and is available as a podcast. On that occasion his subject was a military analysis of the 1916 rising. This essay was published in Offaly Heritage 9 in December 2016. Jim’s great friend Stephen McNeill died in May 2016 and Jim himself was frequently ill thereafter but fought off his illness until that final call from the Commander-in-chief on 8 December 2107.
We shall miss his enthusiasm for all things to do with Offaly History and happy to have known him. Our sympathy to his partner Catherine, his children – Tara, Kerry, Erin and Sean – and his wider family around the parishes of Rahan and Kilcomac. He loved all dearly.
- Brigadier General James P. Cullen (Retired), ‘The Crooked Road from Rahan to Chief Judge, U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals.’, in Offaly Heritage 3 (2005), pp 166-8.
- James P. Cullen, ‘A retrospective military analysis of the 1916 Rising’, In Offaly Heritage 9 (2016), pp 258 -79.
- For a short obituary see Tullamore Tribune, 14 Dec. 2017.
- For the executive order to close Guantámamo bay order see Clyde Haberman in New York Times, 13 December 2017.