Emigration from Ireland is not a new tale. You would be hard pressed to find one person on the island who does not have one family member or friend who has left Ireland for pastures new. Many Irish abroad survive and thrive in their new surroundings while others return home, seeing the sojourn as an experience that did not work out or an adventure that had to come to an end due to the irrepressible pull of home. For Paul Mullen his experience is most definitely best categorised as the former.
Having moved to the States eight years ago, courtesy of an opportunity to study for a Bachelor of Arts in marine engineering technology at Texas A&M, the Inis Mór man has put down roots, earning himself a master's in marine resource management and lining out for the USA Eagles 12 times at tighthead prop. Based in Galveston, a city just outside Houston, Texas, immigration is seemingly in the blood, with his great-grandfather Pat, author of the famous Man of Aran, having left Inis Mór for Boston at the start of the 20th century and younger brother Eoin, a cyclist, based in Colorado Springs.
"My great-grandfather headed out to Boston and had four children, one of whom was my grandfather, PJ. He then decided to come back to Inis Mór with PJ so I guess I have done the opposite of my grandfather in leaving Inis Mór for America. My brother Eoin is also out in the States. He has been here for six years now and competes as a cyclist."
'I wish I enjoyed the moment a bit more'
With the aforementioned PJ being born in Boston, Mullen was eligible to represent the United States via the grandparent law and made his international debut for the Eagles in a 62-13 victory over Russia in Denver last June. A week later, Mullen and his teammates faced Scotland in Houston where the USA recorded a famous 30-29 victory, their first success over any Tier 1 side. Although plenty of friends turned out at BBVA Compass Stadium, work commitments prevented his parents from attending.
"When I got the call from [USA coach] Gary Gold about playing for America, I took it with both hands. I am very proud to be from Inis Mór, an island of a couple of hundred people and to be Irish, but to be able to represent a country of more than 300 million people is very special. Making my debut was an incredible highlight [of my career].
"The Scotland game was an amazing one to be involved, especially the finish. My parents are involved in the tourism business back home and June is a very busy time of year so they were unable to fly out to see the game but I had plenty of friends who were there in Houston."
But Mullen's parents, Elizabeth and Michael, who run a shop and bike hire business on Inis Mór, did not have to wait long to see their son in live action as the USA took on Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin at the end of November. The prop says that although it was a wonderful moment for him to play in front of family he does have a little regret.
"Looking back to the Irish game, I wish I enjoyed the moment a bit more. I was just so focused on getting the job done and doing what I needed to do, I probably didn't enjoy it as much as I should. But standing, lined up, for both anthems, it was kind of surreal, but brilliant as well and a moment I won't forget."
Mullen's rise through the rugby ranks is all the more impressive when considering he never had picked up a rugby ball until he attended Glenstal Abbey in Limerick. Like many small parishes in Ireland, the O'Neill's ball was and still is king on Inis Mór, but once a teenage Mullen lifted up his first Gilbert, he says he was hooked. "In Glenstal, it was like either play rugby or don't play any sport. I had only played football on the island but once I tried rugby there was no turning back."
So much enthusiasm a young Mullen had for the game that his parents feared his love of the sport could be detrimental to his education as he pushed to impress the selectors of Munster schools during the summer before his Leaving Cert, so the decision was taken to send him to King's Hospital in Palmerstown, Dublin, to ensure that he would study for the exams. However, moving to Dublin for educational reasons did not inhibit Mullen's rugby ambitions and despite attending a Leinster school, he continued to train and play with Munster, representing the province at U19s and U20s level. However once school was finished, the thought of spending life on the island as a young man was not appealing, so the educational route which was always "gently encouraged" by his parents was chosen with Texas A&M the destination.
Taking to Texan life
Moving abroad, of course, has its challenges from adjusting to a new culture and way of life to leaving the support network of family and friends. For some it can take time to get their feet under the table with others not able to adjust at all. Mullen cites his time spent as a boarder in helping to settle into Texan life quickly.
"I have been really away from home since I was 12 when I started boarding at Glenstal, so I suppose that experience was good for me in the long run. Glenstal was a shock to the system at first because the islands are so small. You are looking at the sea every day, and every day is different, be it the weather or meeting new tourists coming off the ferry, whereas Glenstal is rural Limerick, the middle of nowhere really, and you're literally looking out the window watching the grass grow, going from the smell of seaweed on the island to the smell of silage in Glenstal - absolutely rotten - so moving away [to Texas] wasn't too bad.
"Galveston is a little island off Texas so instead of seeing ferries of tourists on the sea, it is oil tankers on the Houston Ship Channel, so I felt very much at home. The university is also small, maybe 2,500 students, so it wasn't over overwhelming either."
The ever looming threat of homesickness is an aspect with which every Irish emigrant must deal, Mullen who returned home to Inis Mór last Christmas for the first time since he left these shores says a busy schedule of studying and playing rugby as well as a small pocket of Irish in the city keep the thoughts and pull of Inis Mór at bay, and that he would not want to be anywhere other than his "little island off Texas".
"Christmas was the first time I had been back home since I left in November 2010. I love home but you can imagine that the island is not the most vibrant place on earth outside of the summer, and my last memory of the island when I left eight years ago was the weather - it was rotten. It is a bit more sunnier and hotter in Texas.
"I have been pretty busy since I have arrived here with studying for a BA and master's and playing rugby. When I finished my master's I went overseas to play for Newcastle Falcons for three months and now I'm playing for the Houston SaberCats. I have only managed to meet my brother Eoin for 15 minutes since he moved here, and that was at the airport in Houston when he had a layover before heading on to Guadeloupe to compete in a competition.
"There is also a great little Irish community in Houston. A GAA club has been established so I will head up there when I get the chance to kick a ball around and it is always great to meet other Irish people. And obviously in the US team there are Irish guys as well like Tadhg Leader and Aj MacGinty, so there is always great craic and great energy."