Paul Mullen is eager to come back to Ireland. He wants to arrive on merit.
A native of the Aran Islands, Mullen made his international rugby debut for the USA in the June Test series. His second and third caps followed soon after too, so with the Eagles lined up for a November trip to Dublin later this year, the 26-year-old has more than an outside chance playing in the Aviva Stadium again.
Should that come pass, it would tie a fine bow on an eight-year stint in the US for Mullen. During that time he has made a home for himself in the Houston area. He hasn’t set foot on the picturesque lands off Galway’s coast, but family and community remain strong tenets in the tighthead’s life.
In so many ways, this is an old story, just with a modern twist. The emigrant’s path is well-trodden. For over 200 years Irish people have crossed the Atlantic in search of new horizons, opportunity in the land of the free, and built structures, empires and filtered into all life in between.
In the Aran Islands they know the way well. When Mullen packed his bags to head for Texas A&M in 2011 he was already qualified to play for the USA as his grandfather PJ had been born in Boston before bringing the Mullens back to Inis Mór.
Paul was called to represent the American under 20s in the summer of 2011, and although he had to remain patient for international recognition in the years since, he has easily settled in and made a home for himself in Texas.
There was a heart-stopping moment in the 69th minute of the USA’s momentous win over Scotland last month, when Mark Bennett came close to scoring a try for the visitors to close the 30-24 gap with time still to play. As referee Wayne Barnes passes the decision to his TMO the camera catches Mullen. Chest heaving and mouth dragging in air, he has drained every last drop out of the tank and is utterly sickened to see the line crossed.
Props are not usually built to go the distance in frenetic high-tempo Tests like this, but there he stands ready to lend his weight to whatever challenge comes next. On home turf, even with just one cap behind him, Mullen was not ready to let this chance to make a mark pass him by.
“Houston and the Galveston area has been my home for the last seven and a half years,” Mullen tells The42 as he began the process of unwinding after three internationals in as many weeks.
I was dreaming before the June Tests to hopefully get playing against Scotland in Houston in front of friends in the crowd. To start that game was a dream come true. And to win it then was something else.”
That engine Mullen opened up to full capacity in June seems to run in the family. His brother Eoin is a professional cyclist, and their far-flung athletic paths have made it doubly difficult to reunite the family. His parents have visited him in Texas and connections to home remain strong (stronger, Mullen feels, than if he were living in Ireland) thanks to Skype and WhatsApp. Yet it was no small logistical success last year to arrange a fleeting in-the-flesh embrace with Eoin under the roof of George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
“He’s busy cycling in one part of the world or other, finally we were able to meet up in the airport in Houston for about 15 minutes… ‘how are ya gettin’ on?’ Quick photo.”
If you’ve been to Inis Mór, then you can easily picture where Mullen started out. His father Michael operates the bike hire near the ferry port, his mother Elizabeth runs a shop
Growing up in Kilronan, rugby wasn’t exactly the primary pastime for a sturdy young lad to pursue and, before moving to Glenstal Abbey for secondary school at the age of 12, Gaelic football was the best outlet Mullen had to showcase his physicality. The switch from remote Kilronan to rural Glenstal wasn’t without its challenges, though.
“At home you look out and no matter what part of the island you’re on you’ll be looking out on the sea someplace. In Glenstal, you look out the window and you’re watching the grass grow. To me that was an awful shock to the system. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
Once thrust into rugby heartland, however, the oval ball became intertwined with Mullen as much as the sea. He became inseparable from his new sport no matter what the distance, and despite persistent parental nudges towards education.
“We’d be training three times a week – maybe the Monday, then Wednesday and Thursday,” Mullen says of his attempt to impress at Munster schools level in the summer before his Leaving Cert.
“I’d hop on a ferry on Monday, the 12 o’clock ferry, bus to Galway, bus to Limerick, go to training, stay in a friend’s house, then back home the next day to work with the old lad.
“Then the same thing the following days: down Wednesday, train Wednesday and Thursday, back up at the weekend.
“It was a long old trek, a good bit of travel. After a whole summer training with them, I came home from a tour someplace in England, I sat down at the table and they go: ‘well, what do you think about going to King’s Hospital?’
Of course, moving to the Dublin school to tighten the focus on education didn’t deprive him of rugby. Soon, the affable Connacht man loyal to Munster was called to play for Leinster schools. Through some inter-provincial diplomacy and some undoubtedly complex and convoluted reasoning, the prop was left playing for the southern province.
“So for two months I was hopping on a train in Heuston Station, heading to Charleville or Limerick, train there and head back to school the next day. It was messy, but somehow I was allowed play with Munster even though I was in a Leinster school.”
By the time Mullen completed the Leaving Cert he had advanced through Munster U19s and U20s. He played in the first ever match in the Aviva Stadium for a combined Munster-Connacht side, but the sensible long-term path of education set him on a trans-Atlantic course. Fittingly, he kept his oar in maritime interests.
Texas A&M brought him to the Gulf Coast and Galveston to study Marine Engineering, furthering that with a Masters in Marine Resources Management which he graduated from in May. So we speak to Mullen at a considerable turning point coinciding with a welcome chance to rest the body.
“Three weeks with USA and before that with the Houston SaberCats. So I haven’t had a break now in a while. You kinda don’t know what to do with yourself, to be honest. That’s not a bad complaint.”
The sport-mad Aggies environment and the club in Galveston gave him a constant rugby outlet through the years, but despite being recruited by former Ulster prop Justin Fitzpatrick to play with the professional SaberCats outfit in Major League Rugby, Mullen has had to retain amateur status because of his student visa – which permits him to work only on campus or in a job related to his studies.
Where many would feel a sense of limbo, there is a laid back ‘island time’ attitude emanating down the phone line from Mullen which ensures he’s completely relaxed despite the flux and the prospect of applying for a visa to work as a professional athlete. It will all come together in time.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing (next). For the last few years my goal was to graduate college. That was that, then the last six months the MLR season came into it and then all of a sudden you’ve the USA team.
“I never looked further than the June Tests, and now I’ve a bit of time on my hands. I don’t know what I’m doing to be honest, but I’ll get that figured out in the next week or so…”
The Inis Mór man certainly deserves the down time. After a hectic year playing with the SaberCats, studying for his Masters finals and putting himself into the international team’s front line Mullen has put himself on an incredible rise, surpassing all his markers by some distance.
“Six months ago I’d only played division three rugby,” he says, almost with surprise, as he digests his rapid rise after a slow burn.
He is the latest of a growing Irish influence in the Eagles setup. AJ MacGinty was the undisputed star of the June Tests, John Quill is constant force from the back row, Mullen packed down alongside Wexford man Dylan Fawsitt during the win over Canada while Greg McWilliams is backs coach.
His season with the SaberCats was undoubtedly a massive boost. The professional environment and the chance to work closely with the like of Fiji Olympic Sevens gold medal-winning captain Osea Kolinisau has helped the prop soak up swathes of detail and prepare him for the Test arena.
With just a single season of MLR behind him, making the Eagles squad was a fine achievement in itself. Yet Mullen powered through to make it a remarkable one. After winning his debut in Denver against Russia — where his contribution included the pass to initiate the first USA try of a 62-13 win — head coach Gary Gold entrusted the number 3 jersey to him again a week later for the dramatic win over Scotland.
And, just for good measure, Mullen completed a terrific month by exerting his power to help his adopted nation defeat Canada in Nova Scotia. Supposedly enemy territory, it felt strangely like home.
I’m not trying to sound like a gobshite, but (in Texas) it’s almost too hot. Up in Halifax, I absolutely loved it. I was saying, ‘Jesus, If I can’t get back into America I’ll spend another week up here!’
“Very similar to Ireland, lovely spot. You’d meet a couple of people there from Newfoundland and it’s amazing, they have a bit of a twang in their accent. They sound like they’re Irish. One fella was almost talking like a Corkman – ‘you right there, boy.’”
“It was lovely. Down here in Houston it’s very humid. But listen, when I was at home on the island in the middle of November or whatever, it was quite the opposite. So I’d take the heat any day.”
The subject of accents brings us to Mullen’s own timbre.
Seven and a half years in Houston has left no tell-tale twang of Lone Star State-elocution. It would appear as though the Irish community, primarily drawn by the oil and gas industry, have helped to maintain his ‘brogue’ as well as his scrummaging.
“It’s a long way from home, but at the same time you have all these Irish over here and it makes you feel at home.
“It’s a fantastic thing about rugby: I’m from the Aran Islands, I come to Houston, Texas where you don’t know anybody. All of a sudden you pick up the rugby ball and play a bit and you’ve friends there and they’ll let you know how to get accommodation and all that sort of stuff.
“A lot of people might have never played Gaelic football or they mightn’t have played since they were 16, but they’ll go to training (with Houston Gaels) anyway just to mingle.
“That’s how rugby was good to me. It gives you the chance to tour round the country, and Texas is so big you get to see a lot of Texas.
“A lot of road anyway.”
Soon enough, the road will take Mullen back to Ireland. And, even before kick-off in the Aviva Stadium, it ought to feel like a triumphant return.