Fairground attraction! Cullens still bringing all the fun of the fair after 160 years

Tommy Cullen, centre, pictured with family and friends at his 75th birthday celebrations. DER3319-102KM
Tommy Cullen, centre, pictured with family and friends at his 75th birthday celebrations. DER3319-102KM

It’s 160 years since the Cullens first pitched their stalls on the Irish fairground circuit.

Multiple generations now strongly associate the name with ‘all the fun of the fair’.

Tommy Cullen, centre, pictured with family members at his 75th birthday celebrations. DER3319-101KM

Tommy Cullen, centre, pictured with family members at his 75th birthday celebrations. DER3319-101KM

The heady days of summer, warm candy floss and pop corn aromas, the exhilarating adrenalin rush of the rides, happy memories, all synonymous with a bona fide Derry institution.

Ireland’s largest travelling funfair is currently winning a new generation of fans on its first ever visit to Ballymagroarty. The ‘Journal’ caught up with one of the family proprietors, Sean Cullen, to find out a bit more about what goes into keeping Derry and Ireland entertained.

“It’s a big operation, for a business that started off with small swingboats and rides, to what it has progressed to now from 1860 when it was established.

“We’ve progressed to become Ireland’s number one funfair and it’s been recognised as that.

“People don’t see half of what goes on. From pulling the equipment down to taking it to the next site. You’ve got 12 rides. You have the kiddie rides, you have the stalls, you have the catering. You have to get that from one place to the next. The jump could be 40 miles. It could be 150. It could take you one day. It could take you two days. On top of that you have all the caravans. It’s a huge undertaking.”

Cullen’s Funfair is presently based at the Dunne’s Stores car park in Ballymagroarty until Sunday, August 18. It’s their first ever visit to the site and its perfect logistically, says Sean.

“It’s a great location. It’s hard for a start. It’s tarmac so that makes it perfect. It’s very central and you’ve a big catchment with all the chimneys about you,” he explains.

And while the vagaries of the Irish summer weather have been as unpredictable as ever this August it’s not as if it’s something the family are unused to.

“Funny enough about the weather. We would go to certain places and it could be bucketing it down and it does not bother them!

“There’s a place in particular in Belfast. It can be coming down as hard as it’s coming down and they stand at the gate waiting for 7 o’ clock to come in, to spend their money, get on the rides. They’re drenched, we’re drenched, serving them. It doesn’t bother them.

“It actually shocks us. You’d open at 7 o’clock and think we’ll have to close by 7.30 p.m. and watch a DVD but by 9 o’clock the water is dripping off their noses! You’d have thought you put them into a vat of water!

“These are parents, children, teenagers. Derry has a wee bit of it as well. I’ve seen us doing Templemore Sports Complex years ago, and in recent years, Ebrington Square, and it chucking down. Out they came. I think Ballymagroarty is going to be another event like that. It’s not going to bother them.”

The Cullens recently had a cause for personal celebration when one of the patre familias, Sean’s father Tommy, celebrated his 75th birthday.

In fact, it was a double celebration as his sister Charlene also turned 40 at the same time. Tommy and the elder Cullens were recently front and centre of the ‘Our Lives: The Last Showmen’ documentary that was aired on BBC and posted phenomenal viewership figures.

“Two-and-a-half million people watched the first night. I think one-and-a-half million watched ‘Derry Girls’. I watched it on the BBC iPlayer myself because we were still working. I suppose it brought a great insight into the business that people will have never seen. The feedback has been so positive,” says Sean.

At 75 Tommy may have taken a step back from the day-to-day running of the business but he and his brothers remain the spiritual heart of the operation.

“I say he’s retired. He’ll never retire. He’ll always be about. He just reduced what he does. The boys don’t let him lift. It’s very heavy stuff. His full on presence day-to-day is felt and it’s seen because you are so used to the senior members being there.

“Their input is as important today as it’s ever been. Their knowledge is something that you always look for. The minute something goes wrong you send for that older generation,” admits Sean.

Cullen’s Funfair completes its Ballymagroarty run on Sunday so there’s no excuse for not getting down to rekindle childhood memories and create some more for the new generation.