It was with great sadness and regret that the Donegal Athletics community learned of the sad passing of Neil Cullen on Saturday morning last.
As a coach with Letterkenny AC, Neil was instrumental in the development and guidance of young athletes from the area, many going on to national and international success as juveniles and adults with the club. While Neil was to the forefront of the success of the Letterkenny club, he was also a towering figure in Donegal Athletics. Neil’s contribution to the sport in Donegal involved many years serving on the County Board and officiating at athletics events up and down the country. However, what he will be most remembered for, was his passion for Sportshall athletics, which introduced many young children to the sport and where fun, team work and camaraderie were the building blocks of success. Year after year, Neil was the driving force behind organising teams to represent Donegal at the Ulster Sportshall Finals and he had a record second to none of qualifying multiple teams through Ulster to the UK Finals every year. For those who had the honour of representing Donegal and those who travelled with him each time, they will remember a man with a hearty laugh, great company and an infectious humour.
Even though Neil took ill in recent times, an illness he fought with dignity, courage and never a moment of complaint, his spirit remained unbroken and he still held a passionate interest in athletics. From helping to pick Donegal teams, to turning up at athletics events around the county, or giving words of encouragement and praise to young children whether they were first or last, Neil Cullen was an ever present figure in Donegal Athletics.
Neil’s enthusiasm, energy and passion for juvenile athletics will be fondly remembered by all who knew him, athletes, parents, officials and coaches alike. At Neil’s funeral on Tuesday, the athletics community from Donegal, Ulster and across Ireland came together to honour a man who for some was a father figure, and for others, a gentleman who they were privileged to simply call a friend. The Athletics Guard of Honour which took place before the funeral mass had young and old alike join together to say goodbye to a man who had touched so many in a life dedicated to sport. At the mass, Neil’s working life within the Donegal Mental Health Services was also remembered. As with the young athletes Neil helped to nurture, his humanity and fairness was recalled in a career which guided countless numbers along a path to be best that they could be.
After the funeral on Tuesday, friends gathered outside to recall the many good times they had in Neil’s company. While sadness certainly tinged the air, much of it was broken by the laughter of friends recounting story after story about Neil, where family, friendship and most of all fun were the traits which defined a larger than life character.
Donegal Athletics has lost a true friend and a gentleman and he will be sorely missed. It was a privilege and honour to know you Neil and thanks for all the good times in the sport.
To Neil’s wife Margaret and three daughters, Mairéad, Gráinne, Siobhán, and to his extended family and friends and colleagues at Letterkenny AC, we extend our deepest sympathies.
- Donegal Athletics Board