Life

33 Til Infinity: Campaign in honour of much-loved Michael Cullen nears target

Following the tragic death of 33-year-old Belfast musician Michael Cullen, friends and family launched a campaign to raise £1,000 for each year of his life. But it's much more than a fundraiser says lifelong pal Rory Girvan

North Belfast musician Michael Cullen (33), whose body was found on Cave Hill in January 2018
Maureen Coleman

JUST a few days before Christmas last year, friends and relatives of north Belfast beat-boxer Michael Cullen came together to launch a campaign to honour the life and the memory of the popular young man.

Michael, or 'Cull', as he was known, had last been in contact with his family on January 9, 2018. A high profile, three-week search, supported by a social media campaign, ended in tragedy when the body of the 33-year-old was recovered from Cave Hill, not far from his North Circular Road home.

Michael's death deeply affected his loved ones but touched the wider community too. At his funeral, mourners were told by Fr Gerry Cassidy that the talented musician had suffered from depression and that whatever had been troubling him, he was "away from that and at peace”.

To mark the first Christmas without Michael, friends and relatives launched the campaign 33 Til Infinity in December 2018 – with the aim of raising £1,000 for each year of Michael's life.

The money raised over the past year will be donated to three suicide prevention and intervention charities – TAMHI, a local charity which works with sports clubs to raise awareness of mental health, Inspire and the Community Rescue Service, which was instrumental in Michael's search.

Fittingly, the campaign was launched at Hench gym in Belfast city centre, run by Michael's lifelong pal Rory Girvan and of which Michael himself was a member. Thanks to an ongoing series of fundraising events and donations, 33 Til Infinity is poised to reach its target by December, with almost £30,000 collected so far.

“There was no way we were going to let the first Christmas without Michael go unmarked so we decided to do something big in his memory,” Rory explains. “The name of the campaign was inspired by Michael's favourite song, 93 Til Infinity and aims to raise £33,000 – £1,000 for every year of his life. But it's also to raise more awareness around mental health and to get people, particularly men, talking.

“Women tend to be better communicators; the threshold for women to talk is much lower than it is for men. In general, things don't reach the critical stage before women start to open up. They tend to start communicating earlier rather than waiting until the pressure cooker stage. Then often it's too late by the time a man feels like talking.

Michael Cullen's brothers Danny (in black) and Colm with his sister Cathy, mum Rosemarie and friend Rory Girvan at the launch of the 33 Til Infinity campaign last December, with a painting of Michael by artist Niall Smyth

“I've also noticed that men don't like to speak in the present tense about their mental health. I used to feel like that myself. We might talk about how we felt in the past but not about how we're feeling right now, in the moment. That needs to change.”

Rory himself suffered depression, which led to him re-engaging with his teenage passion of strength training, changing career direction and the subsequent setting up of his strength coaching gym. The power-lifting champion had first met Michael at Park Lodge Primary School and the pair became good friends when they moved on to St Malachy's College. Around this time they attended a number of gyms and trained together and when, in 2012, Rory opened his gym in a dilapidated building close to Belfast City Hall, Michael was on hand to help out.

“Every night he was there, up on the step ladders painting the place,” Rory says. “And when I opened Hench we continued to train together. In fact, Michael was the first member. Everyone in the gym liked him. He was very popular and highly regarded.”

Given his own struggles with mental health, Rory began to organise a number of fundraising events for the wellbeing charity Inspire. As a result, he was approached by the charity and invited to be an ambassador and an advocate for mental health.

His close friendship with Michael combined with his own experiences facilitated discussions around mental health and Rory says they talked candidly about depression. On one occasion, while sitting talking in Botanic Gardens, Michael told Rory about the steps he was taking to look after his wellbeing, including meditation and keeping a journal.

A painting of Michael Cullen in HENCH gym Belfast by local artist Niall Smyth

The New Year's Eve before Michael went missing, he called to visit Rory but whatever it was that was troubling him, he never brought it up.

“In the past we'd always talked about these things,” Rory says. “He usually spoke openly so I'd no idea what he was going through before he went missing. There had been a few invitations he'd reneged on because he hadn't been feeling well but he'd put that down to a cold. Up until then, the lines of dialogue had always been open between us.”

Rory's voice cracks with emotion as he recalls the weeks that followed his best friend's disappearance and the tragic discovery of his body. He joined in the search and, along with Michael's sister Cathy, started a social media campaign to ask for the public's help in tracing his whereabouts. A Facebook group took on a life of its own as thousands of people across the city and beyond got involved, sharing posts among their own friends, asking for information.

“I looked in every cinema for him,” Rory says. “I was trying to think practically but the impact of what was happening didn't really hit me until later.

“Looking back, I was blown away by the support of the community. I don't think I really understood just how helpful and supportive people are until this happened. It gave me a better idea of the people in our community.”

For a month or so Rory operated on autopilot. He returned to work after taking some time off and threw himself into training for an MMA fight. In a sense, it was a form of therapy but realising he had to process his grief properly, he eventually went for counselling. At this stage he was at 'crisis point'.

“My narrative was that I was too busy but I was in denial. I'd been for counselling before after losing a graduate job. This time I went to see two different counsellors, one through my GP and one through Lifeline. Getting this support was a big component in helping me process everything.

“I would absolutely implore other men to speak to a professional when they're struggling. It's tremendously important to have someone on your side. A counsellor's sole aim is to help you, not judge you, so take the first step and reach out.”

The 33 Til Infinity campaign has given Rory a new focus. At its launch last Christmas, Michael's brother Colm made an impassioned speech, setting out the campaign's intentions. He has since become involved with TAMHI and, according to Rory, is an 'inspiration' who is doing "unbelievable work" for the charity.

Relatives and friends of Michael's have all played their part in raising funds for the initiative, from running marathons to organising five-a-side football matches and basketball tournaments. Local businesses have helped out too, including Home restaurant, and Michael's sister Cathy took part in a sky dive.

A fundraising event 'A Night for Cull', involving music and comedy and headlined by Shane Todd, will take place at the Empire in Belfast on Friday November 15, with a closing event planned for December 20. During that event, cheques will be presented to the three chosen charities, all of whom played their own vital role in Michael's story.

“When I was involved with Inspire, Michael helped out too,” says Rory. “He was incredibly proactive.

"I believe that an unfortunate set of events can result in a downwards spiral for some people but to honour Michael's memory, hopefully something positive will come out of 33 Til Infinity and someone out there who is struggling will take that first step and seek help.”

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