Mercier Press, €32.44
One of the most talked about autobiographical debuts of recent years, 'It's A Long Way From Penny Apples', is a poignant, entertaining and inspirational book, which is firmly holding onto its spot on the Best-sellers list. A rags-to-riches story, it is far from depressing or self-serving; its message is that anyone can make their life better no matter what start they get.
Bill Cullen - the eldest surviving son in a family of fourteen - tells this extraordinary tale of his childhood, his journey through life and the people he met on the way. Born in Dublin's inner-city in the 1940s, Cullen's parents were pioneers and devout Christians who had to struggle hard to make ends meet, but they sacrificed everything so that their children could have a better life.
Cullen learned his strict work ethic from his grandmother and mother, both of whom were street traders, who sold everything from fruit to newspapers to Christmas decorations. They taught him to never give up and to always believe in yourself. Cullen also introduces us to his father, William, an ex-army man who tries to control his family but has to concede that it is his wife who really keeps the wolf from the door.
Cullen started school at the tender age of two and a half and became an excellent student, winning a scholarship to attend O'Conells secondary school. He was the first child in his family to get an Intermediate Certificate, but because of the responsibilities of being the eldest son in a large family he was forced to leave school at fourteen and work full-time. He regrets his time in school was cut short but says that the real lessons of life are learned on the street. It is out there amongst the traders and the public that he learned to trust his intuition, to keep his eyes and ears open. He proves that with hard work, not being afraid to take a risk and self-confidence anything is possible.
There are many interesting and educational anecdotes from a pig business he ran with his uncle – one that ended with Cullen a 12-year-old bankrupt, right through to his ultimate life changing decision to buy Renault garages for one pound. The pages are populated with a host of characters from every walk of life, each of whom had an affect on Cullen, from Louis Copeland who made him a special first Communion suit - which was worn subsequently by all of his brothers, to his relationship with businessman, family friend and mentor Hector Grey.
'It's A Long Way From Penny Apples' primarily tells the story of Bill Cullen's rise to fortune but it also offers an insight into Irish history, taking the reader from bombs dropped by the Nazi's during World War II right up to the troubles in Northern Ireland. Cullen is proud of his family and proud to be Irish, his vision for Ireland is an optimistic one. And, it seems we will be hearing a lot more from him in the future, as he plans to write motivational books to help people succeed in life. He is a man well worth listening to.
Note: All royalties from the sale of the book will be donated to the Irish Youth Foundation.