After reading software entrepreneur John Cullinane’s fascinating book – “Smarter Than Their Machines: Oral Histories of Pioneers in Interactive Computing” – I did some research into John’s career and his passion for jobs, peace, and prosperity in Ireland. We have been casual, stay-in-touch friends for some 25 years and I have been an admirer of John Cullinane and of the enormous success story he crafted with his creation of the Cullinane Corporation, later Cullinet, the software giant.
His career, as the headline notes, has been amazing. His software product company was the first to go public in 1977; the first listed on the New York Stock Exchange; and the first valued at more than a billion dollars. Cullinet was sold in 1989 and for its founder there were new frontiers where he could leave his mark. He stayed close to his high tech roots, software, but added a fresh dimension, a path that allowed him to give back, to share with others the signal success he had realized. And where better than Ireland!
Cullinane’s parents, natives and Irish speakers of Waterford, Ireland, came here as immigrants. His roots, his DNA were unfailingly Irish. Once his company was sold, he moved, as he always has, quietly and efficiently, using his talents and successful life story that began in Arlington, MA as a Northeastern University co-op student working at Arthur Little Co, to leverage his success by turning to Ireland and giving back. Those were perilous days as the leaders of Northern Ireland worked to find peace following three fractious decades of the Troubles. A huge chunk of Ireland, the six counties of the North, were in dire need of jobs, a stable economy, and a peace process that would allow them to bind their wounds and move forward.
That’s where and when John Cullinane and Part Two of his life began; he focused on creating opportunities that reflected his bonds with the old country and his business skills to Ireland’s advantage.
He recalls: “My first involvement with Ireland was when I went there at the request of Barry Murphy, a leader in the Irish software industry, to meet with 41 Irish software entrepreneurs. I wasn’t very optimistic that they would be very good, but they turned out to be outstanding. Then I met with three Irish university presidents and, again, was very impressed.
“It was inevitable some of them would become software entrepreneurs; I was seeing the first wave, so I decided to help them in a variety of ways because entrepreneurship was something new in Ireland.”
Cullinane’s investments in the Irish Republic brought him to the attention of political leaders from a Belfast city council trade delegation and this swiftly resulted in he and Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld joining a US trade mission to Northern Ireland under the auspices of Bill Clinton’s Commerce secretary, Ron Brown. This visit to the North deepened Cullinane’s desire to help the peace process by supporting economic development in hard-pressed Northern Ireland.
This was followed up by Cullinane’s attending a White House dinner where he sat at Bill Clinton’s table where they had a detailed discussion about the merits of a technology fund. This prompted Cullinane and his close associate, Frank Costello, the-then chairman of Boston Ireland Ventures who had a wealth of experience in transatlantic economic development, to encourage decision-makers in Washington, London, and Dublin to recognize the technology fund’s potential for boosting the North’s high-tech sector.
There soon followed a series of meetings in the North involving Cullinane and Costello with business and civil leaders that focused on promoting business ties and job creation between Northern Ireland and the US. There were some 15 or 16 visits during that period and that helped to strengthen a close relationship between Northern political leaders and Cullinane and his fertile ideas file. Later, he became the pro bono Economic Development Committee advisor and in that position formed the Friends of Belfast.
Willie McCarter remembers: “I have good, strong memories of John Cullinane. He came before the International Fund for Ireland when I was chairman to urge funding through IFI for two vital programs, RADIUS and RADIAN, that had successfully engineered partnerships and would be a good fit for similar partnerships between Northern Ireland hi-tech companies, border counties of the Republic and US and Canadian companies. In typical John Cullinane fashion, this was a pioneering step which not only led to many hi-tech partnerships but also helped the whole hi-tech scene in Ireland, north and south, to develop to the point where it is today.”
But computer technology and software were not the sole areas where Cullinane turned his hand and heart when it came to Ireland. As the son of Irish speakers, he has a special regard for the Irish language. During visits to the North with Costello, John became a staunch supporter of teaching Irish in the schools. He took a sustained and personal interest in an Irish language high school in Belfast, Mean Scoil Feiriste, and along with the IFI provided significant support for the school, and persuaded the NI Department of Education to fund and recognize the school, which has since grown from 90 students to about 700 today.
With all his many business trips to Ireland, Cullinane has managed to continue his leadership role in such Boston area institutions as the Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum and the Boston Public Library, where at both he has directed much-needed endowment campaigns that allowed these two vital resources to move forward culturally and financially.
A closing note on the life of Arlington’s John Cullinane offered by Adrian Bradley, CEO of a Belfast high tech company who has known him for many years:
“While John is indeed a legend in the arena of computer software, it needs to be said that he has been an inspiring figure to many Irish entrepreneurs. ...His wise counsel has been invaluable to myself and Ireland, and a great source of common sense as well as being an inspiration.”