Man mountain Mullen takes the road less travelled from Inis Mór
It has been eight long years since Paul Mullen last got a whiff of the fresh sea breeze that once upon a time was all he knew.
Chasing his dream as well as his studies in America hasn't given the 27-year-old much time to get home, but following tomorrow's game against Ireland he will get a chance to return to Inis Mór.
Growing up on the largest of the three Aran Islands, rugby was never really big on the agenda.
James Connolly, who became the first modern Olympic champion after he won gold in the triple jump at the 1896 games in Athens, remains one of Inis Mór's most famous sons but in more recent rimes, Mullen has helped put the island on the map.
Mullen qualifies for the USA through his grandfather PJ, who was born in Boston and, having represented his adopted country at U-20 level in 2011, he has had to stay patient to earn his first cap, which arrived during the summer against Russia in Colorado.
The tighthead prop's journey might well have taken him down a different route, however.
Having played for Munster at underage, international honours followed with the Ireland U-19s and later the Emerging Ireland side, but that was as far as it went in terms of fulfilling his dream in green.
Before Mullen went to school in Glenstal Abbey, he had never picked up a rugby ball and as soon as he did, he never looked back - despite his parents Michael and Elizabeth deciding to move him to King's Hospital in Dublin for his Leaving Cert.
Given how alien playing rugby was to them, they wanted to do everything they could to ensure that their son got the best education.
Michael owns the bike hire on Inis Mór, while Elizabeth runs the local shop. The sporting gene is strong in the family. Younger brother Eoin (25) is a professional cyclist, who has represented Ireland on the world stage.
The family don't often get the chance to see Paul in action given USA's schedule, but their November tour has given them an ideal chance to travel Europe in support.
"There isn't much rugby on Inis Mór," Mullen laughs, as he tells the Irish Independent. "Growing up on the island was fantastic. Most people only visit for a day. They might get a bicycle, go to Dún Aengus, see the fort and hop on the ferry and go home.
"But the real beauty is at night. When the last ferry goes, you can really feel the isolation. You're just thinking, 'Jesus, this is the real deal.'
"It's a fantastic spot. The freedom you have growing up there as a child; everyone's door is always open, kids are out wandering about. It's very safe. In the summer everyone would be swimming at the pier or sailing."
Mullen is in his eighth year in the States and recently finished his degree in Marine Engineering. Based in Houston, it's a world away from the more simplistic island lifestyle, yet Mullen has thrived there.
"On the island, no matter where you are, you can see the sea," he explains.
"So when I went to Glenstal, there was no sea so you're basically watching the grass grow. I always wanted to do something to do with the sea. I love the sea. The killer was, after I left, the old lad bought a nicer boat.
"I was like, 'What are you at? Are you trying to make me homesick?' And since then he sold it!"
Inis Mor will always be home, and while it might have been a long time since he has been back, a warm welcome awaits when he returns over the coming weeks.
Having floated around a couple of different American clubs, ex-Ulster and Ireland international Justin Fitzpatrick signed Mullen for the Houston SaberCats, who compete in Major League Rugby.
It was an inspired decision because on the back of linking up with the former prop, he gained the international recognition he craved.
"I hadn't a clue what I was doing when I first picked up a rugby ball," he admits. "I feel like my life is starting off because I was in college for the last while. This has been the first time to give rugby a proper shot."
His family will be in the crowd tomorrow when Mullen takes to the pitch at the Aviva, for what is bound to be a hugely emotional occasion for everyone involved.
It will also see him pack down against former Munster team-mate Niall Scannell, who Mullen has very fond memories of playing alongside.
He has had to bide his time to get his chance and now that it has arrived, Mullen intends to grab it with both hands. The boy from Inis Mór has certainly come a long way.
Irish pair get US nod
Irish-born players Paul Mullen and John Quill have been named in the USA team to play Ireland tomorrow, while Wexford native and former Leinster Schools Senior Cup winner Dylan Fawsitt is among the replacements.
Mullen starts at tighthead with Quill, a former Munster Academy player, adding plenty of ballast to the back-row.
Former NFL player Paul Lasike is included in the midfield and Dubliner Greg McWilliams, who is the Eagles’ attack coach, will likely be basing a lot of their moves around the powerhouse centre.