Mullen, Patrick (1883–1972), labourer, trade unionist, and writer, was born 17 April 1883 in Kilronan, Inishmore, Aran Islands, Co. Galway, fourth among ten or eleven children of Johnny Mullen, smallholder, and Mary Mullen (née Costelloe). His father, self-styled ‘king of the island’, with whom Pat had a tempestuous relationship, was ‘a small truculent man, an island "character" of whom many tales are still current’ (Robinson (1986), 212). Mullen attended Kilronan national school till age 15, then continued for several years assisting in the work of an Aran peasant family: tending land and stock, fishing, making kelp. For two years he worked on the iceboats in Killeany harbour. Emigrating to America (c.1905), he led a semi-roving life throughout the New England states, generally working winters in Boston factories and warehouses, and summers on rural contract-labour teams. Marriage (c.1912) to Bridget McDonough, a Connemara native, and the birth of their first child settled him to a degree. After leading a successful strike in a Boston wool-house (1916), he helped organise a citywide union of wool-house workers, and obtained a charter from the American Federation of Labor. He joined the James Connolly Socialist Club, where he met expatriate Irish labour leader James Larkin (qv), a formative influence. Sacked from several jobs and blacklisted by Boston employers for trade-union activism, he increasingly engaged in illicit liquor trafficking, in violation of American prohibition laws. After the deaths in Inishmore of two younger brothers from influenza, he returned home in 1921 to assist his father on the seven-acre farm, bringing with him his four-year-old son, P. J. Although he expected his wife and two daughters soon to follow, the couple became estranged, his wife remaining permanently in America. Mullen returned to the grinding life of the Aran peasant. Conditions improved a measure when he acquired a horse and sidecar, used for odd hauling jobs and to drive tourists to view the island's scenery and antiquities. Restless and lonely, embittered by his fortunes, alienated by his opinions and temperament from most of his fellow islanders, he formed enduring friendships with several visitors, who sent him books and correspondence.
In November 1931 the American documentary film maker Robert J. Flaherty (qv) visited the island with his family and engaged Mullen to drive them about. The two men, each strong-willed and garrulous, formed an instant rapport, and when Flaherty returned in January 1932 to film Man of Aran he hired Mullen as his local contact-man and assistant director on location. Although the involvement of Mullen, regarded locally as ‘the socialist’, initially intensified the islanders' suspicions of Flaherty's activities, Mullen's work over the two seasons of filming was critical to the project's eventual success. He secured Flaherty's headquarters, a large house at Portmurvy beside a spring of fresh water necessary for film processing, and oversaw construction of a double cottage alongside as a film set. With ready tongue and powers of persuasion, he recruited cast members from among the island population, and under Flaherty's direction coached them through the difficult and often dangerous scenes on cliff and sea. In preparation for the celebrated sequence on shark-hunting, a practice unknown to the islanders for over a generation, Mullen brought two rusty harpoons from his grandfather's house to a Galway city blacksmith to copy, and gleaned the technique of pursuit and harpooning from a centenarian Claddagh fisherman. In the event, Flaherty supplemented this information with museum research, and obtained the services of a retired American whaling captain to oversee the endeavour. Mullen appeared in the film as one of the basking-shark hunters. He spent nine weeks in London with other cast members recording sound dialogue in the Gaumont–British studios and attended the film's world premiere in the New Gallery Theatre (25 April 1934), then proceeded to Dublin, where the Irish premiere (6 May) was attended by the entire Irish government. His subsequent book, likewise entitled Man of Aran (October 1934), described by one film historian as ‘the classic account of the making of the film’ (Murphy, 24), also sketches his earlier life in Aran and America. There followed three more energetic volumes: a novel of Aran life, Hero breed (1936), part factual record, part extravagant yarn; a folklore collection, Irish tales (1938); and the autobiographical Come another day (1940), a more detailed rendition of his years in America and return to Aran. Tim Robinson's caveat against dependence on the ‘entertaining inconsistencies’ of either Flaherty's or Mullen's accounts ‘for the truth of various incidents in the cycle of legends that accumulated around the making of the film’ (Robinson (1986), 163), would be advice wisely applied to all of Mullen's memoirs. An accomplished wit and raconteur, in the early 1950s he moved to Anglesey, Wales, returning regularly to Inishmore for the summers. Resident in Bull Bay, Anglesey, he died in Wales on 16 September 1972. His ashes were interred on Inishmore in Killeany cemetery, reputedly the first burial of cremated remains on the island in Christian times.
His eldest daughter, Barbara Mullen (1914–79), remaining with her mother and sister in America, won step-dancing competitions and pursued an intermittent career as a singer and chorus-line- and tap-dancer, while also working in shops, hotels, and her mother's speakeasies in Boston and New York. Joining her father in Aran (c.1932), she married John Taylor, Flaherty's film laboratory technician, and accompanied him to England. An autobiography, Life is my adventure (1937), recounts her years in America. An actress for many years on stage and screen, she was best known latterly as the housekeeper in the British TV series Dr Finlay's casebook (1962–71). She built a summer bungalow on the family holding in Kilronan.