'Suddenly 70 kids fell to their knees in the hospital to pray for Declan'
His rendition of Bring Him Home to his ill brother won Saintfield student Mark McMullan fans around the world, including Russell Crowe and Phil Coulter. He tells Ivan little about the bond he shares with Declan
The tenderness was touching, the love unmistakeable as teenager Mark McMullan and his disabled brother Declan shared that special moment in front of a few friends, never imagining that it would one day be seen by hundreds of thousands of people all around the world.
But after Mark, an architecture student from Saintfield, sang Bring Him Home from the musical Les Miserables to his older wheelchair-bound brother in their local pub a friend posted a video of the emotion-charged rendition on YouTube.
And that decision looks as if it could change Mark’s life completely. For the video and subsequent TV appearances are poised to propel the amateur singer into dreamland and help him realise his ambition of becoming a professional musician, maybe even in the West End.
Mark’s assured performances and the story of Declan’s devastating cardiac arrest three years ago have struck a chord with big names like Phil Coulter and Alfie Boe, and even that supposedly hard man Russell Crowe was deeply moved when he and the McMullan brothers were guests on an RTE chat show.
The response to The Late Late Show was immediate with Phil Coulter getting in touch with the TV production team to tell them to pass on his congratulations to him. And the Derry songwriter and musician didn’t just leave it there. He has since sent Mark emails and telephoned him.
“He said he wants to meet me and Declan and he was very complimentary about my singing,” says Mark.
“He couldn’t believe that I’d had no training and he also wondered what I was going to do with my career. He offered to help me in any way he could." Coulter also expressed his willingness to take part in a fund-raising concert for Declan who suffered brain damage and can't move, see, talk or eat by himself as a result of the cardiac arrest at his home.
"You don't get that sort of phone call too often in your life," says 19-year-old Mark who has been singing "from I was no age".
Like many members of his family, Mark joined the choir in his local church in Saintfield and his brother Declan was also a member, for a day.
But Mark was soon spreading his wings. When he was 11, he passed an audition for the acclaimed St Patrick's Choral Society in Downpatrick who have an impressive reputation for staging musicals from the classics to more modern shows.
But the curtain almost came down on Mark's musical career there before it went up. "After the first rehearsal, I vowed that I was never going back," says Mark. "I didn't know anybody. But I was persuaded to stick with it and I would never leave now."
Mark, who has just appeared in The King and I with the society, has garnered a strong CV of leading roles in productions like Fiddler on the Roof, Calamity Jane, Meet Me in St Louis and Oliver.
Mark and Declan also appeared together in the popular musical Grease.
At St Patrick's High School in Downpatrick, Mark also played the lead in The Phantom of the Opera.
And it won't come as a surprise to anyone who heard him singing Bring Him Home on the internet or on the Nolan and the Late Late shows that he has also tackled the challenging role of Valjean in Les Miserables.
The video of Mark singing to Declan was recorded late one night two months ago, at the Villager Bar and Restaurant in Crossgar.
Mark, who is at university in Belfast, was working part-time in the pub where Declan and his friends still go regularly at the weekend.
"We were all singing songs and as I was doing the washing up, a friend of mine, Paul Fitzsimons, asked me to sing Bring Him Home," says Mark. "I stuck the backing track on the sound system and I started to sing it to Declan."
The emotion is heart-wrenching as Mark holds his brother's hand and finishes the song with a gentle kiss on his forehead.
Paul videoed the song and Mark thought no more about it. But one Monday morning he woke up to find that the song had sparked a firestorm of interest on the internet, particularly Facebook.
"It was everywhere. It turned out that Paul waited five weeks before posting the video on the internet and it went viral," says Mark.
"At first, I didn't know about all the fuss. I hadn't been able to get any wi-fi connection on my mobile phone at home and when I went into university, I asked my friends what they were all looking at and they said they were watching me."
One of the first calls Mark received was from a musical director who wanted him to take part in a forthcoming production in Belfast.
At the last count on YouTube, the video had been seen over 300,000 times and there've been thousands of hits on other sites with one English newspaper suggesting it was the most moving performance of Bring Him Home ever posted on the internet.
And within two days of it going global, Mark was singing Bring Him Home to Declan on the Nolan TV show, a part of the programme which caused more debate than any other item.
Ten days later, Mark and Declan were brought to Dublin along with their family, to appear on the Late Late Show on RTE, where movie star Russell Crowe was topping the bill to promote his new movie, the Water Diviner.
But Crowe, who had also sung with The Late Late house band, was upstaged by the McMullan brothers and he could be heard saying "beautiful" as he applauded Mark at the end of the song.
After the show, the Australian, who played Javert in the film version of Les Miserables, made a beeline for Mark and Declan, brushing aside concerns from his bodyguards who wanted to hustle him out of the RTE studios.
"He went straight to Declan and started talking in his ear," says Mark. "He was fantastic with him and he let us take a few photographs. It meant a lot to Declan because he is a big Gladiator fan. It was nice of him to take the time against the advice of his security people."
Phil Coulter wasn't the only musical giant to make contact after the TV shows. Singer Alfie Boe sent the brothers a message saying he had been mightily impressed with Mark's singing, and said he had tipped off actor Hugh Jackman who played Valjean in the Les Miserables movie about the YouTube clip.
The McMullans have also been invited to a dinner show that Boe is starring in at the Stormont Hotel in June. "We're really looking forward to that," says Mark, who lives in Belfast during the week as he studies at the University of Ulster, and who has more than one string to his artistic bow because he has also been involved in designing sets for shows.
Singing though is his first love. "I sing 24/7, even in the house. I drive everyone in the house mad. People outside who hear me singing might think one thing but I know the rest of the family sometimes wish I would shut up."
His mother Brenda says: "I have videos of Mark singing at the age of two. Even in the car he would sing all the time and I used to wish that he would talk to us occasionally. Now that he's at university during the week, the house seems very quiet. But he makes up for it at the weekends when he comes home."
It used to be even noisier in the McMullan house. For Mark and Declan grew up as fans of rock bands like Bon Jovi and Guns n' Roses, but as he got older Mark became more fascinated by the musicals.
He's totally committed to his architecture studies but a few years ago he did toy with the idea of going to music college in England, though the fees were prohibitive.
"I have heard stories of maybe only three out of 100 people who have studied musical theatre in any one year getting work in the West End at the end of their courses," he says. "So I want to get my degree in architecture and then think about progressing my musical career.
"Obviously I would love to sing in the West End, even for just a year so I could say that I had done it. But I could always go back to the architecture later on for the rest of my life."
But the way things are shaping up right now, it seems that architecture's loss could be the musical theatre's gain.
Mark has received offers of roles with musical societies the length and breadth of Ireland, but he's biding his time because "I just don't know what lies around the corner for me".
One thing on the cards is a CD in aid of his brother's charity fund which has its own Facebook page and at a recent chance meeting, well-known musical priest Fr Liam Lawton offered to write a song dedicated to Declan.
Mark is also hoping to lend his voice to another fundraiser for Declan's charity as his choral society in Downpatrick are currently exploring the possibility of hiring the Grand Opera House in Belfast for a series of concerts.
Ever since Declan fell ill, Mark has scaled back a number of his sporting interests to devote more time to his brother.
He's also had to halve the number of musicals he does every year, but he knows that the whole McMullan family have had to make sacrifices to help to look after Declan.
The trauma has also forged an even closer bond between Mark and Declan even though friends say they were like the proverbial peas in a pod before the illness.
Mark's recollections of his brother's cardiac arrest are crystal clear, especially the time spent in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where friends and family gathered, fearing the worst.
"Declan has loads of friends and I remember dozens of them waiting in the Royal for news," says Mark. "At one point someone shouted for them to get on their knees and pray. And all of a sudden you could see 60 or 70 kids getting down to say prayers for him.
"It was very, very special," says Mark, who was the last person to hear Declan speaking before his cardiac arrest.
"He came into my bedroom looking for some Coca-Cola but I didn't have any and he went looking for some water instead. The next thing we knew he was dead, but thank God my Dad and the paramedics were able to bring him back."
To bring him home, in fact.
The McMullan family has a special Facebook page dedicated to raising funds and awareness of the condition. To find out more about the Declan McMullan Fund, or to contribute, go to: www.facebook.com/ declanmcmullanfund?fref=nf
From YouTube to viral hit
- Mark McMullan’s incredible singing career started like so many others who dream about stardom on YouTube. His version of Bring Him Home went stratospheric
- Once exposed to a global audience via the internet, Mark’s incredible vocal talents where then showcased on Nolan
- An appearance on the Late Late Show then cemented Mark’s notoriety as a singer to watc
- The Saintfield student’s range saw him take on the testing role of Valjean in Les Miserables