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Hearts and minds: Northern Ireland celebrities on finding love

With love in the air tomorrow, Una Brankin talks to local celebrities on how they met and what Valentine's Day means to them years after the first flush of romance

Published 13/02/2016

Claire proposed to her husband Alastair live on air while working for Downton Radio
Claire proposed to her husband Alastair live on air while working for Downton Radio
Lynda and Mike worked together on Good Morning Ulster
Sean pretended he had a comedy gig in Edinburgh and proposed to Diona

Songs of Praise presenter Claire McCollum (41) lives near Whiteabbey in Belfast with her husband, financial advisor Alastair Clarke, from Dungannon, and their children Samuel (nine) and Rosa (seven). Currently in talks with the BBC for other projects, Claire, originally from Newtownabbey, celebrates her 15th wedding anniversary this summer. Claire says:

I'd heard about Ali when I was at university in Dundee and he was at Queen's in Belfast. My friend Pinky (Malcom Pinkerton) thought I'd like him and I was intrigued. I was attracted to him before I met him, which was seven years later. I bumped into him at The Fly bar near Queen's. I was out with a group of girls and he walked in, and I clocked him straight away. I knew the guys he was with and we got chatting.

We hit it off and Pinky arranged for us to go out in a crowd for the next couple of weeks. Then, Ali asked me out to dinner. We went to the Washington, behind the City Hall. It was sort of romantic - we were really comfortable with each other; there were no awkward silences.

Yes, I fancied him! That was a huge part of it. It was definitely attraction at first sight. I was with Downtown at the time, reading the news, and Ali was just starting out as a financial advisor. It was a bit of a whirlwind romance - I can't even remember what we did for our first Valentine's; isn't that terrible?

But we knew very quickly we were right for each other and, as it was a leap year, I proposed to him nine months later, live on air. Yes, he knew. I tested the water the night before to make sure!

I was working on the Downtown Radio breakfast show with Maurice Jay. I'd been going out with Ali for eight months and it was a leap year and everyone at work kept winding me up about it. I decided to take the opportunity to propose to Ali and stupidly told Maurice my plan.

I'd just finished reading the news when Maurice caught me on the hop - he loves a bit of banter. He told me he had a surprise for me and all of a sudden Ali was live on air. I didn't have much of a choice to do anything but ask Ali if he fancied making things a bit more permanent.

He knew rightly what was going on so he played it dumb and asked what I meant. I just said 'will you marry me?' and thankfully he said 'yes'. It was a great laugh and even made it on to the UTV news that evening. UTV loved it.

He did propose to me eventually, on the day before our wedding. We were having a family lunch at The Edge restaurant in Belfast and he finally got down on one knee then.

He is quite romantic, and he's very thoughtful and level-headed, especially if I'm worried about something. He's the voice of reason. I wouldn't like to go into what niggles me about him!

He surprises me with little presents. Early on, after we met, I had the chickenpox and he send me a lovely bouquet of flowers.

Romance is put on hold when you have children - we have two - as family time is all consuming and hectic - but we're so happy to have two wonderful kids. We always do something for Valentine's Day. We're going to Fontana restaurant in Hollywood on Saturday night, rather than Sunday. We still give each other a card with a bit of humour; not soppy. I get flowers sometimes - I'll just have to wait and see this year!

I get him a wee gift -his favourite chocolate or something. As for having a free-pass for a Valentine's date with anyone in the world, I haven't a clue. George Clooney's a bit busy... No, I'm happy to have Ali as my Valentine, thank-you!

Now a journalism lecturer at Belfast Metropolitan College, the former broadcaster Lynda Bryans (53) lives in Belfast with husband, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and their sons PJ (20) and Christopher (18). Married for 24 years, the Nesbitts first met each other while working for BBC Northern Ireland in the late 1980s. Linda says:

Michael is very thoughtful and always remembers Valentine's Day - even if it's only a little token gift and card, he always does something. Although, with his job these days, time is a precious commodity that we have little of. So we don't get too much time to slip away together or to have a night out, but we try to catch up with something special regularly. Apart from Valentine's Day, there are other little gestures and actions too - he puts real thought into gifts.

As for our very first Valentine's together - honestly, I can't remember that far back. Not very romantic, is it?

When we first met, Michael and I didn't pay much attention to each other. He worked in sport and I was a copy typist in the newsroom. We were also both in relationships with other people. As time went on though, both of those relationships ended and we started working together on Good Morning Ulster, and became soul mates.

We were perfectly happy going along for a couple of years without making plans. We were wary of rushing into anything, as we'd been in serious relationships beforehand, but I think we both knew we were kindred spirits.

We had talked a lot about the future and when the leap year came round in 1992, I decided to follow the tradition and pop the question. He had never been to New York before, so I booked a long weekend there to coincide with February 29. I don't know if Michael had any idea what I was planning but a colleague of ours told him just before we left, so on the day, he was prepared.

We'd booked a table for dinner in the Russian Tea Room. Michael had secretly tipped a waiter to bring champagne at his signal, knowing what was coming. I made my little speech about the two of us travelling the same road together and asked him if he would marry me - thankfully he agreed! The champagne arrived and we had a lovely evening.

Because I organised the engagement, Mike organised the wedding in Hawaii, the following July.

We're 24 years married this summer - if we do have a date night, it's usually Friday nights on the terrace at Ulster Rugby home games, with a takeaway afterwards. Luckily we're both Ulster Rugby fans.

We always exchange cards and a small token of some sort. Last year. Michael gave me a unique gift - a gin-tasting kit, consisting or six little miniature bottles of different and unusual gins with tasting notes, which I had fun with over the space of a few weekends. I don't drink much these days but do enjoy an occasional gin and tonic, so that's what I mean about him putting real thought into the right gift for the right person.

If I was allowed a one-off Valentine's date with anyone in the world, it would be my husband. His free time is really limited so it would be good to catch up with each other with a romantic dinner date, where his phone and all forms of social media would be barred.

Comedy duo Sean Hegarty (32) and Diona Doherty (26) got engaged last November. Londonderry-born actress Diona was a finalist in Britain's Next Top Model and had performed live at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Sean, from Lurgan, is best known for the Cool FM Saturday Show and his comedy character Rodney, who has attracted over three million views on Facebook and 30,000 likes. The couple recently moved to Craigavon, Diona says,

When Sean and I met at Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Festival, I thought he was surprisingly quiet, despite being a comedian. He was only quiet in a larger group, though - once it was just us he wouldn't shut up. Nearly needed a muzzle!

Who made the first move? To be honest, I genuinely think we both went in for the kill. I think we both knew it felt right and just went for it. Cringe...

One of our first dates, within the first few weeks of meeting, was a hike up to Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. Sean planned a midnight barbeque, so we were rewarded with a few burgers after the trek up. We could see the whole city from the top and it was magical. Sean brought me back there to propose to me. It was perfect.

I think falling in love was a very instant thing. From the day we met, we basically became a couple and did everything together. We had definitely found our best friends. Within the first few days, we basically began living together - us and about 15 other comedy actors and comedians in Edinburgh - for the month of the Fringe. We immediately began acting like a couple and doing joint food shopping, etc, so it all got comfortable very quickly. It was all just, easy...

For our first Valentine's, we took a picnic to Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge on the north coast and went for a nice, big, peaceful walk - it's the simple things we like.

So, last November, Sean pretended to me that he had a comedy gig in Edinburgh and that he was bringing me with him. We flew there the next day and we had a few hours to kill, so Sean suggested we went back to the place we had one of our first dates. After trekking up Arthur's Seat, Sean set up his camera for a few selfies but sneakily left it running and popped the question.

I still thought there was a gig and we had to rush back down to get to it, then I realise it was all a big fat lie to get me there. I was delighted - not because I didn't have to go listen to him tell jokes; more because we were engaged!

I love Sean's sense of humour and his honesty, but he folds his feet into the bottom of the duvet before bed time and it makes me want to jump out the window. Momentarily.

Is romance important to us? It is and it isn't. I feel like we are a very close couple and very affectionate, and we do nice things for one another all the time, so big extravagant gestures aren't important. But time together most definitely is.

I genuinely don't even like cards, unless they are homemade. I hate buying them and think it's a mad money-making industry and I only get cards for people who I know actually want them. Sean doesn't care about cards either. The poor thing will probably just get a wee hug.

If I had to date someone else on Valentine's Day, I would go with that internet comedy character Rodney, because at least then I am still getting to spend it with Sean.

Actually, he made me say that. I'd have said Tom Hardy...

Sean says: When I saw Diona for the first time, I thought to myself, 'I wonder if she'd fancy going to get a gravy chip?' I was really hungry at the time.

Obviously Diona made the first move. She used all the stereotypical female pulling techniques - ignore him and eventually he'll come over; act repulsed when he starts talking in his Lurgan accent; hold your nose during the first kiss, that type of thing.

When did we first realise we had a future together? When Diona got the 'all clear'. I love when she dyes her hair, gets her eyebrows re-shaped, puts on fake tan, squeezes into a dress that doesn't fit, makes her nails a different colour, gets her teeth whitened, wears shoes that she hates because Kim Kardashian wears them, and talks in a different accent so people can understand her, and when she puts on loads and loads of make-up.

For me, it's all about being real, y'know?

The only thing I hate is: she has a really weird foot fetish, no socks before marriage.

Romance is very important to me. Just last week, I made Diona breakfast in bed. She got so mad. Apparently, you're supposed to make it in a frying pan. The sheets were ruined - but it was the thought that counts.

As for card-giving, by the time I got to the shops last year, they were all sold out of Valentine's Day cards, so I had to improvise. I bought her a card that said 'You're 2' and wrote 'kind' underneath.

This year, Diona wants me to surprise her, so I'm getting a sex-change and her and 'Shauneen' are going SHOPPING!!

If I was allowed a one-off Valentine's date with anyone living or dead, in the whole world, it would have to be someone living. The deceased aren't much banter.

Superstar Valentine’s gifts

Brad Pitt once gave Angelina Jolie breath mints as a joke present for Valentine's Day, according to the New York Daily News, but Mrs Pitt is known to be much more extravagant.

On St Valentine's Day 2010, Angelina gave her husband a 200-year-old olive tree to plant at their French chateau. The tree was estimated to be worth between $18,000 and $30,000. Brad has also reportedly received $1.6 million helicopter and flying lessons from the wife.

David and Victoria Beckham are often thousands of miles apart on Valentine's Day, due to his UNICEF and promotional activities, and her busy fashion career but the pair always mark the occasion.

Victoria's Valentine's gifts have reportedly included a Bulgari necklace worth $8 million, a $100,000 diamond-encrusted handbag, a $500,000 Rolls-Royce and a $2.4 million Boucheron ruby and diamond necklace.

Jay Z and Beyonce are well known for giving each other lavish gifts. For Valentine's Day 2009, Jay-Z bought his Mrs Carter a platinum-covered mobile phone that was reportedly worth $24,000. Other gifts exchanged between this pair include a $2 million car for Jay-Z, and at least two Hermes Birkin bags costing $350,000 for Beyonce, chosen personally by Jay-Z in a private room at the Hermes store.

Never one to miss a branding opportunity, Beyonce released her own underwear range in time for Valentine's Day 2014, with 'YOURS' and 'MINE' printed on them. The box set costs around $40.

Hollywood heart throb Channing Tatum likes to give his Valentine, wife Jenna Dewan, jewellery from Neil Lane, whose trinkets range from $5,000 for a plain chain to well over $100,000 for a custom-made ring.

Describing her last Valentine's jewels as "really amazing" and "awesome", Jenna has actress Sienna Miller to thanks for recommending the designer to Channing, on the set of GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra. The actor also bought a custom-made engagement ring and wedding bands from Neil Lane, whose clients include Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Kate Hudson.

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