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How we get by with a little help from our friends

Broadcaster Denise Watson, actress Diona Doherty and radio presenter Caroline Fleck tell Lee Henry how their closest female mates have always been there for them, sharing triumphs and tragedy alike.

‘We have faced some tough times, but she’s always there for me’

Freelance UTV/U105 sports journalist Denise Watson (45) lives in Lisburn with husband David and daughters Samantha (12) and Elizabeth (9). Her best friend is Alison Robinson, a learning co-ordinator from Belfast. She says:

I first met Alison through our husbands, John and David, who worked together. Naturally, we started meeting up for dinner as a foursome and it soon became clear that Alison and I had lots in common. She is a very positive person, very much like myself.

It was friendship at first sight, absolutely. Alison is like a shining light and everyone who meets her once realises that she is a special woman. Her motto is ‘live, laugh, love’ and she is a very pragmatic and responsible person who I turn to for advice all the time.

How would I describe Alison? I’d say she’s vivacious, a strong woman. She’s hilarious, bubbly and makes you feel good when you’re in her company. She’s very grounded and she’s not afraid to stand up for what she believes in.

Also, I’m incredibly impressed that she has established the perfect work-life balance. She really is the beating heart of her family. She has three really well brought up boys and has instilled in them her own values regarding respect and good behaviour.

We love books, music and good conversation and we are always swapping novels. We watch and love the same TV programmes. When we’re together at weekends, we drink white wine, talk about the latest books we’ve read and share tips on dealing with children.

We’ve managed to stay together as friends because Ali is a very genuine and caring person. She’s always the first person to text and check on me if I’ve been ill or had a tough time. She was our first friend to arrive with a baby gift at the hospital for both our girls. She never forgets anniversaries or birthdays either. Ali was at our wedding and, sadly, we’ve been together at funerals too.

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Great memories: how it is — our Denise Watson with pal Alison Robinson

Truly, we have never fallen out about anything. We may have different opinions on certain things, which happens in life, but it just makes for interesting conversation. You couldn’t argue with her without smiling anyway.

We have come through tough times. My daughter needed surgery to walk and my close friend was killed in a car accident. Both times Alison was there for me. Likewise, she has had tragedy in her family, with her sister dying from cancer and losing parents and in-laws. I can truly talk to her about anything and I hope she knows she can talk to me about anything too.

We share some great memories. We celebrated my birthday in Dublin a few years ago and took the train down with a special picnic. We made sandwiches and special drinks. Then we went out for a meal and drinks. We took a horse and carriage around St Stephen’s Green and she had everyone waving up at us.

I also entertained the crowd at her birthday, doing Elvis on karaoke.

She will be boogying on the dance floor when she’s 90.

I’m very loyal to people I care about. I’m always there to listen and give advice if necessary, and as I get older, I suffer fools less. Ali did say to me when I hit 40 that I would start to care less about what folk think and she was right.

Being yourself and being comfortable enough to talk to each other about everything is the key to a long-lasting friendship.

I’m very lucky to have Alison in my life.

I love her to bits.”

‘The tragic deaths of both our first loves really brought us together’

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So close: Caroline Fleck with Gemma McCaw

Downtown Radio presenter Caroline Fleck (45) lives in Coleraine and Chicago with son Jack, from her first marriage, her partner Tom and their daughter Molly. Best friend Gemma McCaw (45) is a research administrator from Ballycastle. She says:

I’m  originally from Belfast, but I spent my secondary school years in Ballycastle, at Ballycastle High School, and that’s where we met when we had just turned 11 years old. We weren’t friends for a while. We had other friends and Gemma was on the periphery. But one summer, I remember, music brought us to together when we developed a mutual love for Def Leppard.

We spent an entire summer together listening to them and we’ve been inseparable ever since, for 30 odd years. Gemma is my sister, my everything. I asked her what she thought the secret of our friendship was and she said we’re very different people. We’re polar opposites.

Gemma is quite shy — although when she gets a few drinks in her, she’s not quiet. In fact, it’s difficult to find a photo of us together without a drink in our hands — whereas I’m very outgoing.

Gemma works in research administration and I work in the entertainment industry, so our career paths have been on complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

I’ve been married and have kids. Gemma is in a great relationship, but she has never had any children and  has never been married. We’ve gone down different paths, but we’ve always managed to navigate the obstacles that we’ve found in our way. They haven’t pulled us apart.

No matter where I’ve lived, no matter how long goes by without us seeing each other, she’s always there for me. We’ve been tested.

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The pair years ago

The thing that really brought us together was the fact our first loves were both tragically killed. My first boyfriend drowned in an accident in the River Bann when I was 16, and Gemma’s boyfriend, a former Royal Irish Regiment soldier, died when she was 22, so we’ve gone through the same feelings. We were there for each other during those experiences.

We really only see each other every other couple of months these days. You know how it is — our respective work, our family and commitments always manage to pull us apart, but we always come back together.

They say that if you can maintain a friendship for seven years, you will be friends for life. Put seven into 34 and do the maths. I think it’s pretty certain that we’re going to be best friends always.

Music is what brought us together. Gemma is a huge fan of the TV programme Nashville, as am I. It’s always been Gemma’s dream to travel to Nashville, so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to bring Nashville to her?’ I took her to a concert at the SSE Arena and she had the opportunity to meet the entire cast backstage. It was unforgettable.

We’re also still going to Def Leppard gigs together 30 years later.

She’s a country girl and I’m a city girl. We like different things. I like to travel, but Gemma is quite a homebody. We really shouldn’t be best friends, but opposites attract. We have a mutual respect and love for each other. I hope that never ends.”

‘We are the perfect little trio... it’s almost like being in a marriage’

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Good pals: Diana (right) with Mari (centre) and Sophie

Actress Diona Doherty (28), who is married to Lurgan comic, Sean Heagarty (33), lives in Londonderry. Her best friends are Sophie Tyrrell (28), a business development manager, and Mari Cunningham (28), an administrator. She says:

We met when we were 11 or 12. Mari and Sophie were friends — they lived two doors apart — when I arrived in Thornhill College. We were the perfect little trio from the beginning. Our WhatsApp group is called The Three Musketeers.

We are all so different, but we have similar qualities at the same time.

Mari was up for being the class clown with me, which worked out perfectly as I could deflect all of the blame for our shenanigans onto her. Sophie was my musical comrade and we would record music and listen to it repeatedly.

Sophie is focused and ambitious. I swear she’s going to take over the world. She is organised and thoughtful, but fun. Mari is bananas, one of a kind. She is always up for being silly and can be talked into anything. She also can’t lie, which is brilliant.

We work well as a wee unit. We don’t get to spend as much time together as we would like to, but we have an understanding that we are still always there for each other. It’s almost like being in a really long marriage. It’s been 16 years so far and we can’t really be bothered finding new friends. This is just handier.

There have been rows about boys, about holidays, about plan changing, about lots of things. That makes us stronger as friends — like in Big Brother when everyone has a massive bust-up halfway through, but by the end they’re all invited to each other’s weddings.

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Three musketeers: Diona Doherty with (top right) Sophie Tyrrell and Mari Cunningham

My best memory was my hen do last year. Sophie was my maid of honour and Mari a bridesmaid and they planned the best day with really fun games. I had an absolute ball and was so proud of them and so humbled that they went to such effort.

Finding your position in a group and understanding the quality that you bring to it, and what brings out the best in your friends, is the secret to friendship. Also, being honest with each other. If one of them looks dodgy in an outfit, it’s your absolute duty to tell them so.

We find ourselves at a funny in-between age where clubbing isn’t really a thing we do anymore but we’re too young for bingo. Before I took off to the Edinburgh Fringe a few weeks ago, we had a lovely meal in Stix and Stones in Belfast, followed by Angela’s Ashes: The Musical in the Grand Opera House. I love the cinema and the theatre, so it’s brilliant to share that with my besties.

I have a few birthday cards from the girls over the years, ones with three old ladies on the front chucking their walking frames into a river and laughing. I think we will be like that when we’re old — just as mischievous and silly as we are now.”

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