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Looking back at 2016: It was the best of years, it was the worst of years

As 2016 comes to a close, three writers, Frances Burscough, Alex Kane and Mairia Cahill, remember their highs and lows of the past 12 months.

Frances Burscough: ‘I was utterly devastated to hear we were going to lose Colin so soon’

This will be remembered by many as the year when celebrities and mega-stars died in their droves. But for me, the saddest loss of all was my dear friend Colin Irwin, who succumbed to cancer in September, just short of his 53rd birthday. He wasn't a celebrity, but he should have been.

I met Colin five years ago when the Belfast Telegraph sent me on a crazy mission - to dress up and act as Marilyn Monroe for a day around Belfast (like you do), while a photographer captured the public's reaction.

My first stop was Drama Queenz costume hire shop on Rosemary Street, which, I'd been assured, was the best place bar none for fancy dress - not least because its proprietor was an award-winning fashion designer in his own right: Colin Irwin, who hand-stitched and tailored all the outfits in his own studio above the shop.

Colin and I hit it off from the word go. We were almost exactly the same age (born within a week of each other) and we both trained in England in fashion design in the 1980s - he at the highly prestigious Kingston College in London, where he won awards and accolades for his brilliantly detailed couture.

His formal training and experience was evident in all the outfits hanging up on the rails in that fabulous shop. These weren't just throw-away novelties to be tossed aside after one night's wear; these were works of art, each created to perfection by a master costumier with an obsession to detail.

Colin was more than happy to kit me out as Marilyn Monroe, because it so happened she was his ultimate screen idol. Of course, he had the most perfect thing.

By the time I'd left that magical shop, I'd been completely transformed into Norma Jean in that beautiful white satin halterneck dress with a full sun-ray pleated skirt, matching satin gloves, strings of pearls, strappy sandals and even an immaculate platinum blonde wig that Colin had styled himself into her distinctive, gleaming kiss-curl style.

I felt like a million dollars that day, not least because I thought I'd gained myself a new, lifelong friend.

A few months later, when we met up for lunch, Colin handed me a parcel. It was the Marilyn Monroe outfit, beautifully wrapped in white tissue. He wanted me to have it, because, he told me, "no one else could ever wear it as well as you did".

Tragically, it was a life and a friendship cut cruelly short, when Colin discovered last spring that he had inoperable cancer.

Like all of his friends and family, I was utterly devastated to hear that there was no cure and we were going to lose him so quickly.

Colin was such a brilliant man, so creative and vibrant, so devoted and dedicated to everything he did and to everyone he loved.

I’m imagining him now, as 2016 comes to an end, sharing a glass of champagne in heaven with Marilyn.

As well as a year of loss, this was also a year of gain for me, too: I gained a new skill.

One of my new year’s resolutions was to learn a craft. I’ve always been artistic and creative, but I wanted a new outlet to keep my mind and my hands occupied now that my kids were grown-up and were about to leave home.

So, without further ado, I ordered all the tools and materials I would need to teach myself the art of needle-felting.

This is an intricate craft in which natural un-spun wool is woven around a wire framework to make a three-dimensional figure, using needles to compress the wool and to form it into a solid shape.

That is the basis, but what you do after that is completely up to you.

I began by making replica birds, pets and wild animals with beads for eyes and embroidery threads for added colour and texture. Eventually, I moved on to making ‘people’ too.

Now, just over a year later, I’ve actually started to make some money out of it, as the demand for my quirky little figures has grown through word-of-mouth.

For example, I had Christmas orders this year as diverse as Prince, Tommy Cooper, Bob Dylan, Joey Dunlop, Dolly Parton, an Italian Greyhound, two miniature schnauzers, a King Charles Spaniel and a Jack Russell puppy.

So, there’s one thing I have learnt in 2016 — you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Mairia Cahill: In a year of big events, it's often the small moments of joy we hold dear  

In all, this has been a mixed, but generally good year for me. Notable highlights were the bouts in the Irish Senate in the early stages of 2016. As someone who loves sparring, I was able to raise, argue on, or legislate for a wide range of topics, including abuse and domestic violence, abortion, heritage, legacy issues and even Ireland's harbours.

I was treated very well as a Senator, and the experience is one that will stay with me through life. I'm proud of the fact that the Sexual Offences Bill passed the report stage while I was there and I was able to vote and put my support for it on the record.

Frustrated at once again no movement for victims, I also called for a cross-border inquiry with compellability powers to deal with the legacy issue. I hope that, in the coming year, politicians stop their disgraceful foot-dragging on this issue.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, after much speculation, called the Irish general election in February, and parties pounded the pavements on the canvassing trail. It was a disappointing election for Labour, but I loved every minute of the campaign.

Enda and I shared a favourite moment, when Gerry Adams put his foot in his mouth in a live TV debate by asking: "Who's Senator Cahill?" He looked extremely silly afterwards as he tried to explain his dig at me by saying he thought the Taoiseach had said "Sandra".

I responded by cheekily saying "what a d***". Outraged Shinners were afterwards aghast at the profanity, until I pointed out that their vice-president had also used that very phrase in the Dail towards a member of the government.

They dropped their indignation like a hot potato, while I made a mental note to moderate my language.

This was also the year that Mary Lou McDonald referred to Adams as an "international sex symbol" and 'Slab' Murphy as a "typical rural man". Er, right. Enough said.

I met with the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory, in May, and he outlined how the Public Prosecution Service was going to implement Sir Keir Starmer's recommendations after my cases. I welcomed it at the time, stating: "Other victims will now have a stronger chance of securing justice as a result of changes implemented ... and that is the most important thing."

I look forward to the Criminal Justice Inspectorate review findings in the coming year, which will assess whether these are working for abuse victims. I also await the Ombudsman's findings into my case, as it has now been more than two years since I made a complaint. Things move slowly in Northern Ireland.

Spending time at Dublin Zoo with former Tanaiste Joan Burton and my daughter, Saorlaith, was a fun memory. Sitting on a bus on Easter morning with a load of parliamentarians en route to the GPO for the State commemoration was another.

Being invited to the White House was exciting; missing the flight there, not so. I suppose I can always say I stood up POTUS, but I'm still green when I think of it, particularly now that Obama is leaving the post.

Writing in this paper on a range of topics was enjoyable. My favourite was a piece about Stephen Nolan's hilarious mum, Big Audrey, who continues to entertain us by keeping it real.

There were low points also. A close relative had to be resuscitated and part of the year was spent almost living in the hospital. I'm grateful that we spent a wonderful Christmas together. Another annus horribilis moment came when I lost my good friend, Olive Buckley, to pancreatic cancer. Olive was a great woman and was always there with hugs, a wicked sense of humour and tea. Losing her was a huge blow, but it's also nice to get to the stage where you can think of someone with a smile, rather than remembering through the tears.

I had problems with my own health also. What goes up, must come down, and after the Senate, a viral infection and anaemia, coupled with life events, led to a bad bout of post-traumatic stress disorder and nervous exhaustion.

I had little energy and there were a few tears, but I was also surrounded with the support of close friends and my immediate family, and that was very much appreciated.

A holiday was in order, and the most relaxing time this year was spent at Lake Garda, watching my daughter's confidence grow as she learned how to swim, and the general content that comes with sun and beautiful surroundings.

I'm philosophical about life, and my Que Sera, Sera mantra will take me forward throughout 2017, as it has in years past.

I've learned to appreciate the good times, learn from the negatives and enjoy every minute of my daughter growing up.

Alex Kane: Bowie's death was sad, but the loss of my dog, Bo, was heartbreaking

As I've got older, I've realised that I'm beginning to remember each passing year in terms of the purely personal stuff, rather than the big political events, like Brexit, elections and Trump.

Those events matter, of course, but not in the sense that they have a deep emotional impact on me; they are part of the everyday territory of my job as a columnist/commentator.

I'll observe them and continue to monitor them as part of a changing landscape, but they aren't really fixed in my mind as something hugely important to me as just an ordinary person.

But I will always remember January 1, 2016, as the day my dog, Bo, died. He was a gorgeous, wonderfully bonkers presence in our house, with a tail capable of sending tables and laptops flying when he was in a particularly happy mood.

He was a rescue dog (about a year old) who had been bullied at his previous home, and he took enormous effort and patience in his first year with us.

If we raised a hand in what we thought was a welcome gesture, he would cower on the floor and wet himself. Sudden noises terrified him. He seemed to live in constant fear of being beaten.

But, bit by bit, day by day, pat by pat, he grew to trust us, and in trusting us he grew to love us. What emerged was a dog who just wanted to be part of our family; playing with the children, welcoming visitors, causing havoc in the garden and rolling through anything that looked like fun.

Like all dogs who understand the importance of love, he always knew when we needed it from him, too. The head on the lap when you felt down; lying at your feet and just being there as a source of comfort; rolling over on his back and welcoming your rub as a way of de-stressing yourself; keeping a watchful eye when Megan was growing up and staring in adoration when Lilah-Liberty arrived a few years later.

My wonderful, beautiful Bo. I found him in his kennel around breakfast time on New Year's Day. It was clear he had had a massive stroke and was beyond help and out of pain.

I crawled in beside him and lay there with him, nose to nose, for about two hours. His eyes were open and his breath was shallow. I talked to him and brushed him. I soaked his face in tears. I let Kerri, Megan and Lilah-Liberty say their goodbyes and then I spent more time with him. He died about 11.30am and broke my heart.

I'm not embarrassed to say that I loved him, or that I looked upon him as a vital part of our family. Even now, almost a year later, I'm in tears as I write this. When I wrote, he nearly always lay beside me, usually under the table, where I used him as a foot stool; his tail thump-thumping as I tried out a line or two on him. There hasn't been a single day of the year when I haven't thought about him, or missed him.

The other big event of 2016 was Megan turning 18. When you've spent so many years watching over someone and trying to be there when they need you most, it comes as a huge shock to discover they've become an adult able to drive, vote, drink (legally), make life-changing decisions for themselves and stand on their own two feet.

That little person you remember throwing over your shoulder and settling into bed - and the songs and stories and laughter which accompanied the process - is now going out to nightclubs and parties. The girl who needed her hair de-tangled and de-gummed on a regular basis is now a confident young woman with her own style.

The girl who made you watch a film over and over again has now found another world on YouTube, social media and her own circle.

All of which is as it should be, but it still comes as a huge, albeit very happy, surprise.

This, of course, was also the year David Bowie and Leonard Cohen died. Bowie provided the soundtrack for both my O and A-level revision, and listening to him still brings back the sight of a table piled with notes, wine gums and Wagon Wheels the size of bin lids.

I never liked Cohen's singing, but he was a brilliant poet and writer. When I'm thinking of Northern Ireland's future, I always start from his observation: "How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?"

Both of them were quiet, yet important, influences on my life, and their death saddens me, while reminding me of my own mortality.

Bo, Megan, Bowie and Cohen … that's how I'll remember 2016. All of them hugely important parts of my life and, in Megan's case in particular, loved more than she'll ever know.

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