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Our own love story was great... now we make a living writing up other people's real-life romances

Love bloomed for Co Down writer Lee Henry and his wife Mairead over the bookshelves in Belfast's Linen Hall Library, sparking an unusual literary venture putting the stories of other lovebirds into print

Published 27/07/2016

Novel approach: Lee Henry and Mairead on their wedding day surrounded by books
Novel approach: Lee Henry and Mairead on their wedding day surrounded by books
Outside the Foyle Books shop
Family life: Lee Henry and Mairead with son Patrick Seamus
Family life: Mairead with son Patrick Seamus, reading him a story
A love story they have captured in print

The course of true love never did run smooth, as the great Bard eloquently put it, and so it was with Mairead and I, in the beginning, at least, with more than two hearts initially involved in our nascent real life love story.

Given that we would go on to launch Lovebird Books, a bespoke publishing company enabling couples to celebrate milestone anniversaries or weddings by having their romantic journeys written for posterity, it is, however, apt that we first met while working in Belfast's Linen Hall Library.

In the months previous, we rarely made eye contact as we went about our daily business - I typing away contentedly as editor of arts website Culture Northern Ireland, she happily front of house and up to her elbows in books.

We never once fell into conversation, despite being only four years apart.

To Mairead, I was merely the young man who walked too fast, always rushing into the cafe for my mid-morning coffee. To me, she was the girl with the skulls on her jeans and a penchant for Whitesnake T-shirts, as far removed from the repressed librarian cliche as it was humanly possible to get.

We were properly introduced on the occasion of another staff member's leaving do and Cupid's arrow splintered and struck over pints in the nearby Garrick Bar, I enamoured with her wicked sense of humour, she with my prematurely greying beard. The South Down boy smitten by the earthy Derry princess.

One by one, all other suitors (for suitors they were, silent and steadfast and deadly when challenged) eventually conceded defeat and we were left alone to smoke our cigarettes in the chilly evening rain.

Summoning up the type of courage that can shape a man's entire existence, I proffered the cheesiest line I could muster, and was rewarded with a kiss. But one was all I would get - even if I gifted Mairead 12 yellow roses every day for a week - for she was promised to another, and I was promised, too.

"Thinking back, it really was a thorny situation," Mairead now contends. "We each had to break hearts in order to be together, but sometimes you have to make these choices, even if everyone else tells you that it may not be the smartest thing to do. But I think, when it comes to love, we have to go with our gut."

The following Monday morning, although our hearts told us otherwise, we went with our heads and agreed to leave well alone. It was for the best, after all, we convinced ourselves. No one would get hurt. Everything would continue as normal and the kiss on Montgomery Street be consigned to history.

This virtuous resolve lasted no less than four solid days, during which time we skipped outside the Linen Hall library for innumerable clandestine cigarette breaks, found reason to visit each other's work stations for the flimsiest of reasons, and finally broke under cover of darkness as the inevitable tide took us out to sea. We became official on September 21, 2009, and were married exactly two years later.

Our love of literature brought us together, and it is that enduring passion, in part, that has kept us together. We named our first-born, Patrick Seamus, after Mairead's father and Mr Heaney, the late Nobel Laureate, who we were honoured to meet in his Dublin home - hallowed ground for bibliophiles like us - while on assignment to promote the erstwhile Belfast Festival at Queen's in 2012.

"We have very different tastes in literature," says Mairead, a die-hard Stephen King fan who loves nothing more than to jump into another of the American horror writer's formidable tomes, although by now there are few that she hasn't read.

"I grew up surrounded by horror stories in my parents' house in the country, with my brothers big influences on my taste, and I spent every Friday after school handing over £2 to the proprietor of my beloved Foyle Books for another well-worn Eighties copy of King from the archives.

"I love nothing more than to rearrange and dust down my collection, which is added to every year on my birthday."

I, on the other hand, have moved from fantasy to crime fiction by way of 'literary' writers such as John Updike and Jack Kerouac, but share Mairead's love of children's literature, which we're actively attempting to instil in our boy.

The story of our proposal is without an elegant country house backdrop, but that does not make it any less true, honest, authentic, and we hope to tell many stories like it in the years ahead.

I asked Mairead to marry me over an M&S steak dinner in our former flat in Stranmillis on an otherwise uneventful Wednesday evening. The ring was affordable, our wedding small but perfectly formed, and we required our wedding photographer to capture the first images of us as husband and wife not on a beach, or up a mountain, or locked in an embrace on a cliff overlooking the ocean, but in Foyle Books, to the delight of the proprietor and the vexed consternation of a few bookish customers.

In 2014, we enthusiastically made the move back to Mairead's cherished Maiden City, and it was there where the idea for Lovebird Books took hold.

The year previous, I fulfilled a lifelong ambition when Blackstaff Press published my first factual book, Belfast Taxi: A Drive Through History, One Fare at a Time, and since relocating West, Mairead too has had work published professionally, writing children's stories for the Newry-based company Wee Wonders, but we were moved to create something for ourselves, something that we own, something that will hopefully last a lifetime and enable us to buy the wedding ring that Mairead truly deserves in Lovebird Books.

"In our previous jobs, everything relied on government funding," Mairead explains. "But when austerity bit, and the funding dried up, a lot of people were forced to look at the arts in a different way. Monetisation became a buzzword; support for the arts that existed before now seems to be a thing of the past.

"So I came up with the idea of putting the two things that mean so much to us together - our love of a good story and our wedding day, our own love story - and came up with the concept behind Lovebird Books, which we launched, after many months of hard work, in July of this year."

In the digital age, most of us have few physical memories of our times spent together. We have Facebook posts, of course, WhatsApp conversations and Snapchats to flick through - a plethora of messages, filtered images, likes and emoticons - but little if any paper trails documenting our trajectory through life.

Love letters so beautifully written by previous generations are now, very sadly, few and far between, but with Lovebird Books it is our intention to create something tangible for couples to cherish and pass on to their loved ones when time inevitably concludes their love stories for good.

We have so far written and published two Lovebird Books - one for close friends and another for a Dubai-based couple, as commissioned by international destination wedding photographer Brett Florens - and are currently writing two more, which we were privileged to accept.

Unlike other publishing companies, we design each Lovebird Book ourselves and have them printed by wedding album producers. Each is hardback, linen-covered and laser-etched, and can feature as many images from the clients' lives as they would like.

Those about to be married can also feature their Lovebird Book on their wedding day by including a guestbook end-section to which family and friends can add their own messages and memories on the day.

"We greatly enjoy interviewing real couples and interpreting their stories in 5,000 words," adds Mairead.

"It's a challenge to pick out the major episodes that shaped their relationship and put them down on paper.

"My only regret, when I look back at our wedding day, or my parents' 40th wedding anniversary, for example, is that we didn't have something similar to help make the occasion.

"Those who love books will understand how special it is to hold one in your hand and while away the hours reading, but maybe one day we'll sit down and write our own story."

Are we romantics? Aren't we all? Even the most hard-nosed, barrel-chested alpha male can enjoy a good romcom, though he may never admit to it. Our favourite films tell heart-warming stories about believable characters in love - When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, The Princess Bride, to name but a few - and when it comes to literature, we find endless inspiration in everything from Heaney's poignant poem, Scaffolding, to Shakespeare's tragic play, Romeo and Juliet.

To those who think that their real life love story is not worth telling, you will never know until you try.

There is magic in the details, if you know where to look.

Find out more about Lovebird Books, visit lovebirdbooks.com, on Twitter @YouLovebirdBooks or the Facebook page Lovebird Books

Belfast Telegraph

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