Ryan Hand: How I learned to smile again after losing my mum to cancer... now it's my job to make others laugh too
Co Down comic Ryan Hand tells Stephanie Bell why Marie Curie is a cause close to his heart and why he would never tell the same jokes as Frankie Boyle
Television presenter and comedian Ryan Hand was only 20 when he lost his mum to cancer, which is why he has jumped at the chance to co-host this year’s Marie Curie Walk Ten with local DJ Carolyn Stewart.
The up-and-coming star from Newcastle, Co Down, lost his beloved mum Pauline in 2008 from ovarian cancer. She was only 56. Three years previously, her sister Eileen had also died from the disease, aged just 57.
It was a double heartbreak for the family and, seven years on, Ryan is thinking of others going through the same journey as he prepares to help highlight Marie Curie’s annual fundraiser held at Stormont.
He says: “If you see the statistics, last year Marie Curie supported 40,000 people with terminal illness. That’s 40,000 families living through their own stories.
“If I can help people like me and my family then why not? When asked to co-host Walk to Remember it was an automatic yes.
"My main purpose will be to get people smiling, laughing and having a good time at Stormont."
Ryan has always wanted to work as a TV presenter and although he has made his name as a local comedian, his heart lies in television, so much so that he is planning to move to London this year in the hope of getting his big break.
It was his mum who got him started in the BBC when she drove from Newcastle to Belfast to ensure his application for a training programme met the deadline.
Sadly, she never lived long enough to discover that her efforts had paid off.
She died two months before her son was able to give up his job selling ice cream to chase his dream of working in television, albeit on the bottom rung of the ladder as a runner.
Seven years on and Ryan is becoming a regular on TV, both locally and nationally, now freelancing as a presenter and working for local and satellite channels.
Not only is he aware of the role his mum played in helping kickstart his career, but he also credits her with giving him his sense of humour which has seen him become a popular figure on the local comedy circuit.
He says: “I’ve always wanted to be a TV presenter. I can remember one day when I was working in Mauds in Newcastle serving ice cream, having a kind of epiphany moment and thinking ‘This is not for me, I have to get out of here’.
“The BBC was advertising a training course and mum drove down to Belfast to hand in my application on the day of the deadline so that I wouldn’t miss out.
“I got the job thanks to her, but I started two months after she died.
“People keep saying to me that my mum would have been so proud.
“Mum was the life and soul of any party, she was fierce craic and a true joker with a mischievous sense of adventure — thankfully, I inherited her amazing sense of humour.
“She was brought up on a farm in rural Kilcoo in a family of eight, so family values were always drummed into my sisters and I.
“In her younger days mum would’ve been a fair operator of the camogie stick and often joined the lads and I on the street for a kickabout.
“Mum was unbelievably sporty and used to play pool for the Anchor Ladies and beat many a man on the old Lewsleys pool table.
“She was the type of person who’d give everything a go and usually romped home in the parents’ race every school sports day.
“Making plans with mum on a Tuesday night was near impossible — unless it involved bingo balls in the local parish hall. In a nutshell she was a fun, courageous, faith-driven, devoted mother who put herself second and others first.”
It is a tribute to his mum that Ryan remembers her last days fondly because her courage in dealing with her prognosis helped carry the whole family through.
He feels gratitude that she was able to spend her last days in her own bed surrounded by her family, giving them the chance to say goodbye, and it was his mum’s incredible spirit which filled those painful days with humour.
She had fought cancer for three years and died just a few days after being told that nothing more could be done to help her.
Ryan remembers it like yesterday: “I was still quite young at the time she died and didn’t really understand fully. I knew she had cancer, but I didn’t know she was going to die.
“I remember it was a Tuesday when she was told and I was working in the ice cream parlour when she rang me to ask when I was coming home.
“I came home quite late and I can still see her, sitting in the chair in the living room. She was wearing a pair of faded denims and a pink woollen top, but the colour completely drained from her face as she told me she had got news from the doctor and it wasn’t good.
“She said she hadn’t long to live, but didn’t know if it would be three weeks or three months.
“However, he still went to her bingo that night. When she came home she was horrifically sick and she died on the Sunday.
"We all knew what was happening and we were all round the bed beside her and the craic was unbelievable. She said some pretty funny things and it was a good way to spend her last days. Some people's parents can walk out in front of a lorry and they don't get the chance to say goodbye like we did."
In a double blow for the family, his mum's sister Eileen, a nurse, was also diagnosed with the same cancer a year later. She died shortly after.
Ryan says: "Without sounding biased, you couldn't have met two nicer ladies than my mum and Auntie Eileen, and both ladies left a big hole in our family. I feel I missed out on a lot of experiences that other young men enjoy with their mums as I was just maturing as a man at that age - but this made me a stronger person."
Ryan is a now a regular on TV, radio and on the local comedy circuit.
He recently co-produced the Big Celtic Comedy Tour for Radio Ulster which was broadcast in Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Ireland.
He has worked on UTV's The Magazine show as a roving reporter and has presented for The Community Channel on Sky.
He also helped establish the very successful LOL (Lots of Laughs) Comedy club in his home town of Newcastle, which has been headlined by comic greats like Patrick Kielty and Roy Walker.
While he still loves stand-up, he says his heart is in television presenting, which is why he is planning a move to London in a couple of months.
"I am making a wee bit of a name for myself in TV and comedy and getting to where I would like to be," he says.
"I just feel I need a big break and London is the place to go.
"I feel now is the time to do it so I am going with no real plan, but with hope that it will work out.
"Of course it would be amazing to do something like Live at the Apollo, but my real passion is to be a TV presenter and do comedy on the side. My dream would be to have a show like Alan Carr Chatty Man or PK Live."
Ryan is hoping to put a smile on the faces of the people taking part in this year's Walk Ten when he hosts the first of two walks in the Stormont Estate on August 29.
It's a far cry from fellow comic Frankie Boyle who poked fun at cancer patients during his controversial show in west Belfast last weekend.
Ryan, though, is philosophical about Boyle's offensive choice of topics, which include Down's Syndrome children and even paedophilia.
He says: "I can understand how some people would be offended, but personally I wouldn't be. I know he is not directing it at my mum or auntie so it is not personal. If I was offended I wouldn't go and I think if people are offended, then don't go and see him.
"That's his style of comedy and I'm one for free speech. I know what he says is offensive and I wouldn't tell those types of jokes.
"I totally understand why people with Down's Syndrome children would be offended."
Step out to support Marie Curie
- Two Marie Curie Walk 10km events are being staged. The first will be at Stormont on August 29 and the second is at the Ulster American Folk Park on September 12
- The events are very much family orientated and are a great chance to come together and support Marie Curie
- Participants are encouraged to bring a picnic to have after the event and to enjoy the entertainment which will include music from U105 and a fireworks display
- All money raised stays in Northern Ireland and will allow Marie Curie to continue to develop key services in nursing for people living with a terminal illness, both at home and in the Belfast Hospice
- £20 equates to an hour of nursing care while £180 pays for a full night shift