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Voice of Ulster-Scots Helen Mark has gone through the pain barrier

Published 30/08/2016

Helen Mark studied in Edinburgh before moving back to NI
Helen Mark studied in Edinburgh before moving back to NI
Helen Mark and her husband Ian (centre); and (left) son Jamie with fiancee April, and son Adam with girlfriend Zoe
The Belfast Tattoo Band in concert a few years ago
Helen Mark

The broadcaster tells Una Brankin about life as a sheep farmer, her love of presenting the massed pipes and drums spectacular, and why the show must go on... even if you've just collapsed in wings with gallstones.

During the interval of last year's Belfast Tattoo in the cavernous SSE Arena, presenter Helen Mark began to feel sick. Standing in the wings, she was hit with an excruciating pain in her abdomen, buckling over in agony.

"I was on my hands and knees with this terrible pain and all I could think was that I had to get out on stage to introduce the Band of the Royal Marines," she recalls.

"The medics arrived and gave me gas and air and told me there was no way I could go on, but I said: 'No, I have to read my links'. I got them to give me more gas and air - I'd forgotten how nice it is, actually.

"So, I managed to go on to introduce the second half of the show in this huge arena. My husband was in the audience and if he'd heard someone else's voice on the stage he'd have known something was wrong."

The source of the pain was a gallstone that had dislodged itself in Helen's digestive system.

"It came completely out of the blue, no warning at all - imagine, at that very moment," Helen laughs.

"The reason it was so painful was that it was passing through, so I didn't have to go to hospital. I went home to bed and I was okay."

From Limavady, the Scottish-born broadcaster - well-known to listeners of Radio Ulster's Scots-Irish programming - was the natural choice as MC for the spectacular Belfast Tattoo when it was launched in 2013. A popular and familiar radio voice, she has a warm smile and plenty of natural charm to go with her gentle, atmospheric Scottish lilt, with its north-western Irish overtones.

This week's Belfast Tattoo 2016 will bring her back to our screens as BBC NI is filming the extravaganza.

An international line-up features more than 600 performers, showcasing some of the finest marching bands, musicians, and dancers from across Ulster and beyond in a two-hour show, building up to a grand finale of the massed pipes and drums.

With my constantly ringing ears, I'd be deafened in the middle of all that. Isn't a good pair of earplugs required, for the finale at least?

"Oh no, it's not deafening," the presenter protests.

"It's stirring and rousing and vital - full-bodied and glorious. That's what I love about it. I love when those first notes of the massed pipes and drums erupt. They really go for it - that swell is so uplifting.

"It's such a change of environment to radio for me. I'm this tiny little thing in the vast arena. It can be overwhelming."

Currently presenting the long-running Open Country programme for BBC Radio 4, Helen lives on a sheep farm in Limavady with her husband Ian and eldest son Jamie. The Belfast Tattoo is a rare opportunity for her to get glammed up. She'll be wearing a blue sequinned cocktail dress, chosen for her by a stylist appointed by BBC NI, who are not known for their extravagance when it comes to their staff's wardrobes.

"I'll be strutting my stuff in this lovely sparkly number - it's the first time I've ever had a dresser in a very long broadcasting career," she says.

"It's because the BBC are filming it. It saved me having to trudge around the shops looking for something.

"The dresser found a selection and I had to try them on. I like fashion and I know what works and when something's wrong, but this is the first and probably the last time I'll get a dresser."

At this stage of her career, Helen Mark should be a better know name. A former Foyle Today presenter, she was a quiz mistress on Radio Ulster's Put Away Your Books and made several documentary series, including The Ulster Scots and 12 Miles Of The Narrow Sea.

The move to the outdoors came with a long-running television gardening programme called Greenfingers and numerous runs of the natural history series Wildtracks for Radio Ulster.

She then began reporting for Countryfile and presenting Farming Today in 1997, followed soon after with Open Country for Radio 4.

She has also presented TV programmes such as The Family Show and Health Check in Northern Ireland, and she produces reports and packages for a wide range of Radio Ulster programmes.

A busy and varied career, yet she has kept out of the limelight - deliberately.

"I don't do a lot of interviews - I prefer to be doing the interviewing.

"I prefer to keep my head down. I like my privacy.

"I'm not about having myself splashed everywhere in the media.

"I just get on with it. I'm not famous. Maybe I should have done more of that in my career. I have to be careful what I say about that."

She's speaking from Bellaghy, where she's recording a programme on Seamus Heaney's childhood landscapes for Open Country to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his Death of A Naturalist collection of poems. Next May she'll be back in the area for her son's wedding.

"I've no grandchildren yet but Jamie's engaged and getting married in the gardens of an old country house in Ballyscullion next year," she says.

"The bride's not from there - they just fell in love with the area. It is beautiful and the Heaney programme is a lovely one to be making."

Helen and Ian have a younger son Adam, who works for John Lewis in Glasgow.

"There's always one who wants nothing to do with the farm - he even hated to stop a gap when we were moving sheep," Helen exclaims.

"I helped out a lot on the farm in the beginning but then broadcasting took over."

Helen met Ian, a fourth generation Limavady farmer, in Scotland while he was studying agriculture at Edinburgh University. She graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow and taught in Edinburgh before moving to Northern Ireland for good.

She was working as an arts administrator when she was discovered by Lesser Spotted Ulster's Joe Mahon ("a lovely man") when she was in BBC Radio Foyle promoting a show. Then station master, Joe was launching Radio Foyle's morning news and current affairs schedule and wanted new voices.

And it's that distinctive, lilting voice that gets her recognised often when she's out and about and working on the family's Foylehov Activity Centre on the north coast, just outside Limavady. The centre specialises in corporate team-building events, family days out, youth groups, community groups, birthday parties and hen/stag parties, offering a range of daredevil activities from hovercrafts to buggy racing.

Helen looks after the catering at the centre, cooking all the fare herself. But she has no intentions of jumping on the celebrity cookbook wagon.

"People look at me in my pinny and say: 'Oh, you're that woman off the TV, or the radio, or whatever; I know your voice'," she laughs.

"It's a very different world to broadcasting - I do it in the little spare time I have. I won't be doing a cookbook, I've been travelling for 16 years with Open Country and so many people have said: 'Why don't you write a book about all these places you've been to and the people you've met'. But I'm so busy. Maybe when I eventually hang up my boots, I might."

Helen has been contributing to A Kist o Wurds, Radio Ulster's longest-running Ulster-Scots programme since its inception in 2002, presenting a wide selection of music, poetry, news and chat from all parts of the province. "Being part of the A Kist o Wurds team is a lovely opportunity for me to keep alive my own Scottish roots.

"I'm from Kelso in the Scottish Borders and have always had a great interest in and love of Scottish history and culture. Meeting people who celebrate their Ulster-Scots connections adds another dimension to that."

Presenting The Belfast Tattoo for the fourth time this year, Helen is an integral part of the event's production team.

"I am a true modern day Ulster-Scot - we have a similar way of thinking and we connect. It just works and the Tattoo is still a very Ulster-Scots, affair but it's so much more international now and there are lots of dancers, including the Innova Irish dancers (Britain's Got Talent finalists)," she says.

"There are Tattoos in every country in the world, from Switzerland to Australia, and our Tattoo is part of the international Tattoo scene now.

"And it's great to see the Artane Band from Dublin this year. Don't they open the big matches at Croke Park? Ulster-Scots tradition is a great part of our history and culture of the whole country; it's not just one-sided."

The 2016 Belfast Tattoo, running from this Thursday to Saturday, will commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

Tickets can be obtained from, ticketmaster box office, tel 033 3321 9996 or from the SSE Arena box office, tel: 028 9073 9074

Hoke - it means to search roughly about for something. I would hoke about in my handbag for a pen... it would always be at the bottom and you'd hoke about trying to unearth it.

Gulder - a good, loud shout.

Yammering - It's a great word/phrase for when someone just keeps on whinging and complaining. They'd be yammering on about something. My husband says I do it about my weight!

Slaister - Eating out can be a bit of a nightmare if, like me, you're a bit of a slaister. It means you have a tendency to dribble food down your front - always seems to happen when I'm in my nicest outfit.

The Gloamin' - Twilight. Living in the countryside I love the early evening, particularly during the summer months, when the light begins to fade and the view across the landscape is softened and calmed in the half-light.

Belfast Telegraph

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