Nuala McKeever was not expecting to find happiness at the end of what has been the toughest and most emotionally fraught year of her life. It's only a little over a year since she lost the man she adored, her partner of four years Mike Moloney, who died suddenly in an accident at his Belfast home.
Every day without Mike is painful for Nuala and she still sometimes finds it hard not to cry when she talks about him.
A new relationship was the last thing on her mind and the fact that she has found love with a woman for the first time in her life is something she says she could never have foreseen.
The outspoken comedian and actress has never shied away from expressing her opinions and so it was no surprise that it was Nuala herself who broke the news in her column in this newspaper last Monday. Inevitably, her disclosure created a ripple of reaction in Northern Ireland because of divisions on gay rights.
She has no problem letting the world know that she is in a gay relationship but the fact that she felt compelled to announce it through her column does make her uneasy.
She said: "It's strange. Part of me is thinking 'Is this really happening and why am I even talking about it?'
"But we were out together as a couple for something to eat the other night and I can't avoid the fact that people recognise me and I just thought if anyone is going to talk about it – me being in a relationship with another woman – I wanted it to be me.
"It's appalling that because of the nature of our society you have to talk about this as if it is something to be justified or defended.
"I've nothing to hide and I am not going to live my life hiding things as if they were some sort of dirty secret.
"I don't give a damn any more. I don't care what anyone thinks of me as long as I am not being nasty or abusive. “I can't control what people think of what I do and what matters to me is that I am being respectful and inclusive in my own life.
“I don't want to be seen as a representative of anybody or any group and I'm not being mealy mouthed about it either or looking for a get-out clause.
“At different times in my life I have kept secrets about things and didn't want to tell people and I don't want to live like that anymore.
“I feel sorry that some people have a problem with it but that's fine, each to their own.”
She readily admits that as a comedienne it would be hard for her not to have an opinion and that she too would not be above having her say.
For that reason alone she is happy to accept when others express their opinions, even if she doesn't agree with them.
She has been touched that most of the reaction has been positive and hopes that by being open about her relationship others who feel they have to hide will find some comfort from it.
And she reveals the strength of feelings she has for her new love: “It's like being aware that love exists and that I have stepped into it.
“I have met someone special, someone who I feel so connected to — it was as if I was separated from her at birth.”
Nuala is not entirely at ease talking about her new relationship only because she knows her partner is not comfortable with the limelight, which is why she is keeping her identity private.
That they have something special between them, though, is obvious.
They met while in the company of mutual friends on a night out in early March.
It was just days before Nuala set off on an emotional six-week trip to fulfil Mike's last wishes of having some of his ashes scattered in his beloved New Orleans before flying on to his native Australia to spend the first anniversary of his death with his family.
Nuala and her new partner clicked straightaway and conducted their courtship via Skype during Nuala's trip, discovering a growing attraction and bond which has now deepened into love.
Nuala says: “When I met her there was a sense of wow for me. It felt just like flirting with a guy. I'm very quick and she was able for me, giving as much back.
“There was lots of joking and laughing and it was all very giddy and silly and fun.
“Part of me was thinking ‘What is going on here?’ At this moment this is how I feel.
“We called each other and met up a couple of times before I went away and it just felt like the most natural thing in the world.”
Life is bittersweet for Nuala as alongside her newfound happiness is the ever present sadness for her lost love Mike.
Mike (59) was director of the Prison Arts Foundation and founder of the Belfast Community Circus.
He was a well-known figure in his own right in Northern Ireland and was described as an inspirational character by all who knew him.
In the months after his death Nuala found herself (with great support from friends and family) embarking on a journey of self discovery.
She stopped drinking, cut out sugar from her diet and lost two stone, started exercising more, reading self-help books and began to meditate.
While working through her grief she says she has learned to fall in love with herself again.
After Mike's death she says she was surprised to find herself yearning for female company and the chance to draw on the strength of her female friends.
“I had never been one to have a big group of female friends but when Mike died last year I had this urge to be surrounded by female energy,” Nuala explains.
“It was women I wanted around me, which could have been because when something like death occurs it’s women who make everything happen.
“I always thought of myself as a man's woman and while most girls have a group of friends they hang out with, I never really had that.
“I grew up with four brothers and always wanted to be in the boys' gang but once I got in it, I actually found it a bit boring.
“I was never into dolls and when it comes to female and masculine energy I have both, even though I was never a girly girl.
“I think, too, in our society the white male is seen as the standard and everything else is a deviation of that and we just are not very good at celebrating females.
“I never felt good enough and always had this sense of needing to prove myself.”
While she might have experienced the deepest of pain, the past year has been like a metamorphosis for Nuala and with her new-found self-acceptance has come a sense of freedom from her old way of thinking.
It's hard to imagine how horrifying it must have been for her on April 20 last year to find the man she loved dead after falling off the roof of his home.
And the emotion catches in her throat she recalls it: “When I found him ... oh the trauma of that. Of all the things that happened in that first second I knew there was something else and I thought, what was it and then I realised it was relief.
“I know that sounds odd but it was relief that now I could stop worrying about the worst thing that can possibly happen because it had just happened. It was unspeakable.
“It was like stepping over this line; once you step over it you can't go back and unmake it happen.
“It was the most awful thing and at the same time the most free thing.
“All bets were off then, any ideas that you can control your life had gone.
“When Mike died I felt like I had joined a club that no one wanted to be a member of.”
As life as she knew it imploded she sought the help of counsellors to help come to terms with her all-consuming grief in the early months and relied on the personal development work she had done through Landmark Education.
“That helped me become aware of the true nature of things, just like other people find God,” she says.
“It was a moment of such realness and in some ways I felt like I had stepped into a different world where I still had to live day by day and do all the usual things.
“I started meditating in August and it has helped bring my instinctiveness up to the surface.
“I don't care anymore. I don't sweat the small stuff. Every cliche in every book that was ever written or every song makes sense to me now.
“It’s grief, it’s sadness — it's just pain. I've learned over the past year you can be peaceful and content and incredibly sad at the same time. I had never been into body awareness before or got the fact that the body is such an amazing thing and it knows so much without the brain. That whole side of life forced itself up when Mike died.
“I've learned to trust my intuition and most of the year has been about surrender. We are brought up to think we have to make things work and it becomes a trap.
“When I am in shock I go into cleaning mode and it's like I can't control this awful thing that is happening but, my God, my fridge is going to be clean.”
Mike's loss also left her feeling a great sense of emptiness in her life but with peacefulness and self-acceptance has come a calmness about who she is and with that she adds: “The need to run away from yourself disappears.”
Even as she booked her six-week trip in March, Nuala says she wasn't entirely sure why she felt the need to get away.
Mike had left instructions in his will that he wanted his ashes scattered in New Orleans, where he has connections, and at his home in Australia as well as several other treasured places.
Somehow, as his first anniversary approached, Nuala found herself planning her trip. It was with friends and family that some of Mike's ashes were scattered in the Mississippi River.
Nuala then spent a peaceful week of meditation in the San Francisco Zen Centre before flying to Australia to visit Mike's family.
She says: “I cried the whole flight over but when I got there and had to prepare to meet these people who knew Mike, I suddenly got this sense that life is for the living. That doesn't mean that I am trying to forget but rather that it was okay to move on and adapt.
“I got to go to his grave in Sydney. There are little pieces of him all over the place — some here in Northern Ireland, some in the Mississippi, in Sydney and he wants some in the Liffey near the Guinness factory and in a river in Australia.”
Nuala revealed that an ad hoc committee had been formed to organise a memorial and set up bursaries in memory of Mike and the great work he did in Northern Ireland.
In 1985, Mike founded the Belfast Community Circus while a lecturer in physical theatre at the Belfast Institute of Further Education. He then worked as a drama specialist for the Northern Ireland Prison Service from 1991 to 1997. He joined the Prison Arts Foundation in 1997 as a development officer and had been its director since 2005.
Nuala adds: “He inspired so many people and Northern Ireland owes him a huge debt of gratitude for what he has done.
“He brought the circus to Ireland and play to children. He got things to happen but it was never about him. He is not going to be forgotten.”
Female proud to come out ...
- BBC sports presenter Clare Balding is in a civil partnership with former Radio 4 newsreader Alice Arnold. The pair say that they plan to marry soon
- Shortly after becoming a US citizen in 1981, Czech tennis star Martina Navratilova came out about being gay
- Writer and comedienne Sandi Toksvig came out more than 20 years ago, and has three grown-up children, daughters, Jessica and Megan, and son Theo. They were born to her then-partner, Peta Stewart, and were conceived through artificial insemination by donor Christopher Lloyd-Pack. To mark the legalisation of gay marriage in England and Wales this year on March 29, Toksvig and her civil partner renewed their vows in London
- Drew Barrymore — in a 2003 interview the actress said, “Do I like women sexually? Yeah, I do. Totally. I have always considered myself bisexual.” She has spoken about the many relationships she had with women in the past
- e X-Files beauty and The Fall star Gillian Anderson told OUT magazine in March 2011, “I was in a relationship with a girl for a long time when I was in high school, and then I was in a relationship with a punk rock drug addict. You know, I'm old enough that I can talk about that.”
A varied career in the spotlight
- Nuala McKeever first came to public attention in the award-winning BBC television comedy Give My Head Peace followed by her own TV show, McKeever, on UTV
- Nuala wrote and performed a one-woman comedy drama Out Of The Box which premiered to great reviews at the Belfast |Festival
- In the summer of 2009, she starred in the Broadway musical comedy I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, directed by Peter Corr
- In 2010 she received rave |reviews when she starred as Mrs Lovett in the NI premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical Sweeney Todd — The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
- Recently she wrote and performed her new play called Belongings, receiving excellent reviews
- Besides writing a weekly column in the Belfast Telegraph, Nuala is a regular contributor to TV and radio programmes, commenting on everything from politics to patchwork quilting
- Nuala delivers training to the business and voluntary sectors, using the skills of acting, improvisation and character creation to enhance people’s skills in their own leadership roles, as well as being a talented after-dinner speaker