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Author Tony Macaulay on his wife's life-threatening illness and hope that his daughter can marry her same-sex partner in NI

As his debut novel hits the bookshelves the Shankill Road-born writer tells Stephanie Bell how it was inspired by the peacebuilding work of west Belfast women and how he was humbled by reconciliation work in Rwanda which puts our efforts to shame


With his fifth book and debut novel, Belfast Gate

With his fifth book and debut novel, Belfast Gate

With his fifth book and debut novel, Belfast Gate

He is best known as a peacebuilder and a critically acclaimed author but Tony Macaulay is first and foremost a devoted family man.

The 56-year-old, who has just launched his fifth book and debut novel Belfast Gate, is happiest when surrounded by his girls - wife Lesley (56), a fashion stylist, youngest daughter Hope (24), an up-and-coming fashion designer and daughter Beth (26) a videographer.

As he talks about his work and his new book, Tony also opens up about what his family means to him and reveals how the past year alone has brought an abundance of personal pain and joy in equal measures.

The family album is sprinkled with many happy photos from a series of milestone moments over the last few months yet behind it all Tony reveals his wife Lesley has been battling a rare and life-threatening illness.

Stoically though neither Lesley nor Tony would let anything overshadow their joy when their daughter Beth recently announced her engagement to her partner Amy Hamilton.

The excited couple are planning their wedding for next June when they hope the law here on same-sex marriage will have been changed, allowing them to marry legally.

In another highlight in July, Lesley, Hope and Beth stood proudly by Tony's side as he received an honorary doctorate from Ulster University in recognition of his services to literature and peacebuilding both at home and abroad.

Then last month Lesley and Beth used their skills in fashion styling and photography to help Hope film a stunning photo shoot to mark the launch of her newest fashion collection.

Dad Tony also played his part and he breaks into a smile as he revealed: "I carried the bags."

The launch of Tony's novel earlier this month was yet another special moment in a memorable year for the family.


Tony with his wife Lesley

Tony with his wife Lesley

Tony with his wife Lesley

Throughout it all Tony and his daughters have been supporting Lesley as she copes with an unexpected and debilitating illness.

Tony explained how just after Christmas his wife was admitted to hospital after suddenly taking ill.

"Lesley took seriously ill in January and had to have emergency treatment. There didn't seem to be any reasons for it and they did all sorts of tests and couldn't find what had caused this sudden health crisis," he said.

"We've only just found out that they now think it is a very rare immunology disease which apparently only affects two people in a million, although she hasn't been diagnosed 100%.

"It is a life-threatening condition and it's very debilitating for Lesley as it causes chronic fatigue and chronic nerve pain.

"It has been a difficult year. Seeing someone you love experience pain like that is very hard to watch. While it is not curable it is manageable with treatment.


Tony Macaulay receives an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Ulster University with his wife Lesley and daughters Hope and Beth

Tony Macaulay receives an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Ulster University with his wife Lesley and daughters Hope and Beth

Nigel McDowell/Ulster University

Tony Macaulay receives an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Ulster University with his wife Lesley and daughters Hope and Beth

"It does change how you look at the future when you get a diagnosis like that.

"She looks great though. She loves her clothes and always looks superb so it's not obvious she is so ill."

Lesley and Tony both worked in youth development on the peace line in Belfast after they got married.

The couple settled in Portstewart some years ago where they attended their local Presbyterian Church.

They made headlines last year when they announced that they were leaving the church because of a controversial vote not to accept people in same-sex relationships as full members.

Having brought their girls up to be active members of the church, it was a devastating blow.


Tony on his visit to Rwanda

Tony on his visit to Rwanda

Tony on his visit to Rwanda

The family now worship at All Souls, a non subscribing Presbyterian church in Belfast's Elmwood Avenue.

Tony said it is a decision that they have not regretted.

"It was very hurtful for Beth. She grew up in the church and was a youth leader and a member of the Girls' Brigade and then for her to be told she was no longer allowed to take communion and was being ex-communicated really hurt us all as a family," he said.

"I was very disappointed and upset but we have moved on and we now go to All Souls who are completely accepting of Beth's relationship and she has been able to worship there and that's been wonderful."

It all seems a distant memory now as any hurt has long since been replaced by a great sense of joy for Beth and Amy who have just announced their engagement. The couple have already booked their big day for next June when they plan to tie the knot - legally they hope - in Ballyscullion House in Bellaghy.

Lesley and Tony also married in Bellaghy 33 years ago and couldn't be happier that their daughter will start her life as a newlywed in the same place.


His daughter Beth celebrates her engagement to Amy Hamilton

His daughter Beth celebrates her engagement to Amy Hamilton

His daughter Beth celebrates her engagement to Amy Hamilton

Tony was listening to the radio shortly after and heard a song which he said sums up how he feels about Beth's happiness.

"Beth had just got her engagement photographs done and looked so beautiful and so happy in them," he said.

"Shortly after I was running along the Lagan towpath listening to the radio and this beautiful song came on which just summed up how I feel about Beth.


A photoshoot for daughter Hope's fashion range

A photoshoot for daughter Hope's fashion range

A photoshoot for daughter Hope's fashion range

"The words were so appropriate - 'How could anyone ever tell you, you were anything less than beautiful? How could anyone ever tell you, you were less than whole? How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle?'

"To me that sums her up. They are both very excited planning their wedding. Hopefully things will have changed by then and they will be one of the first gay couples to legally marry here. I am an optimist and I think it is looking like equal marriage will be legal here just in time for Beth's wedding, so they could be making history!"

While Beth is a talented lens woman and runs her own photography and videography business 'Magic Moments' with Amy, her younger sister Hope is just as creative.

Since graduating just two years ago, the 24-year-old has been carving a niche for herself in the highly competitive world of high fashion.

Her own very distinctive designs under the brand name Hope Macaulay have been picked up by a number of boutiques in Italy and she is also about to debut her new collection at London Fashion Week.

Her dad is naturally very proud.

"Hope is working away on a new collection. I'm really proud of what she has achieved and it is hard work building a business, especially in a sector that is so hard to work in like fashion, but she is doing really well," he said.

"Hope is actually quite an unassuming person and yet she produces these amazing designs which people want to wear. Recently we all went to the Glass House in Botanic Gardens for a photo shoot for her new ready-to-wear collection. Beth did the photographs and Lesley did the styling for the shoot and my job was to carry the bags!"

While he may have felt superfluous to his talented family on that particular occasion, Tony has become famous across the world both as a peacebuilder and an author.

He has written four critically acclaimed books to date which are all based on his life growing up on the Shankill Road in Belfast.

His first book Paperboy, published in 2010, was picked up by the publishing giant HarperCollins and has now been published in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.

Last year it was adapted into a musical which premiered in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast to sell-out audiences, returning this year for another sell-out run.

His work as a leadership consultant and peacebuilder has taken him all over the world and yet it was while working with a group of women in west Belfast that he was inspired to write his new book Belfast Gate which is also his first novel.

Set at a fictional peace gate in the peace wall in West Belfast, it is a satirical comedy drama about a group of Catholic and Protestant women who start a campaign to take down Belfast's 50-year-old peace walls.

He said: "I was doing some work with a group of women from the Forthspring Intercommunity Group which has been quietly breaking down barriers across the peace line in West Belfast for the past 20 years.

"I loved working with these women and they really inspired me to write the story. There are so many strong women in West Belfast who really are the backbone of the community but whose voices are not heard the most."

His work in reconciliation has also inspired his second novel which he has already started, although this time his story is rooted in events which took place much further from home.

This time last year Tony travelled to Rwanda to visit a reconciliation project which is based on forgiveness. His experience had a profound effect on him and as a result he is now working with people in Rwanda to continue their reconciliation work.

He explained: "I'm very interested in the whole area of forgiveness. I was taken to see some of the sights and churches where people were slaughtered and it was horrifying. I felt numb seeing that. They also took me to some of the communities where perpetrators and survivors are living next door to each other.

"During this one project the people stood up in pairs. A man would have stood up and explained how he asked for forgiveness and then the woman beside him stood up and told how she had forgiven him for killing her whole family. It was remarkable. I call it extreme forgiveness

"During the genocide one million people were killed in 100 days. It struck me that we in Northern Ireland have not been through anything like that and it puts our attempts at reconciliation to shame.

"We have peace but we don't have reconciliation like they have and we don't talk much about forgiveness in Northern Ireland.

"We have a lot to learn from the people of Rwanda and I have now joined a steering group to help establish a centre for telling the story of reconciliation in Rwanda.

"I was so inspired by what I saw there that my next book is being set in Rwanda and I am co-writing with a screen writer from there who is writing a screen version of it and we are creating the story together by email. It is a love story set during the summer of the genocide."

Tony has devoted over 30 years to peacebuilding in Northern Ireland and hopes his new book set on the Belfast peace walls will create a desire among everyone to see them come down.

He added: "After more than 20 years of peace, the peace walls continue to divide the good people of Belfast, as they have done for 50 years. I want people to consider the possibility of a future without walls and, importantly, to laugh them down."

Belfast Gate, priced at £10, is available in paperback, ebook and audio book from all good bookstores and online, including Amazon and Kindle.

Belfast Telegraph