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Best-known Northern Ireland faces share their love stories

 

Valentine's Day means different things to different people
Valentine's Day means different things to different people
Simple pleasures: Kerry McLean
Unconditional love: Saorlaith and her rabbit, Raisin
Ryan A
Pete Snodden

On St Valentine's Day some of our best-known faces open their hearts to share moving, uplifting - and sometimes surprising - personal stories.

Kerry McLean

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Simple pleasures: Kerry McLean
 

Radio Ulster's Kerry McLean is married to fellow presenter Ralph, with whom she has three children, Tara (12), Dan (10) and three-year-old Eve. She says:

I 've always been a sucker for a good romantic film. There's a strange joy that comes from having your heart wrung out as you watch the romantic leads go through the trials and tribulations that love brings, before hopefully leading to a happy ending.

At 13 or 14 years old, my best friend, Sharon, and I would spend entire days during the summer holidays watching movies like Dirty Dancing, Top Gun and An Officer and a Gentleman, which left us with very high expectations of what love should look like.

The wee lads who grew up around us hadn't a snowball's chance in hell of matching up to the charms of Patrick Swayze.

Instead of scooping us up and whisking us on to the dancefloor of the local under-18s disco with the proclamation, 'Nobody puts baby in a corner', we had teenagers, liberally coated in their dad's Brut aftershave, lumbering up to ask, 'My mate fancies you, are you up for a court?' Not quite the romantic proposal the films had taught us to expect.

Of course, as you grow up, you learn that love isn't something that can fit neatly into a heart-shaped box - it's not one-size-fits-all - and it can grow and develop, or become flattened and fade away.

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I was very lucky to have my parents' marriage as a template for my relationship.

They were together for almost 45 years and worked hard at maintaining the romance between them.

They made time for each other, bought or made little gifts, wrote notes and said 'I love you' all the time.

That's not to say they didn't argue. I remember one caravan holiday when my daddy went into self-imposed exile in the car for every mealtime after he and my mum had words.

He'd had a dental plate fitted to replace teeth knocked out when he was playing rugby, but it had come loose and kept falling out of his mouth and into his food when he was eating.

Mum said it was disgusting, but my dad took it to heart and refused to eat in front of her for the rest of the trip.

By the time we were travelling back home, the two of them were in hysterics, giggling about it, back to holding hands and being best friends.

And I think, for me, that's what love is.

When someone can say or do something that makes you roll your eyes and sigh, when they can spend what seems like hours talking you through the offside rules in football or have completely alternative views to your own when it comes to issues as disparate as backgammon and Brexit, yet you still want to finish the day holding hands and laughing.

Love is an intense need to have the other person in your life, a big warm feeling in your chest when you see them, even after decades of being together, and the knowledge that you'll always have each other's back.

Love is not 'never having to say you're sorry', as Ali McGraw told Ryan O'Neal in another of my favourite romantic movies Love Story.

Ali's character may have been speaking from the heart, but her words might as well have been coming out of another bit of her anatomy altogether…"

Mairia Cahill

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Unconditional love: Saorlaith and her rabbit, Raisin
 

Mairia Cahill, SDLP councillor, is mum to Saorlaith (8). She says:

I 'll miss her warm fur, and her hopping, and licking my hand. I'll just miss her. The words of my daughter, Saorlaith, as she sobbed into my neck this week after I had to tell her that her much-loved bunny, Raisin, had gone.

Unconditional love. I'm one of those practical people who disregards it sometimes when it comes to the animal world, but watching a child struggle to make sense of her bunny - here one day, gone the next - it hit home like a juggernaut.

'I just want to know why she left me, mammy.' I didn't have the answers, except to attempt words that an eight-year-old head would comprehend.

I mumbled something about a happier place where bunnies have an endless supply of hay, and playmates. 'But she won't have me, and I won't have her', came the heartbreaking response.

I hugged her close and allowed her to cry. I also had to work out what to do with the rabbit that could offer closure, and the gentlest possible method, to work through her grief. Digging a hole wasn't an option, so I turned to Google. Finding a place, I booked in for the next day, feeling like a complete eejit.

Had someone told me I would be standing in a funeral parlour for a rabbit, I'd have told them to get their head examined. Instead I felt like examining my own as I drove to Pets Farewell in Moira.

I was half-laughing, half-crying at the thought of it until we arrived. It was perfect.

The owner took Raisin as if she was her own, laid her on a blanket then left us alone, leaving my daughter to say goodbye.

My eyes burned as I watched tears dripping off her wee nose, wetting the brown and white coat she stroked gently, then the resignation came for Saorlaith that this was final.

We collected Raisin's ashes later that evening in a bunny shaped urn, with clips of her fur.

The tears subsided and, as Valentine's arrives, I am reminded that love isn't always hearts and flowers.

Love, or loss of it, can hurt, and heal. A parent will always try to ease their child's feelings. That's love. Even if you have to organise a pet funeral."

Michael McKillop

Paralympian gold medallist and GSF (GLL Sport Foundation) ambassador Dr Michael McKillop (29), from Glengormley, has just married Nicole (27). He says:

I try to be romantic. I think every man tries. I think everyone has a romantic side inside them, but it's how you express that and get it across to the person that you love.

For me, I'm recently married and it's my wife.

We've been together for five years and we got married three months ago.

It's nice that it's something fresh, that instead of having a fiancee of two years, it will be nice to celebrate Valentine's Day as a married couple for the first time.

We met online - as an athlete, I don't get to go out and socialise round Belfast much.

My fiancee is from Randalstown, where we live now, but she was living in Dublin five years ago. We matched online, started dating, and it built from there. If it wasn't for online dating, I would never have met my wife.

It's incredible to think of her living in Dublin and us coming together and becoming one.

Five years ago, we had our first date on February 15. We always leave Valentine's Day out because our own Valentine's was the first date the following day.

I think Nicole appreciates it more across the whole year - she wants me to show what she means to me all year round. It's not about one day - it's about every day and the rest of your life.

It's nice to know that on every February 14 you get to express how you feel. But I know I can express how I feel every day for the rest of my life now that we are a married couple."

Pete Snodden

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Pete Snodden
 

Cool FM presenter Pete Snodden (38) lives in Bangor with wife Julia (38) and daughters Ivana (7) and Elayna (4). He says:

Every day is Valentine's Day! But since the kids came along, you get to a point where you get a Marks & Spencer meal deal for two and the kids will get a treat. We haven't been out for Valentine's Day in years.

When it comes to a meal deal for two, it's got to the point where you think, 'That's great value, why don't we buy two and put one in the freezer for a later date?'.

I suppose that deep down I've always been one for surprising Julia, my wife, be it on holidays or at our engagement - deep down I would be a romantic.

Before the kids came along, we would have had people come up to look after the kids while we went out for dinner.

I don't have a favourite Valentine's Day, but we would have made the effort and gone to our favourite restaurant or tried somewhere new.

It's not that it's just another day now, but I'd much rather go out for a meal on a Saturday night and have the kids looked after - you don't have to get up for work the next day.

I suppose it depends what way Valentine's Day falls. We don't make a big deal of it - like, 'It's Valentine's Day - we must do A, B, C and D'.

Love is the greatest gift. My family means everything. I remember when Julia was pregnant with our first child, and a friend said, 'Nothing will prepare you for the love that it brings'. That was so true."

Yolanda Cooper

Yolanda Cooper is the founder of environmentally friendly haircare range We Are Paradoxx, which launches next month through online retailers and in House of Fraser, Belfast. She says:

Everyone tells me how lucky in love I am as I married my childhood sweetheart.

I read the book The Five Languages of Love by Dr Gary Chapman. It was an epiphany for me.

After reading the book, it was clear that my language was words of affirmation where I would express affection through praise, and appreciation.

I try to tell my husband every day that I love him and I always say 'love you lots' to all my close friends and family.

My husband Matt's language is acts of service. He expresses his love by filling my car up with petrol or scraping the ice of my windscreen in the morning. Simple things that are so thoughtful.

Professionally, I am in the start-up up stage, weeks away from launching my product. It's been so important to me to surround myself with people who love and care for the products I've created."

Lisa May

Bruiser Theatre Co director Lisa May lives with partner Bren and dog Brad in east Belfast, and is directing The 39 Steps at the Lyric Theatre this March. She says:

I 'm an absolute romantic at heart, but a practical romantic - I've learnt over the years that the flowers and chocolates and magical weekends away aren't the be all and end all. It's the little things, like doing the washing up or walking the dog when you're too busy, or making a packed lunch... the little things your partner does for you that make a frantic day a bit easier.

Love, in my eyes, means being there for each other, lending that support when the chips are down and making each other laugh through thick and thin. I sound like a Hallmark card!

My other love, bar my very patient partner, Bren, and our dog, Brad, is my job. I work for the Bruiser Theatre Company, and founded the company over 20 years ago.

It's like having an unruly child - we have our ups and downs and it can be tremendously difficult (especially in a time of financial instability within the arts), but I do it because I love it.

Currently we're in rehearsals for The 39 Steps at The Lyric, which is a parody of the Hitchcock classic. We first produced the show in 2016, and it was such a giggle to direct, full of slapstick and silliness - we're having a hoot!

So, back to love - my partner, my job and my dog. The easiest relationship is by far with the dog - he doesn't answer back!

And, Bren, if you're reading, it doesn't mean that I don't love flowers, chocolates and weekends away... just saying!"

Ryan A

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Ryan A
 

Q Radio presenter Ryan A (32) lives with partner Jenny (27) and daughter Sophia (1) in Bangor. He says:

I used to be romantic, but my partner, Jenny, isn't into it. She really hates it - she doesn't like the whole lovey-dovey sort of thing. She actually says it's quite cringey, to be honest!

In terms of Valentine's Day, we just say we are not buying anything. My birthday is in February and she just looks at me and says 'you're not getting anything for Valentine's Day'.

She's having dinner with her friend - that's how romantic we are.

But (the rest of the year), if there's something that Jenny has been after, I do love to surprise her - for one thing, she deserves it and she is a great mum.

I do have a gift for her for Valentine's - she's been going on about a certain piece of jewellery.

Much as we say we are not buying anything, I still do it - you feel bad if you don't!"

Aodhan Connolly

Aodhan Connolly is director of the NI Retail Consortium. He says:

This story is full of works of literature and art trying to define love, so I don't think I am going to do it in 200 words.

No one can describe the feeling of love you get from a hug from your young child, or the twice a year they do it as a grumpy teenager. But what encapsulates love for me is long drives by the coast with my better half, with idle chat, terrible jokes, driving to castles and National Trust properties, finding hidden gems of restaurants and spending time remembering what we are doing all this hard work for.

It's the feeling of there being nowhere else you would rather be.

Maybe one day it will be the Almafi coast in Italy in a 1967 Alfa Romeo Spider, but until then, the north coast in a Citroen is fine, as long as the person with me is the same as now."

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb is an economist and director at Baker Tilly Mooney Moore. He says:

Jessica (4), the youngest of my three children, is still at an age where, when she hears me coming in from work, she will drop what she's doing and run full pelt at me, arms up, looking to be lifted.

I know from our older two, Luke (13) and Becca (11), that phase doesn't have much longer to run, so I'm enjoying it while it does.

The older two are much cooler than that but still very affectionate in their own ways.

Our house is a full of laughter and chaos and, like many families, we spend a lot of time rushing around here, there and everywhere.

You can sometimes feel like your role is chauffeur, waiter and human cash machine, so it is little moments like Jessica's greetings that I'm more mindful about making sure I take in.

My wife, Claire, and I both are fortunate to have come from very supportive and loving families. I was the youngest of four boys in my house, so I suppose, now I think about it, we've created that same type of lively and loving environment."

Emma Heatherington

Novelist Emma Heatherington (42) lives in Donaghmore with partner Jim (48) and children Jordyn (22), Jade (17), Dualta (17), Adam (16) and Sonny James (4). She says:

I'm a true romantic and unashamedly so. I believe that love is what you do - a simple gesture of kindness can really make a difference to someone's day. My partner, Jim McKee, and I have been together for six years, and we both really enjoy and appreciate the power of love.

With five children between us, it's definitely a real treat to take time out for some romance.

One of the biggest compliments I received recently was on hearing that a bride in Wexford had chosen an extract from my novel, The Legacy of Lucy Harte, to be read as the reflection at her wedding ceremony.

It sums up my view on love and was written, pardon the pun, from the heart.

Life is, most of all, about love.

Follow your heart, live out your dreams... see the good in everyone you meet and rise above those who try to make you feel low.

Love yourself. Fill your heart and fill your soul. Love, no matter what, is always the answer. It will hurt you, it will break you, it will bend you, it will make you. Love with all your heart and soul and never forget those who, in return, love you."

Lyra McKee

Lyra McKee is a writer from Belfast. She says:

Four months after I met the love of my life, I accompanied her to a room in Altnagelvin Hospital. It was a Thursday morning. After dropping her off to visit her dad, I had planned to drive on to Belfast for work.

Some people get a child as part of the package when they begin a relationship - I got an 82-year-old man. Big D was the dictionary definition of a grumpy oul git, but I adored him.

He would sit, every day, in his chair and the only thing that could rouse him out of the grumpiness was talking about old times - his memories of Derry from the Forties through to the Troubles. That morning, I decided to drop in on him to say hello before heading to work. We walked into the room. At the foot of his bed, a doctor stood, deep in conversation with my girlfriend's sister. She fell silent as soon as she saw us.

We knew, immediately, something was wrong.

We'd been told Big D had weeks left to live.

Now, we were instructed, it was hours.

I went outside and made phone calls. A dear friend went and fetched clothes and drove the 60 miles to deliver them.

Within two to three days, I thought, I'd be needing a suit for a funeral.

It didn't happen like that. Big D held on. We took shifts - myself, his son, two daughters, a son-in-law - and sat with him through the day and night.

Other family members streamed in and out of the room constantly. The nursing and cleaning staff, angels that they were, provided us with towels and soap when we couldn't get home to get a shower. On Sunday morning, Big D took his last breath.

Today, Big D's daughter and I celebrate our first Valentine's Day together. It's been almost a year since we met and, in that time, I feel as if I've had a crash course in what it means to love and be loved. In the months after Big D's death, I had to confront the fact that I, too, was sick.

Given that she was dealing with her dad's death, I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd decided she couldn't deal with that. Instead, she held my hand and told me she wasn't going anywhere.

I realised that love isn't just what you feel, it's what you do when everything is falling apart and the person you love needs you.

I have been so blessed, in my life, to have both felt that kind of love and had it returned tenfold to me.

Happy Valentine's, S, and thanks for letting me be the one you spend it with."

Paula McIntrye

Paula McIntrye is a celebrity chef and author. She says:

I started swimming in the sea in Portrush in December with a group of girls, The Menopausal Mermaids, and it's become a real stress-buster and great for health reasons.

There's also a camaraderie there with us because the sea is dangerous.

The currents are quite strong and we have to look out for each other and support each other.

Afterwards we'll have a chat, and if one of us has a problem, we'll all sit down and try to sort it out.

We are a group of women from different backgrounds. We do different things and normally you wouldn't put us together, but there we are four to five times a week, walking into freezing water, swimming, laughing and screaming with our adrenalin going and looking after each other.

That to me is love - that experience, that support.

In two months, swimming in the sea has changed my life. Everything I've done has been food-orientated. My own time would be spent going out for dinner or drinks.

Now this is my downtime, and it's really putting a lot of things into perspective.

I think you need a bit of time to you yourself, and this morning my waterproof Fitbit told me I had taken over 5,000 steps, so it's healthy too.

We do have a few men interested in joining the group, and we want to share that love, so if a man wants to become an honorary Menopausal Mermaid, we will welcome him!"

Olivia Kennedy

Olivia Kennedy (39), from Lisburn, runs animal sanctuary Lucy's Trust with partner Rob Durston (51). She says:

W hat does love mean to me? Love means everything. Love makes me feel like the luckiest woman alive.

To be able to share my life and my love with a man who 'gets it', who understands that love really is the pinnacle of all existence and who shares my passion in life to try and make a small corner of this world a better place is truly incredible. I still have to pinch myself after almost 13 years with my partner Rob to say, 'Yes, this is real'.

I am not a romantic by any means and, believe it or not, I struggle to say how I feel at times (I find it much easier to write than to speak), but as I get older, I realise every day more and more just how important love is in every aspect of life, and how important it is to ensure those around you, both human and animal, feel that love.

To have the love of good friends, family, a partner and beautiful precious animal souls is to be winning in the lottery of life. It's true what they say, that the most important things in life are those that money cannot buy.

To share your soul and your heart with those around you feels truly like the joy of all existence. But with that joy of course will always come the pain of loss.

The passage of time will break our hearts, and that unfortunately is a given.

One of the greatest gifts, however, within the pain of that loss that our animal companions give us (and incredible human beings too) is to teach us to love unconditionally and with all our hearts.

Each passing teaches us how to bare our souls time and time again, have our hearts broken time and time again, and still to embrace the whole experience and to somehow continue to give out that love, no matter how hard it is to lose it.

One of my favourite quotes shall always be, 'Love fiercely because this all ends'.

It's the one thing in life that you should never regret - to show love, to give love and to be loved."

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