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New UTV series tells story of Belfast couple's adoption journey

Irish dancer Ciaran Connolly, from New Zealand, met future partner Mark Nesbitt in Belfast seven years ago, and after a civil ceremony in May they are planning to adopt a child. The couple, who feature in new UTV series With This Ring, starting tonight, tell their story to Stephanie Bell

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Happy couple: Mark and Ciaran at home

Happy couple: Mark and Ciaran at home

Mark and Ciaran preparing for their wedding

Mark and Ciaran preparing for their wedding

Special day: Mark and Ciaran at their ceremony on Lusty Beg Island

Special day: Mark and Ciaran at their ceremony on Lusty Beg Island

Happy couple: Mark and Ciaran at home

Mark Nesbitt and Ciaran Connolly topped what has already been a momentous year this week when they were told the joyous news that they are going to become parents.

Fresh from their civil ceremony in May, opening a new hairdressing business together in July, and filming for a UTV series on marriage, the news that they have been accepted for adoption has been the biggest cause for celebration yet.

Mark and Ciaran are now going through the exciting process of being matched with their son or daughter.

The couple, who tied the knot in May in a lavish celebration following a civil partnership ceremony on Lusty Beg Island, surrounded by 250 family and friends, have everything to look forward to.

And the icing on the cake was the news that the guys have been accepted for adoption.

Mark says: "It is very exciting and scary at the same time. We will have a bit of time to prepare as it could be after Christmas but it is just amazing to know that our son or daughter is out there."

With three sisters each and grown up neices, the couple are content that their child will have strong female influences which Ciaran says is very important to both of them.

"We are lucky to have a very close family and Mark has a neice who is the same age as him and grew up with him - they are very close," he explains.

"He has three sisters and I have three sisters and they are very much involved with us. I'm confident our child will have a strong female influence in his or her life.

"It is also important to us to get as much information on the birth mother as possible so that when our child grows up and inevitably asks the question, we will be able to tell them where they came from.

"In an ideal world I would love for them to be able to send Mother's Day cards and presents but in reality it doesn't really work like that."

The couple's love for each other has also prompted them to agree to open up about their relationship in a new UTV show which starts tonight, called With This Ring.

The series, which will run for six weeks, features 10 diverse local couples talking about the highs and lows of married life.

Ciaran (37), originally from New Zealand, is a world-class Irish dancer who has spent most of his career travelling the globe with Riverdance and Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames and Celtic Tiger Live.

It was while visiting a good friend and fellow dancer from Belfast seven years ago that he met Mark (42), from the Short Strand area of Belfast. He is a hairdresser who has just opened his own salon, MACC Hair, in new premises in Royal Avenue.

The couple had a long-distance relationship for some years, with Ciaran continuing to dance at venues around the world, flying to Belfast whenever he could to see Mark.

Eventually they realised that they couldn't be apart, so when Mark unexpectedly proposed during a meal at a Belfast restaurant, Ciaran knew he had to give up his job and move.

Today he manages the salon the couple have just opened at what was formerly Michael Quinn Hairdressing.

Ciaran has also used his vast experience as an Irish dancer to try and enliven the local traditional dance scene.

He has set up The Irish Entertainment Group, which holds popular music, poetry and narration sessions in Belfast bars during the week and at the weekends.

In yet another role, Ciaran greets visitors disembarking from cruise ships to go on local excursions and also stages small Irish dance shows on board some of the ships.

While Mark grew up in the shadow of the Troubles in east Belfast, Ciaran had an idyllic childhood on the other side of the world, immersed in Irish culture.

Both are from families of seven children, and Ciaran's mum was from Co Clare while his dad, an Irish speaker, was from Connemara.

He says: "Mum and dad met when dad tried to sell her a raffle ticket for the local GAA. She told him if he came back and asked her in English, she would buy one - and he came back and asked her out in English.

"All these years later, dad's first language is still Irish. There were seven of us and it was cheaper for mum to hire a hall and teach us and some other students Irish dancing than it was to send us all to after-school activities.

"She ran her own Irish dance school, and Dad ran a Gaelic football and a hurling team. Dad also ran a pub called The Blarney Stone.

"Dancing with Riverdance and Michael Flatley was pretty intense. We toured for five-and-a-half months and had two weeks off, then toured for another five-and-a-half months.

"I did that for 18 years. It was fantastic and I was fortunate to be part of it at its height and do these massive arena tours and travel the world.

"It was a massive education for me to see all the different cultures and countries and how other people live.

"I remember once in Budapest there were 85,000 people in the audience. You get told the numbers, but it is not until you are out on stage and you look and you can't see the last person in the stadium that it hits you. I think in Taiwan once we had 100,000 in the stadium."

Though they initially had a long distance relationship, after a couple of years both realised they didn't want to be apart so much.

Mark says: "At the start it was quite good and I liked the independence of Ciaran being away as it allowed us to become good friends before we were partners.

"We got on really well from the first time we met. As cheesy as it sounds, we rarely argue.

"I think you just know when the time is right. We had talked about marriage on the phone when Ciaran was in Paris.

"I just thought I would propose and all he could do is say yes or no - if he had said no, I would have asked again.

"When he came home to visit, I booked a table in one of our favourite restaurants and got the chef to write 'will you marry me?' on the dessert plate."

Ciaran had tucked into his dessert before spotting the wording, and was stunned by the romantic proposal four years ago.

He says: "I saw it and thought, 'Oh my God, are you for real?' The joke between us is that he actually never physically said the words 'will you marry me' and still hasn't."

Forty of Ciaran's family and friends flew from New Zealand while others travelled from across the globe to celebrate the couple's happy day on May 19 this year.

Northern Ireland's laws on same-sex marriage meant the couple couldn't legally have a full wedding mass recognised by the church.

As it meant so much to both of them to involve the church in their special day, they asked well-known independent bishop Pat Buckley to conduct the service.

Pat Buckley was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in Ireland as a result of his ordination as a bishop in an independent church.

Ciaran says: "We wanted to represent the Catholic Church at our wedding and as we are not allowed to do that in Northern Ireland we asked Father Buckley who is still involved with his own church and that was the closest thing we could get to a legal marriage in a church."

For Ciaran, who grew up in a country which leads the way on gay rights, the laws here came as a shock.

"It's actually embarrassing. New Zealand is such a liberal and forward-thinking country, and I didn't know a lot of the stuff that was going on here," he says.

"To find out I didn't have the same rights as other people was shocking, and to be told I wasn't allowed to marry the person I wanted to be with was just really bizarre.

"As a gay man, the first time I had to deal with discrimination was when I moved to Belfast and discovered that I couldn't do things I wanted to do because of who I was.

"We were both brought up Catholic, and we wanted that to be part of our wedding.

"We also wanted our friends and family to be able to go to a gay wedding and have a full mass and communion, which Pat Buckley gave us."

Mark is thrilled with how special their big day was. He grew up in the close-knit Short Strand community, where being gay was not something he ever had to defend. He says: "Short Strand was a bit like Beirut during the Troubles, but people were really protective of their own. Everyone looked out for everyone else, so I had no problems growing up gay in that community."

Showing the world how happy they are was one of the reasons why the couple agreed to take part in the new UTV series, which starts tonight.

"We were happy to do it to show that a gay couple can live together and be normal," he says.

"There is a lot of controversy out there about how normal it is, and we hope it shows that we are just us. We are a couple like any other, and at the end of the day we are just two people who found each other and found love and got married."

With This Ring starts tonight at 7.30pm on UTV

Belfast Telegraph