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Nuala McKeever: Losing my partner Mike was so much more than just sadness, it was completely beyond it

The Big Ask with Belfast actress and comedian Nuala McKeever

Nuala McKeever
Nuala McKeever
Young talent: Nuala playing the piano at home
Famous faces: Nuala McKeever with Hole in the Wall Gang members Damon Quinn, Tim McGarry, Michael McDowell and Martin Reid in 1991
Still missed: Nuala with late partner Mike Moloney

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to comedian and actress Nuala McKeever (55) from Belfast.

Q Tell us about your childhood.

A I'm the youngest of seven children - I've got two sisters and four brothers. I always thought I wanted to be part of the boys' gang, until I was (part of it) and I realised it wasn't what I wanted.

My late father James was a chemist, my mother Patricia (or as she's usually known, wee Patsy) went back to teaching when I started big school.

I've talked to my mummy a lot about this - about how on earth she managed with so many. But you know, my mother and father didn't really have much of a social life. They didn't go out. There was no me, me, me'.

My memory of my parents in those days is that they were very selfless - it was all about family.

Their evenings were spent looking after their kids and doing things they needed to do in the house.

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I know parents now are still selfless, but they are able to get a night out. In my family, we didn't really do that.

I loved big family get-togethers because by the time I was 10, the older ones had all moved away either to university or whatever else. There were only really the three youngest for the majority of the time at home.

For birthdays, Christmas and even Sunday, when all the others would come home for their dinner, it always very nice to have a big, busy house again.

Young talent: Nuala playing the piano at home

It's funny because most people would think having three children is busy, never mind seven.

I remember feeling sorry for some of my older siblings when they'd bring a girlfriend or boyfriend home.

A few of them commented that when they came into our living room, it was "just all legs".

It must have been a little bit overwhelming for visitors.

I was usually called a chatterbox. I was often told to stop talking and I was put out of class for chatting to the girl beside me.

Other than that, I was fairly sensible and quite the goody-goody wee girl.

I learned the piano and the flute and I loved writing.

I think I first thought about comedy when I was a student, or just after.

I shared a flat on Cromwell Road in Belfast with a whole squad of girls.

I remember one night we we're all sitting around having a laugh and my friend Noreen said, "Oh, you're so funny, you should be on the stage". She reminded me of that recently when she came to see a show.

At that point, alternative comedy was only really coming around. It hadn't really occurred to me to pursue that in any way. I was, like a lot of performers, the usual mixture of being cheeky and funny but also very self-conscious and insecure.

When I felt at home and relaxed, I was great, but it wouldn't have taken much to put me off.

Q What are you most proud of?

A I'm most proud of running a half marathon, the Great North Run, in 2006. I wasn't remotely into running or exercise. That's why it was such an achievement.

I was going out with a man who was the head of a charity and he ran it every year.

He put my name down for it and I scoffed, then I started trying. The reason I was able to do it was because I discovered a plan on Bupa (healthcare company) for running.

The genius of it is that the plan allows you to walk. You walk, run, walk, run and so on.

The running part gets longer and the walking part gets shorter, and you train so many days a week. It's genius - even I know I can run for a minute if I know I can walk for a bit after.

I used to try exercising when I was younger. I'd start running, get out of breath, stop and think, "Well that's it, I can't run".

I used to be fascinated by people who could keep going.

Famous faces: Nuala McKeever with Hole in the Wall Gang members Damon Quinn, Tim McGarry, Michael McDowell and Martin Reid in 1991

It was weeks and weeks into my training for the marathon, and my running section was up to 17 minutes at that point.

I clearly remember running through Ormeau Park and something just clicked and I just thought, "I could keep going here". It was like I was in a rhythm. It was good.

The half marathon was 13.1 miles and I had only trained to run 10 kilometres, which is only about six miles.

And on the day, with dogged determination, I put my head down, looked at the white line and waited for the go.

People said, "Wasn't the atmosphere amazing?". Well, I don't know because I was in a world of my own. I listened to music on my earphones and just ran and ran.

It took me three hours, which is laughable for any runner - at one point I was being overtaken by people walking briskly - but from my point of view, I did not stop running for three hours, so it's a huge achievement.

When I was training, I liked to keep a wee bit in the tank for the last burst and do a sprint at the end.

So on the day, I came around a corner, and saw what I thought was the finish line. I had some Queen track on and I just thought, "Yes nearly there!" Then I went around another corner and realised I had another half a kilometre to go.

I just peaked way too early, so when I finally got to the finish line, it was like I'd done an iron man contest.

I sort of staggered over, like I'd conquered Everest and cured cancer all at the same time.

Q The one regret you wish you could amend?

A Giving a newspaper interview about my personal life a few years ago.

Q And what about phobias? Do you have any?

A I have a fear of heights and people who are absolutely sure they're right.

Q The temptation you cannot resist?

A Salt and vinegar crisps... and being right!

Q Your number one prized possession?

A Well I don't own it, but I'd say my breath - it's what keeps me alive.

Q The book that's most impacted your life?

A It's hard to pick just one. The best fiction novel is Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. It's about the First World War and it's very detailed story of one man in particular in the trenches.

In Northern Ireland every year, the poppy season comes around and probably when I was reading that book, there was a lot of news surrounding wearing one - if you're a Protestant, you wear one. If you're a Catholic, you don't. I didn't know a lot about the war, but this book was so personal.

I felt like I was there and it really touched me. I mean, it made me cry. I'm not pro-war or anything, but this book transformed my views.

I think it's a journey everybody in life needs to take, which is to really put yourself in someone else's position. See what it's like, see why they believe what they believe and don't just dismiss it immediately.

These days, we seem to surround ourselves with people who have the same thoughts and opinions and us, but it's nice to be confronted with a different view sometimes.

The best non-fiction for me is Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck.

I've had a lot of therapy in my life and I've read loads of books on spirituality and therapy and things like that.

Somebody just gave me this book and I was sitting out the back reading it. It was like one of those lightbulb moments when you're reading something and you think, "This book was written for me right now". Martha Beck is very witty and self-deprecating and her tone is great. The book is about what she calls "your essential self" - who you are really at your core.

She teaches that if you really want to have a life that's full of self-expression and freedom, well then you really have to build a relationship with this core part of yourself. Her book took me to a whole other level, so I'm very grateful for that.

Q If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?

A I do have power! If I was in government though, I would listen to people and base laws on love and integrity, not profit and greed.

Q What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A Menopause.

Q Who has most influenced you in life?

A I suppose I got my ma and da's genes, so they did.

Q Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive and why?

A Comedian Victoria Wood, Buddha and my late partner Mike Moloney. One for laughs, one for insight and one for dessert. You can decide for yourself which one's which.

Still missed: Nuala with late partner Mike Moloney

Q The best piece of advice you ever received?

A "Leap and the net will appear". It's from a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. It's quite a famous book in self-help and artistic, creative circles.

It's great if you're stuck creatively, or even if you're just stuck in life.

You get to an age and you think, "Is this it? What am I doing?".

The book is a great way to unlock what's inside all of us that we've maybe not recognised.

A lot of us as kids are spontaneous and creative and then, as we get older, we learn to tone it down and fit in, to go through the education system and get a good job.

Sometimes, you get to a certain age and think, "Wow, what happened to that 'me' that used to be there?".

Sometimes, people don't believe there is something inside them, but I've been on this lovely creative project that's on at the moment called Creativity in Schools, and it's all about that. My friend Ursula McHugh runs a course based on The Artist's Way called The Creative Path, which runs in the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast and the Playhouse in Derry.

Q The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A Patchwork quilting. I go to a class ran by woman called Judith Hollies (Just Jude Designs) in Conway Mill in Belfast. It's great and I love it.

I've been doing it for 20 years and I'm still a beginner. It's brilliant for taking your mind of things.

I like how different it is from my job. I get a bit tired of words, so it's a nice antidote.

Patchwork quilting is very rewarding - you can create the most stunning pieces of art.

I have five or six quilts I've made. I use them regularly and they're beautiful.

Q The poem that touches your heart?

A Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye. I got into Zen Buddhism when my partner Mike died six years ago. I got into meditation and it was through a Buddhist organisation in Belfast called Black Mountain Zen Centre.

The teacher there is called Paul Haller and he's a friend of Naomi, so it's through him that I heard about her.

It starts with, "Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things".

Well, I lost Mike and it was devastating.

But one thing that came out of it for me was greater compassion, so I guess that poem speaks to me that way.

Q The happiest moments of your life?

A The moment when a show ends and people are applauding and I feel I've justified my place on earth.

Q And the saddest moment of your life?

A I don't have a particular saddest moment - losing Mike was much more than sadness, it was completely beyond it.

Saying goodbye to someone I love and not knowing if I'll see them again always holds a poignancy in its wake.

I do tend to be very soppy when I've had a nice time with people and we're saying "Cheerio" and there's a part of me that's sad.

That's the essence of Zen Buddhism. When you look forward to something being great and then you're in it and it's great and you're already sad because you're thinking it won't last. So, I'm just a little conscious when hugging someone goodbye and we've had a great time.

Shakespeare summed it up perfectly when he wrote "Parting is such sweet sorrow".

Q The one event that made a difference in your life?

A The death of my partner Mike. It thrust me into a whole other sphere.

Stuff changed me for dramatically. I stopped watching TV and I stopped listening to the radio and music.

I just wanted to be with silence for a long time.

I have come back to life a lot in the past year, but it's still hard to talk about.

Q What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A To perform a song I've written, on a big stage in New York.

Q What's the philosophy you live by?

A We're all the same consciousness looking at itself through different eyes.

Q How do you want to be remembered?

A As a late-blooming singer-songwriter.

Nuala Mckeever is sitting in for Lynette Fay on BBC Radio Ulster, Monday to Thursday at 3pm-4pm. Her stand-up show, Letting Go or Losing It, is at the The Ardhowen Theatre in Enniskillen on November 22. For information, visit

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