From the birth of a child to securing a dream job, eight well-known NI people tell Linda Stewart about the memorable events that shaped their future.
TV presenter Zoe Salmon, from Bangor, who is married to Will Corrie and lives in Co Down, says:
“In summer 2004 I graduated as a lawyer from the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen’s University. I saw an ad in the Belfast Telegraph for a TV presenter, applied and was invited to audition at the incredible BBC in London to be the next Blue Peter presenter.
The audition process from beginning to end lasted several months and I loved every single minute. I researched intensely and studied non-stop. I rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed.
The final stage of the challenging audition process is the famous studio audition with the trampoline, along with a myriad of elements including a kinkajou (a little tropical rainforest mammal).
After months of auditions, to be told I had been chosen as the new presenter was a complete joy that is hard to put into words. I’m still on cloud nine!
Little did I know, but that summer would be my final in Northern Ireland for many years as I swapped the Bangor sun for London’s. I never dreamt that I would be buying my first home in London and swapping the courtroom for the TV studio to be a presenter on one of our most loved TV shows, a British institution, and the longest running children’s TV show in the world. Blue Peter was my ultimate dream job. My life changed forever, it led me to fulfil dream after dream and I still feel like the luckiest girl in the world. Dear summer 2004, I will always love you!”
Former BBC broadcaster Noel Thompson (64), from east Belfast, who is married to Sharon (64) and has two sons, Matthew (33) and Patrick (28), says:
“In the summer of 1975 Sharon and I took a ‘magic bus’ from London to Greece.
We drove from Victoria Station down through France, Spain, Yugoslavia and Greece, and it got to the point where anywhere we stopped we had to order the very cheapest thing on the menu, which in Yugoslavia was a clear broth with a raw egg in it. We got to Athens, saw all the sights and survived on souvlaki and peaches. For dinner we basically shared a main course. We’d go to the taverna and there would be big tables of Germans ordering this procession of food, nine courses each, and Sharon and I would be sitting there with a moussaka and two forks.
But we were 19 and it didn’t really matter. We had a good time but we were completely broke the whole time, to the extent that we hitchhiked back, got as far as Munich and had to go and stay with my friend Sylvia, who fed us and lent me money to get home. We slept on the roof in the youth hostels because it was cheaper than sleeping in a room.
It really was breadline stuff and I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. My advice is to always take more money than you think you’re going to need!”
Novelist Anne Dunlop (52), from Castledawson, who is married to Nick (60) and has four children, Maud (21), Rex (20), Florence (19) and Beatrice (18), says:
“The summer that changed my life was when I flew to Bahrain to be an air stewardess with Gulf Air. I had just turned 26 and had spent two years being a full-time writer. I’d been engaged at that stage and planned to get married, settle down and be sensible. The engagement broke up and I took a leap.
I saw an ad for air stewardesses in the Middle East, so I sent off my CV and was accepted for the job. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined being an air stewardess. I’d only flown four or five times in my life before that. I was very lucky because I shared a room with a girl from Antrim called Janice and she was the most organised girl in the history of the world. She packed my bag for me and sent me out to work on the first day.
I stayed with Gulf Air for three years and by then I had flown to all the destinations that they flew to. I flew to New York so much that sometimes I just spent the whole time in bed ordering room service. We were so used to flying to exotic destinations and staying in five-star hotels that I’ve never been dazzled by them since.
The skill is keeping calm, never losing your rag, and no matter how tired you are, you get up, put your make-up on and you do your job.”
Downtown Radio, Downtown Country and Cool FM programmes director Stuart Robinson (40), from Belfast, presents The Stuart Robinson Show on Cool FM every Saturday. He has two children, Holly (16) and Glenn (12). Stuart says:
“In the summer of 1995 I was 15 and climbing up trees and messing around the estate I grew up in Carrickfergus.
In 1994 I got to meet John Rosborough, programme director at Cool FM/Downtown Radio at the time, through a visit with my school. He was Mr Radio in Northern Ireland. I sat as a 14-year-old in his office and he asked me what my dream job was. I told him, cockily, that it was to be sitting in his chair. It took 20 years, but today I sit in that exact same office now, doing that exact job — it’s even the same chair that he had when running the radio stations all those years ago!
By the summer of 1995 I was hooked and, instead of running around the streets, I started hanging around any radio station that would let me near it as a volunteer. I got my first show at the age of 15 that summer and became the youngest radio host in Northern Ireland in September. I did the last radio show on BCR and got to launch Citybeat at midnight; I was the only one who would do it because all the other DJs were at the new station launch party in the Empire.
The rest is history, but if I hadn’t given up my summer that year — and pretty much all of my subsequent teenage years and summers — to follow my dream, I doubt I’d be where I am today.”
TV wedding planner turned lawyer Anthony Miller (41), from Antrim, now lives in Staffordshire. He says:
“Summer 2013 was the summer when all that I am was to change forever. Having worked in various areas of the media for over 20 years, including television, radio and print, I made a decision that even the wildest imaginations could not have dreamt of. My nephew Aidan, who was four years old, died in the September prior and it left me with a determination to live every inch of my life.
A fateful early summer walk through Portrush with a dear friend found us discussing regrets and I shared that I had always had a burning ambition to practise as a barrister, but someone like me could never achieve such a career. I recall she as good as dared me to look into it, just to see if I could get into university.
I rose to the dare in my usual way and before long I was registered to begin a law degree that September. I have stayed the course, although I must admit it has been the most tumultuous journey I have travelled, and it has also been the most enjoyable and rewarding.
I’m currently doing my final exams for the Bar of England and Wales, I’m teaching law students, and every now and then I can be heard on the airwaves as I share my thoughts as a freelance TV/radio commentator.”
Holywood-born writer and chef Louise Kennedy (53) lives in Sligo with husband Stephen, who works in accountancy, and has two children, Tom (20) and Anna (17). She says:
“The summer of 1979 changed my life; August 18, to be precise. It was the day my family left Holywood and moved down south.
I was 12 years old, and remember sitting in the back seat of our car and glancing back at our house, at the neighbours and friends who were standing on the road to see us off. I recall waving glibly, thinking it was no big deal, that we would stay in touch.
It wasn’t until a couple of months later, when we came back for a visit, that I realised how momentous the move had been. I was struggling to fit in at my new school and my old friends, though pleased to see me, had moved on. I didn’t belong in the north anymore and I certainly didn’t belong in the south.
These days people are often surprised to hear I come from Holywood. I’m a good mimic and lost my accent quickly. I might speak with a brogue, but my inner voice is that of a 12-year-old girl from north Down, who thinks everything is either ‘wheeker’ or ‘wick’.”
Fashion designer Mary Rose McGrath (48), from Downpatrick, is preparing to reopen her design studio at Conway Mill. She has one son, Christopher (19). Mary Rose says:
“The best summer of my life without doubt was in 2000 when my son Christopher was born in London. His dad and I were married for four years but for three of them he was away, and so, since Christopher was one, we went everywhere together in London, it was just me and him.
My summer changed when this little boy arrived. I was in labour with him for quite a long time and I didn’t think it was going to be a boy.
But I loved bringing a boy up. I just went around with this wee bundle. It changed my life so much — that summer I had a beautiful wee baby and the excitement of bringing him to Northern Ireland when he was a few weeks old and everyone seeing him.
Christopher is currently taking a gap year and has a job. He uplifts me every single day. Not only is he super handsome, he’s strong, he’s kind, he’s intelligent, he’s perceptive and everyone says what a true gentleman he is.
I couldn’t imagine my life without him. He brings joy to my life every single day.”
Broadcaster and former Krypton Factor host Gordon Burns (77) lives with wife Sheelagh in Manchester. He has two children, Tris and Anna, and four grandchildren. Gordon, who in 1964 was working at the East Antrim Times in Larne, says:
“I was desperate in the summer of 1964 to get to London because that’s where it all happened journalistically. One day an advert in the Daily Telegraph caught my eye because it was my dream job, working as a sports news assistant on the BBC’s Sports Report.
I sent off for the application form but I knew I had nowhere near the qualifications, so I left it on the desk. But about three or four nights later the lads and I were out in the King’s Arms hotel and when we went back to the office at about 10pm in no fit state to do anything I saw my application form.
I put it in the typewriter and I went down that page singing my praises. I put it all in an envelope and posted it on the way back to the digs. Two weeks later a letter arrived from the BBC in London inviting me to an interview for the job. I went into Larne Library and pulled out all the sports books and wrote lists of everything: who won the Grand National for the last 10 years, who were the boxing champions, football champions, cricket champions. I reached up to the fourth shelf and randomly pulled out this book — the dust flew off it — BBC Sports Report by Eamonn Andrews and Angus McKay. I read the book cover to cover and flew off for my interview.
They told me later they knew it was going to be a long, tough day so they thought: ‘Why don’t we get this eejit from Northern Ireland that wrote all this guff over for a laugh and brighten up our day’. There were four guys behind a desk and the last one said he was head of sports and producer of Sports Report, Angus McKay. He was a dour Scot of the older generation and he clearly didn’t want me there. He kept looking at his watch and looking out of the window and shifting in his seat, and I was distraught.
At about the 25th minute when I happened to come out with the phrase ‘as Angus McKay said in his book’, his head shot up and he looked at me and said: ‘You haven’t read my book’. I said: ‘Well, I have, Mr McKay, in fact you go on to say in that chapter blah blah blah...’
He asked me more questions and I talked to him about the book and Sports Report, which I’d listened to since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Two-and-a-half weeks later I got a letter saying I’d got the job and I would start in September. That got me my start in broadcasting, and I came back to be sports editor at UTV and then became the anchor of UTV Reports just as the Troubles started. But none of that would have happened if I hadn’t pulled the book out in Larne Library that afternoon.”
Broadcaster and chef Paula McIntyre (53), from Portstewart, moved to London in 1987 at the age of 20 after completing a course at the College of Business Studies. She says:
“Everybody said if you want to be a chef you’ve got to go to London. There were a couple of friends from my school living in a flat with a couple of international students — about five of us living in this apartment.
I got a job at Langans in London. That was the hot ticket in town, it was a restaurant opposite The Ritz and was owned by Michael Caine and that was where all the celebrities went.
However, Prue Leith had Michelin-starred restaurants and I wanted to go and work there. I’d always wanted to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant that was owned by a woman. I went for an interview and a trial and they said I’d got the job.
But I got home and there was a letter from my mum which said ‘Open Quickly, Good News’ on the back. It said I’d won an IFI scholarship to a university in the US. My mum said: ‘Don’t worry about Prue Leith, she’ll be there when you come back’.
That was a great summer in London. It was the first time I was properly away, living and working, getting the Tube and being completely independent. I worked long hours but I had a relatively good social life and went to clubs.
I never worked for Prue Leith in the end, but after university I came back to London and worked in L’Escargot.”