Watch: ‘Meghan Markle gave me a smile and said May 19 must be a lucky date for a wedding’
BBC NI journalist Karen English’s husband Brian McEneny surprised Meghan Markle on her recent visit to Belfast by telling her she’d be marrying on his wedding anniversary. The couple, from Bangor, tell Judith Cole why their own big day was so poignant
Not everyone gets to congratulate soon-to-be royal bride Meghan Markle face-to-face or share with her the news that she’s marrying Prince Harry on their very own wedding anniversary.
But that’s precisely what Brian McEneny did when the famous couple went for a spring walkabout in Belfast recently.
The Windsor wedding date has added resonance for the British Telecom engineer and his wife, BBC NI broadcast journalist Karen English, for on May 19 they celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary. And their wedding day in 1994 was exactly 32 years since Karen’s beloved parents Sally and Billy married.
Karen’s mother always enjoyed a royal wedding and would be amused at this, the latest event to coincide with important dates in her own family.
“My late mum Sally always provided sharp observational armchair commentary which was as engaging — if not as deferential — as any seasoned commentator covering the major House of Windsor events,” Karen says.
“We were among a global audience of 750 million charmed by a bride and her prince as Harry’s parents, Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, tied the knot at St Paul’s Cathedral in July 1981. Five years later, mum and I cracked open the champagne again to watch Prince Harry’s uncle, the Duke of York, wed Sarah Ferguson in Westminster Abbey.
“She would have been tickled pink to know that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s big match on FA Cup Final day was taking place on her and dad’s 56th wedding anniversary. It’s yet another royal connection, as she would have laughingly seen it.
“She was chuffed when the second in line to the throne, Harry’s elder brother, was born on her birthday, June 21, and was named William, like my dad.
Karen’s husband, Brian, agrees. “Yes, when the date of the royal wedding flashed on to my screen, I thought, ‘It just had to be’,” he says.
“My mother-in-law would have been thrilled to bits, as Karen is. With past royal weddings, mother and daughter bought into the media feeding frenzy, the pomp and ceremony, the grandeur and the feelgood factor that comes with such a spectacle.”
Brian was thrilled to have the opportunity to converse with former TV star Meghan on her recent walkabout in Belfast city centre.
“She’s had a fascinating journey from Hollywood to HRH,” he says. “Seeing her and Prince Harry when they called at Belfast’s Crown bar was strangely uplifting. They both turned heads and got a rapturous Northern Ireland welcome.
“I couldn’t resist playfully telling Meghan how her big day connected us, and she gave a really dazzling smile as we congratulated each other. She also said May 19 must be a lucky date for a wedding.”
Karen’s parents, Billy English and his wife, Sally (nee Aiken), were childhood sweethearts, both brought up in the Ormeau Road area of south Belfast. They were married in their early 20s, their big day in 1962 coincidentally also clashing with another big headline event. While not on the scale of the FA Cup final at Wembley, the Lord Mayor’s show did cause their reception at the nearby Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast to be delayed — with many of the guests were stuck in a traffic jam.
Gazing out of a meltingly sweet black and white wedding picture, Sally looks radiant and Billy dashing in his RAF uniform. Karen smiles as she says: “Dad told me he felt a bit of a chump having to wear his best blues, but mum insisted as she thought it typified derring-do.”
Karen points out that although her parents were dressed to the nines, their wedding and honeymoon were on a shoestring.
“They even had to borrow a few quid to celebrate the start of their married life in Portrush,” she explains.
“No flying high or indeed flying anywhere with her new Royal Air Force husband once the ink was dry on the marriage register. Still, a couple of years later, she did get to travel, most notably to exotic Singapore, where my brother, Kenneth, was born in 1964.”
Some 32 years later, Karen and Brian walked in Sally and Billy’s footsteps down the aisle. The date was chosen to honour and include Sally, who sadly, aged just 52, had lost her battle against cancer.
Karen says: “Our wedding day was bittersweet, coming just months after mum’s untimely death. Her passing was a huge tragedy, leaving a gaping hole in all our lives, but we took comfort in making her a central part of our church ceremony.
“Sharing a wedding date is so special, and every anniversary we raise a glass of bubbly to her and of course to my beloved dad, so mummy is always part of the family celebrations.”
This is much like Princes William and Harry, who have always honoured their late mum, Princess Diana, by including her during their happiest times, most notably and symbolically by giving their partners jewellery worn by their late mother as engagement rings.
Karen, unlike her mum, did get a dream honeymoon destination, though. Brian says: “I did eclipse my father-in-law on the honeymoon front, booking a surprise trip to the imperial splendour of Austria. Apparently, the country is also a favourite destination for Dutch royalty.
“We stayed at a beautiful place called Zell am Zee in the picturesque Lake District. And in a surprise twist of fate, our honeymoon hotel was right beside a quaint little church called St Andrew’s. That’s the name of our home church and where we exchanged rings and said our vows.
“We also followed the tourist ‘trapp’ to Salzburg. Karen is a huge fan of The Sound of Music, that timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, and I earned a lot of brownie points by taking her to the film’s iconic locations such as Leopoldskron Castle, used as the Von Trapp family home in the movie, and Mondsee Cathedral, the magnificent setting for Maria and the Baron’s screen wedding.
“My yodelling didn’t impress, though, and when I threatened to buy lederhosen I got my first dressing-down as her husband.”
But unlike Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Bangor couple’s romance was not a whirlwind affair.
Brian recalls: “I met Karen when she was just 21. Feisty and fun-loving, I would have married her in an instant, but she made me wait nine years.
“Ferociously career-minded, quick and questioning, Karen is wedded to her job and is very much her own person. She’s also transparently warm and authentic.
“Gloriously unpredictable with a mischievous sense of humour, like most media types she’s talkative, expressive and sociable.”
Karen chips in: “We do complement one another. Quiet and understated, listening is his finest quality. Like my dad, he’s also a gentleman with courtesy and chivalry at his core.
“A level-headed rationalist, Brian is a solid, steadying force. He also puts up with me working crazy hours and never switching off because a journalist’s job is all consuming. I love that he is pleasingly daft too, and with his hilarious dry asides we do giggle a lot.”
Equality has been the hallmark of their relationship over the years. “We’re joint bread-winners and devoted hands-on parents to our darling daughter, Sarah-Jane (18), and football-crazy son Joshua (15). We’ve built a life together on strong values, investing everything in our family,” says Brian, as Karen nods approvingly.
The couple have an easy warmth and exude openness and humour. Is there a secret to their 24-year enduring union?
Both laugh before Karen quips: “When we got hitched we thought it would be minimum work and maximum joy... then reality kicked in.
“Like all couples, our lives have been dented by experience. But in the face of rocky, tough and testing times, we’ve managed to ride out the turbulence.”
Brian shoots back: “Yes, reality is an eye-opener. We’ve had to recalibrate our expectations.”
He smiles wickedly and glances conspiratorially at Karen before adding: “We are not the cosy-evenings-a-deux type. Our relationship is more akin to a fairy tale in New York as portrayed in that elliptical classic Pogues Christmas anthem rather than any dreamy Disney concept of coupledom.”
So as married veterans, have they any advice for the royal rookies?
Karen, ever the journalist, says: “Marriage, like news, has a fluid agenda and is ever-changing and ever-evolving. Judiciously roll with the punches and press on regardless.”
Looking skywards in mock disdain, Brian says, with tongue firmly in cheek: “But with burning love and passion, our compelling love story rivals that of any royal romance, and with a bit of luck we’ll stay the course like Prince Harry’s grandparents, the Queen and Prince Phillip, blissfully married for 70 years.
“Platinum is our goal on this FA Cup final day!”
Belfast Telegraph Digital