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Radio Ulster's Kerry McLean: The saddest time of my life

The Big Ask: 'The first anniversary of daddy's death was saddest time of my life ... after we got through all the first birthdays and first Christmas without him, it hit me that this is normality now'

Tuned in: Kerry McLean is a regular on Radio Ulster
Tuned in: Kerry McLean is a regular on Radio Ulster
David Bowie
Marilyn Monroe
Greatest influence: Kerry’s parents, Fern and Sean, with Kerry’s children, Tara and Dan, and Kerry’s nephew, Sean
Happy family: Kerry with husband Ralph and their children Tara, Eve and Dan
Rachel Dean

By Rachel Dean

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to BBC Radio Ulster presenter Kerry McLean (43), who lives in Ballymoney with husband Ralph and their children, Tara (13), Dan (10) and Eve (3). Kerry also writes a weekly column in the Belfast Telegraph's Weekend magazine

Q: Tell us about your childhood.

A: I had a very happy childhood, growing up in the countryside. My mum, Fern, was a union representative for teachers and headmasters. My daddy, Sean, worked for the Government. I have a big sister, Seanagh, who is two years older than me.

We had an idyllic childhood. We were very lucky that we lived in the country. We spent morning until night running around fields and playing with animals.

My sister and I were each other's best pal and we also would have taken the head off each other - normal sister stuff.

As we've grown up, we have become closer and she is definitely my best friend.

I was quite a sickly child and I spent a lot of time in hospital.

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My aunt is only four years older than me and she and Seanagh would storm about everywhere together.

Whatever they were getting up to, I desperately wanted to go along and do the same thing. I had really severe asthma, so I wasn't always able to keep up, but I tried my best.

We have always been a family that loves to go camping and I do that now with my kids as well. We would have camped all around Ireland, whether it was in tents or caravans.

I don't think there's a hole in a hedge left in Ireland that I haven't pitched a tent in.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: I'm most proud of my kids. For me, my most important role in life is as a mum. I know that's not the same for everyone, but it is for me. Whenever I was younger and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never knew, but I always knew I wanted to have children.

I'm so proud of all three of my children, but the older two are coming into their teenage years now and I'm really proud of how they are growing up, coping with life and making their own mark on the world already.

The teenage years are uncharted territory for me - it's unsettling for them and for me as a parent.

I'm lucky that my kids are quite calm and talk to me about things that annoy them or they like doing.

I hope those lines of communication stay open as they get older - fingers crossed.

Q: The one regret you wish you could amend?

A: I moved to London when I was younger and stayed there for the best part of a decade.

I really wasn't overly happy for the last three or four years that I was there, but I was in a good job and I thought it would be crazy to leave it.

One day I just decided, 'No, I don't want to live here anymore'. I didn't enjoy living in the hustle and bustle and I really missed the seaside and my family.

When I came home, I thought 'Why did I stay so long? Why did I give up all those years?'

At the same time, I don't regret my decision because when I came home I met my husband and if I had come home earlier I wouldn't have done that.

It also gave me a better outlook on life and I now know that happiness is more important to me than any job or any place.

Q: Do you have any phobias?

A: I am absolutely heart-scared of butterflies and moths. Even the thought of them makes me a bit nauseous.

I've always tried to hide it from my kids, but now the older two know and for fun they'll say, 'Oh mummy, there's a big butterfly about to land on your head', when we're in the garden and I'll just scream.

Q: The temptation you cannot resist?

A: Crisps. I love salt and cider vinegar crisps. I'm quite short - I'm 5ft 2.5in - and my husband is 6ft 5in, so whenever we buy crisps for the house, I make him put them up in the tallest shelf so I can't touch them.

Q: Your number one prized possession?

A: I have an old cabinet that I got in a second-hand shop about 12 years ago whenever Tara was about a year old. I painted and refurbished it. My kids call it 'mummy's special cupboard' because it's full of important things they've made or brought home, like pottery cups, drawings or medals, instead of the usual crystals or dishes that you find in regular cabinets.

I've always said that if there's a fire in the house, my husband has to lift that and run out.

Q: The book that has most impacted your life?

A: Many PG Wodehouse books. Whenever I was a student and I hardly had any money, I realised you could pick up his books in second-hand shops for 20p or whatever.

No matter what's going on in life, I lift up those books and it's almost like a comfort blanket.

I have always loved escaping into those books - I think they are fabulous reads.

Wodehouse was an incredibly witty and funny and under-appreciated author.

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

A: I would use my authority to protect the NHS. It's something we should be most proud of socially here and it's the one thing that seems to be terribly under threat all the time.

I came through the NHS as a child, having spent, at one stage, almost a year in hospital.

The nurses, doctors and everybody who works in it are underpaid and overworked. I think we need to appreciate that.

In more recent years, when I had my children and I had health issues at those stages, they were phenomenal.

These people work with life and death every day. Even when my daddy passed away from cancer, the nurses and doctors who were working with him were brilliant.

I don't know how they do the jobs they do, but they did it with incredible grace and love. They are phenomenal people and the NHS is something we need to protect.

Q: What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A: Rudeness. I can't bear people who are rude - it drives me bananas. I once had a date with this very good-looking Frenchman when I was working as an au pair in France. We went out to a restaurant and I was so chuffed to be with him because he was gorgeous.

Then, he spent the first course of our meal being incredibly rude to a young waiter and clicking his fingers at him. I just thought 'No, that's enough', got up, said I was going to the toilet and went on home. I thought, 'Have a taste of your own medicine and be embarrassed'.

Q: Who has most influenced you in life?

A: Definitely my parents. My parents were always very funny people. They have had family at the centre of everything and that's how I was brought up.

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

A: Firstly, Marilyn Monroe because I've always had a bit of a fascination with her. I would love to sit and have a gossip with her to find out what the real story was behind everything.

Secondly, I think that I would choose David Bowie because I loved his music when I was kid and he was the first pin-up I had on my wall. Then, as you get older, you start to appreciate his music on so many different levels.

Last but not least, I think I would bring my three-year old, Eve, because she's the perfect excuse to get away from any dinner party if you're having a bit of a dull time. If my other guests didn't live up to expectations, I could say, 'Oh sorry, the baby needs to go bed'.

Plus, the weird and wonderful phrases she comes out with can often be more interesting than anything you would hear from a lot of adults.

Q: What was the best piece of advice you have ever received?

A: It probably came from my mum whenever I was an awkward teenager - you know the years whenever you're overly self-conscious and you think everybody is looking at you. At that stage, I remember her saying to me, 'People only care about themselves'.

At the end of the day, they are thinking the same thing about themselves. In a way, it's the same as, 'Don't take yourself too seriously', which I think is a great mantra to have in life too. It allows you to let go of a lot of stresses.

Q: The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A: I love to sew. I started watching the Great British Sewing Bee about five years ago, and my husband bought me a sewing machine because I asked for one for Christmas.

It sat in our dining room and didn't get used for three years until I went on a course to learn how to sew.

I love sewing bits of clothing for the kids and other different bits and bobs. I am also able to repair stuff, which I think is incredible.

It made me realise how 'throwaway' I might have been with clothes if they got ripped. It's a great sense of achievement when you can repair things.

My eldest daughter loves making clothes as well, so we go around second-hand shops and pick up dresses or skirts with unusual fabrics and try to make them into things.

I have to say, quite often you can get one sleeve longer than the other, but it's fun to do regardless.

Q: The poem that touches your heart?

A: A Kumquat for John Keats by Tony Harrison. I first heard it when I was working for the World Service in London and I had gone to a conference in Oxford about the future of the English language. It was a very serious, very heavy conference and people came in from all around the world.

Tony Harrison was there and he read this poem and it just really stuck with me.

As I become older, it does all the more so because it's about living in the moment and appreciating what you have now and not yearning for being older if you're young or being younger if you're old.

It's about living in the now and appreciating every second.

Q: The happiest moment of your life?

A: Generally, whenever I get into bed every night and I know my three babies are lying in their beds, fast asleep, and I know everyone in my family is in their houses, fast asleep - I love knowing that everyone is safe and tucked up for the night. As long as I know everyone is fine, I have my happiest moment every night.

Q: And the saddest moment of your life?

A: Of course, when my daddy died three years ago, that was an incredibly painful moment. But I actually think it was more painful when we got through all the first birthdays and first Christmas without him, whenever it was the first anniversary of his death.

I had somehow expected that magically it would get easier, but it didn't. It hits you that this is normality now. That was the saddest time for me.

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

A: Whenever I was younger and had just left university, I had two interviews - one to work for the BBC and one to work for a bank. I did the interviews in the same week and was sitting waiting to hear back.

Then, I heard back from the bank and they had said they wanted me to start work soon and I remember thinking to myself, 'That's not what I really want to do in life. I really want to work for the BBC', but I hadn't heard back from them.

The day before I was due to start working at the bank, the BBC rang to offer me a job. I always think that if I hadn't got that phone call, my life would have been so very different.

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

A: I'm probably the least ambitious person you will ever meet - the only ambition I have is to be as happy as humanly possible. The most important thing is to be happy.

Q: What's the philosophy you live by?

A: Don't take yourself too seriously. If you can't laugh at yourself, it must make life very hard to cope with.

Q: How do you want to be remembered?

A: I would like to be remembered as someone who always had the best intentions and always tried to do good in life, even if it didn't always work out that way.

  • The Kerry McLean Show is on BBC Radio Ulster, Monday-Thursday from 3-5pm, and also on BBC Sounds

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