Vinny Hurrell: ‘Nuala and I were great friends through secondary school and our early 20s ...when I heard she’d taken her own life it was just utter shock and devastation’
In an emotional and candid interview, Radio Ulster presenter Vinny Hurrell tells how the tragic death of his best friend drove him on to succeed in his broadcasting career and why meeting his other half was one of the best days of his life
He's been Stephen Nolan's long suffering, quick-witted sidekick for a decade now. And in that time Vinny Hurrell has secured himself not only his own Monday night show but a reputation as one of the biggest names on BBC Radio Ulster.
And now the notoriously private 36-year-old has opened up about how the death of his beloved best friend made him realise life was short and precious and pushed him on to fulfil his lifelong dream of becoming a radio presenter.
Vinny was raised on a Co Antrim farm by his softly spoken Longford-born mum and Randalstown-born dad. If his dad had his way, our airwaves would be decidedly less lively and Vinny would be mucking out cow sheds this morning.
Vinny says that his school years in Randalstown were tough for him. He says he never really fitted in and struggled to socialise. But that is where he met his best friend, Nuala Johnston. The two became inseparable throughout their teens and navigating their early 20s together.
Tragically Nuala took her own life at just 24 years of age in 2005, leaving Vinny devastated.
"Nuala and I went to the same primary school," he says. "But it wasn't until secondary school that we became friends. To a certain extent if it wasn't for Nuala I don't know if I would have got through school. She was just always there. We became friends as first years. I don't remember the moment but it was just something that was always there, she was just a constant in my life.
"She had a wicked sense of humour and was very sarcastic and I'm very sarcastic. And because of that we got on very well. We had so many fun nights out and we'd go for drives together in this 20-year-old Volkswagen Polo that my dad gave me. We called it the Silver Bullet, but it was the slowest car in the world.
"She was amazing. When I was away at university in England she would write to me all the time. She worked in a pharmacy and I'd get these letters written on the back of prescription pad paper.
"After I graduated I moved home and we decided we would take a year out and travel to Australia. So we were saving money to go. I got a job as a porter at Belfast International Airport in May to save money and we were going in February the following year. But it was not to be.
"At the end of the November I remember coming into town to do Christmas shopping and I called to Nuala's house and she wasn't at home. My phone had got broken in work, I had hit it off a trolley and I couldn't see the screen. So I hadn't been able to speak to her in a couple of days. There was a pub on the Antrim Road she would have always gone to so I thought I might go there. Then I thought I had so much stuff to do and I had to work that evening so I decided I would call with her maybe the next day.
"That night I was working a shift at the airport. It was really wintry and I was driving a big fancy tractor that gritted around car parks and around the runway. About 1.30am in the morning a song came on the radio and it reminded me immediately of Nuala and it made me smile. She was mad into music and it was one of 'her' songs.
"I didn't really think much of it. I went home after my shift and went to bed in my mum and dad's house and was woken up the next day by the landline ringing.
"It was my sister and she sounded upset. She said that she had heard Nuala's name being read out in mass, that they had said prayers for her. I said that it couldn't be Nuala, that I would know, I told her to check. But at the back of my mind I knew. I don't know what your brain is doing at that point. But my sister rang me back and said it was definitely true. And I've never had a feeling like that. You feel like the floor has just disappeared beneath you. And it's almost like you are floating above yourself and watching yourself react to something. It was just total and utter shock and devastation.
"I knew at that point, even though no one told me what had happened. I knew it was by her own hand. And I thought, selfishly, that she had made that decision to leave me. Suicide leaves you with so many unanswered questions. And I think the frustrating part of that is that you never will really get answers to those questions.
"I remember my sister came back home and she gave me her phone so I could put my sim card into it and all these messages from Nuala came through. It was weird because it was like getting messages from someone who was dead. She had been trying to get in touch with me. She didn't really put a lot in the texts about anything that was upsetting her. But the last text that she ever sent to me said, 'Are you alive?' And it had all these question marks on it. And that kind of blew my mind. Because you look at that and think we just focus so much on certain things that annoy us or that we think are important, but sometimes they really are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
"It doesn't get any easier. It gets easier to try and deal with it, because you just have to," Vinny says. "But it doesn't get easier to actually accept it or understand why these things happen. Suicide is such a huge issue here. People need to know its ok to ask for help."
Vinny says that Nuala's death made him become determined to push on to achieve the dreams she had encouraged him with.
"Nuala's death changed my whole perception of life," he says. "I know it's a real cliche but nothing is guaranteed, nothing is forever, whether that is something you are going through yourself or people in your own life, or even your own existence here, you have to make the most of it.
"There's no point in being embarrassed or holding yourself back because you are afraid of how people will react or will perceive you.
"Just before Nuala died I had started with a community radio station in west Belfast. I would say to people that I wanted to be on the radio, I really want to be a radio presenter and they would kind of scoff and say 'who does he think he is?' But Nuala would listen to me do my bit on the radio and give me feedback. She was so encouraging. So when she died I thought, if people want to think that, to scoff, then that's their problem, it's definitely not mine and I'm going to try my hardest to be the best version of me that I can. It's so cliched and cheesy but that is what that kind of experience makes you feel."
And Vinny says he hopes he is making his friend proud.
"There's always something every day that makes me think of her," he says. "It might be music or an emotion or a smell. Those memories are good in one way because it helps you to remember, to never forget. But obviously it doesn't always make you feel great.
"I hope Nuala is proud of me. I think Stephen Nolan might do her head in now and again."
Vinny and Stephen joined forces 10 years ago. The duo, renowned for their, at times, vicious on air bantering with one another, are real friends when the microphones are off.
Vinny says one of the best days of his life was when he was handed his BBC pass. And, as a BBC newcomer, he often watched the Nolan team with a mixture of awe and bewilderment.
"I started with Stephen 10 years ago in January," he says. "I was working elsewhere. I came into the BBC through a training programme and began working with a show called Days Like This. I was in the same office as the Nolan team and I used to sit and watch them from a distance. I'm not saying it was like watching wild animals but it was a bit like being at a zoo. There was all this commotion and drama, passion, energy and noise coming from their end of the office. And I’d be watching it over my monitor, just thinking, ‘Look at them, what are they doing?’
“So when my other contract was up I was asked to do a month with Nolan. And that was 10 years ago.”
He says his relationship with Nolan is a good one and the award-winning broadcaster has helped him with many of life’s challenges.
“With Stephen everything is very much out in the open,” he says. “Nothing is left to fester so if he is not happy with something I’m doing work-wise he will tell me and vice versa. And I think that is good because things don’t have the opportunity to be a problem. If there’s an issue, there’s no talking to anyone else about it, you just get it out there in the open and get it sorted. Now don’t get me wrong, he does my head in on nearly a daily basis. But that is just him. And that is one of the reasons I like him, because he is a bit of an eejit.
“We are friends outside work also. I don’t think you could work that closely with someone and not be friends. I see Stephen more than my own mother. I don’t think he’d say I was his best mate by any means, but he has helped me out with so many things in the past which were not work related, but life related. He is a good man to talk to and he’s not quite as annoying as he likes people to think that he is. He has this character persona. Whereas that is him — it’s not an act — there is also a softer side to him also that he would hide sometimes.”
Vinny is notoriously private about his personal life, as is his partner. The two plan to get married in the near future and Vinny says he’s lucky to have found someone who will put up with his grumpiness.
“I am very lucky because I am madly in love,” he says. “It’s coming up to eight years since we met. We will get married at some point. We are engaged. We bought a house two years ago that needed a lot of work. So that kind of had to be priority because we thought there is no point getting married if we don’t have a roof over our head or have central heating in the house.
“My other half is very private. I am quite private when it comes to our relationship. So I don’t give out a lot of details about it. But I can say that I am very lucky. I can be very grumpy sometimes and I am a huffer. And I am very lucky to have found someone that makes me feel very content and very happy and also very loved... and puts up with my huffing and terrible jokes and my moodiness. Meeting my other half was definitely one of the best days of my life.”
Vinny will mark the 100th episode of ‘What I Wished I Knew When I Was 25’ on his forthcoming Monday night show. He will swap roles with his producer Seamus and in an emotional episode — where he talks about Nuala — will answer what he wished he knew at that age. He says Monday is a landmark date and, looking back, he is very proud of the series. “The ‘What I Wish I Knew...’ feature started by accident,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed them all but Julian Simmons talking about the homophobic abuse he has had to deal with really stands out. He maintained incredible poise in the face of some horrible people.
“Linda Ervine was another — a mum by 16, expelled twice and a granny by 33. Yet she has an unbelievable strength. Dawn Purvis told me about her home being bombed during the Troubles and how that changed her life forever. And I interviewed my friend Lou, who talked about when she was diagnosed with cancer. She sought comfort in the fact it was her with it and not her loved ones.”
Vinny adds: “One hundred shows later I’m amazed by the stories people have. When you’re talking to people they often say they don’t have anything worth listening to, but they all have some incredible tales and experiences.
“I feel honoured when they share them with me and the programme.”
- Vinny’s own What I Wish I Knew at 25 will be aired on the Vinny Hurrell Show on BBC Radio Ulster on Monday at 10pm
- If you are affected by any of the issues in this article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090, or Lifeline 080 8808 8000