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What's another year? Well known faces reflect on their highs and lows of 2019

 

Lesley Macaulay with dog Lily
Lesley Macaulay with dog Lily
Lesley Macaulay with dog Lily and with daughter Hope
Lesley with husband Tony
Caroline Curran, who lost her best friend, fellow actress Julie Maxwell, in August, out shopping with her daughter Molly (2)
Caroline Curran with Julie
Michael Cameron with his wife Pam
Jamie Mulgrew with his wife Claire, daughter Isla (3) and son Arthur (2).
Aimee Boyle from CMPR Models shot on location at The Merchant Hotel, Belfast, for Blush Boutique, Lisburn Road, Belfast. Make-up by Caoimhe Curran. Hair by Ruairi and Cormac Curran at Blue Hairdressing. Photography Khara Pringle

By Stephanie Bell

Well-known faces open their hearts about their personal highs and lows in 2019 - and reveal what they're looking forward to in the year to come.

‘It’s terrible living with not knowing what it is you are dealing with...’

This past year couldn't have started on a worse note for Lesley Macaulay who has spent all of 2019 battling a mystery illness. The 56-year-old, who is married to local author and peacebuilder Tony Macaulay, is still facing further tests to try and get to the bottom of an illness which has knocked her off her feet.

She is also living with the daunting prospect that if the serious episode which first put her in hospital in January happens again, the chances are she won't survive it.

Worryingly, since no-one knows what triggered it, it's impossible for medics to predict if and when it might happen again.

For Lesley, her way of coping is to try and remain positive and take one day at a time.

"It has been a really hard year and I keep thinking my body will heal itself and let me get back to the way I was but it hasn't happened yet. Living with the not knowing is terrible as you just don't know what you are dealing with. The doctors said I am a mystery and that it is like a needle in a haystack trying to diagnose what is wrong."

While naturally it has been a painful and traumatic time, there have also been some highlights for her family during 2019.

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Her husband Tony launched his fifth book and first novel Belfast Gate in the summer after receiving an honorary doctorate from Ulster University in recognition of his services to literature and peacebuilding.

And Lesley was thrilled to be well enough to stand by his side as he received the honour and, again, when he launched his book.

She was also happy to help youngest daughter Hope (24), who is a fashion designer, to launch her new collection.

But by far the biggest highlight was her daughter Beth's engagement to her partner Amy Hamilton. Following a change in the law on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, the couple are planning to tie the knot next June in Ballyscullion House in Bellaghy.

Significant family events have kept Lesley going in what she says has been her toughest year ever. She recalls how she took ill very suddenly at their home in Portstewart just after Christmas last year: "At the end of October in 2018 I had a very serious chest infection which led to asthma and I now know that's where it all started.

"Around that time I took extreme nerve pain in my foot which was unbearable and my health started to decline.

"Then one Sunday night towards the end of January of this year I experienced horrendous blood loss during the night from my bowels.

"It went on throughout the night and I tried to get up and go to a meeting the next morning but I collapsed and had to be taken to hospital.

"When I got to the hospital they were shocked at my blood count. They said it was the lowest they had ever seen and my blood pressure was also very low."

Lesley was very ill and underwent an emergency blood transfusion in the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine.

There was another blow when a scan revealed that she had large amounts of fluid around her heart which needed to be removed urgently and she was transferred by ambulance to Altnagelvin Hospital.

Awake for the procedure, she had a large needle inserted in her armpit to help drain away the fluid and was shocked by the amount that came away.

"They placed this large bag of fluid on my stomach which was about the weight of a 2lb bag of sugar and then said that that was not even half of what was there.

"I was sent back to the Causeway Hospital where they continued to drain it and filled two more bags.

"It was extremely uncomfortable and it left me very weak.

"I then got an infection in the hospital - it was a horrendous time."

Lesley got out of hospital after two weeks but the fluid around her heart had caused severe internal bruising which took five months to heal.

Her mother had to care for her for the first three months when she was bedridden. She was so weak she couldn't manage stairs and even trying to have a shower caused her to collapse.

She spent her summer months slowly attempting to do small things each day but found herself so exhausted she often ended up in bed.

Looking back, she says: "It was horrendous. I couldn't lift anything heavy. I couldn't even lift a bag of groceries and I found the stairs and hills very hard.

"I've just had to manage it as best I can, pottering around and doing small things."

As she continues to recover, Lesley has undergone countless tests to try and discover what is wrong but so far specialists have drawn a blank.

Cancer was ruled out straight away and then it was suspected she had a rare viral infection.

She was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast in August to undergo a series of tests for rare diseases only to find that all the results were inconclusive.

"They then thought it could be a blood disorder but all those tests came back inconclusive too. I had a biopsy taken from a nerve in my foot but it also didn't show anything up.

"They then suspected my immune system could be attacking my body but they can't confirm that either. They said I am a mystery."

As baffled doctors consider what to do next, Lesley has also been given the shocking news that if she was to experience the same bleeding and fluid build-up as she did in January, her body might not be strong enough to survive it this time.

"It has been the worst time, it really has. Going through all the tests and recovery has been terrible. The nerve pain in my foot is still excruciating and I am living on painkillers. I'm still not diagnosed with anything and it is really frustrating not knowing what it is.

"They have told me if I have a flare-up of blood loss and fluid around my heart again that I might not survive it, but they don't know what triggered it so they can't say it if will happen again.

"It is scary and I feel I have aged 20 years this year. I am definitely not living my life the way I want to. I have had to slow down and allocate time differently to things I am doing.

"I have recently started to walk the dog again but I have to go a route where I know there are a lot of summer seats so that I can sit down and rest along the way."

She adds, with a wry smile: "And, of course, because of my foot I can't wear my beloved heels anymore which I am really struggling with."

Her illness also forced her to give up her job as fundraising manager with the Guide Dogs for the Blind charity. Always a lover of clothes, however, she has tried to launch a new career as a fashion stylist which has provided some light relief.

"I did a couple of fashion shoots for Northern Woman magazine which was brilliant," she recalls. "I loved it so much and that kept me going."

Her family, she says, have been an amazing support.

And determined to look on the bright side, she points out that the past 12 months have provided some moments of celebration.

"There have been great things come out of the year too - Tony getting his doctorate was wonderful and Beth getting engaged has given us something to look forward to in 2020.

"Hope launched a new fashion collection which has been a great success globally and her clothes are spectacular. She recently got a commission from the singer Halsey so good things have happened too."

Apart from her daughter's wedding in June, Lesley can't plan ahead for 2020 as without a diagnosis she remains in limbo.

"I just have to try and get on day by day as best I can and hope the doctors figure it out," she adds.

"One thing I have learnt is not to assume people are feeling great just because they look well. There is always something else going on in people's lives. I am good at putting make-up on and looking well, but behind the smile no-one knows the physical pain I am in."

‘I am not the same person I was before Julie died and I don’t think I’ll ever be’

The loss of her best friend this year has left Caroline Curran with an ache in her heart which she believes will never go away. Not only were they inseparable buddies, but Caroline and the late Julie Maxwell acted together on stage and were co-writers of one of Northern Ireland's most popular Christmas shows.

In true theatre tradition Caroline has stoically carried on with My Big Fat Christmas Show throughout December as a tribute to her friend.

While she has brought laughter to hundreds, however, she also admits that stepping on to the stage each night has proved her toughest run of performances ever.

With brutal timing, it was on Caroline's 35th birthday on August 24 that she got the shock phone call to say Julie (36) had passed away suddenly.

Her friend collapsed and died while enjoying a night out in a Belfast city centre bar with her husband Rhodri. Just a few days earlier the two pals had put the finishing touches to the script for this year's Christmas show which is on at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey until New Year's Eve.

Four months on and it's clear that Caroline is still trying to absorb the loss which she says has changed her forever.

"I'm not the same person I was before Julie died and I don't think I ever will be again," she admits. "Time stopped for me that night back in August and in a way it still has. I feel that a part of me is missing and that there is nothing in my heart anymore.

"It is my baby who makes me get out of bed every day.

"I have never felt like this before. I know it's real, I'm not a stupid person, but sometimes - and maybe it's a coping mechanism - I tell myself she isn't here because she is late. I keep seeing people with the same coat as Julie's or the same coloured scarf and just for a second I pause... and then I realise it's not her.

"This was the first Christmas she was going to take off in 10 years and she was looking forward to being the writer in the room and not having to worry about getting up on stage.

"She had just put the finishing touches to the final draft the Sunday before she died.

"Our first night on December 3 was very emotional. It has been very hard to do it without her but it is what she would have wanted and we did it as a tribute to her."

Caroline spent a quiet Christmas at home with her two-year-old daughter Molly, fiancé Christopher Wilkinson (39), who is a porter in the Stormont Hotel, and her parents.

While she enjoyed the special family time, overshadowing the festivities was the inescapable reality that Julie is gone.

She missed her annual Christmas Eve lunch with her best friend and phoning her on Christmas night to see how her day had been.

The two young women had hit it off straight away when they auditioned for the same show in the Lyric Theatre 13 years ago.

Caroline recalls: "Julie had been at stage school in Cardiff and I had heard loads about her. She was known as this really talented up-and-coming actress.

"She was paired with me in the auditions for the Lyric and she was so good that I couldn't take my eyes off her. I was so busy looking at her reading her lines, I missed my lines and she had to tell me it was my turn.

"We went for a drink afterwards and we just hit it off. I remember saying to her 'I'm going to stalk you now' and I did. A week later I was on a plane to visit her in Cardiff and I had never left the country on my own before."

The pair not only soon forged a very close personal bond but were a natural fit together on stage and went on to appear in a number of productions together.

They were also cast as partners in the BBC NI series Soft Border Patrol. They then started to write their own scripts and went on to pen four Christmas shows.

Caroline says: "We had the same sense of humour - we both love obvious comedy and our plays were drawn from real-life experiences. In one of our Christmas shows someone gets gravy thrown over them at the dinner table and that actually happened.

"As well as being a great writer, Julie was one of the best actresses I have ever seen in my entire life; she was certainly the best actress in Belfast.

“I miss calling her and talking to her and running things past her and getting her take on things. She used to think I was mad because I left my shopping until Christmas Eve but no matter how busy we were, we always made time for each other to meet for lunch on Christmas Eve.

“I like a quiet Christmas with my family and she was the same, but we would usually call each other at some point to see how the day was going. Not being able to speak to her this year was hard.”

In My Big Fat Christmas Show there is an emotional moment towards the end when a letter is read to the family from their grandmother beyond the grave.

Caroline reveals for the first time that the poignant content of that letter was actually written by her for Julie five years ago.

“No one knows this but when we were writing the show the first time round, I wrote that letter for Julie,” she says. “It says lots of things about how amazing she is and that she should go out and enjoy life and make the most of every day. Hearing it read out on our opening night this year was a very tough moment.”

Since the loss of Julie, Caroline says her attitude to life has changed. Although for obvious reasons she doesn’t feel happy right now, she says being content is more important to her than ever. Having made a living making people laugh on stage, she is determined that laughter will play an even bigger part in her own life now.

“Losing Julie has made me realise that we don’t know how long we will be here and I am determined to enjoy life a lot more. I want to build memories. I try to take a picture of Molly every day just to capture those memories. I want to try and be happy and not be weighed down by the small stuff.

“I’ve just got to learn to love life a bit more and to enjoy it. Most of us think we are enjoying life but really we aren’t.

“I’ve always been a positive person but now I want to double up on my positivity.”

She adds: “The night we lost Julie still feels like yesterday to me. I’m coping by living day by day. She has left a really big gap in the world. I miss her.”

My Big Fat Belfast Christmas, Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, runs nightly until December 31, 7.45pm

‘It was weeks before it sunk in that we had done something special’

The past 12 months have proved extraordinary for former civil servant Michael Cameron as he launched a new career as a playwright at the age of 53 with a sensational debut show.

Michael was the toast of the theatre world when his play Ruby, based on the life of the legendary Belfast singer Ruby Murray, opened in the Lyric in February to rave reviews.

The sell-out show then went on tour, confirming Michael as a rising new talent in the arts in Northern Ireland.

This time last year he was apprehensively waiting for the New Year to dawn unaware of just how well his first piece of writing would go down in the public arena.

“I was sitting a home waiting for the play to come out and thinking ‘what if nobody likes it?’. For it to have been the success it was is just incredible.

“It was almost too much to take in at the time and in fact it was a lot of weeks before it sunk in that we had done something special.

“It was great for me but it was also great for Ruby’s family to see her become the talk of Belfast again. It was really special to be able to share that with them.”

Indeed, the show proved such a hit that it is due to return to the Lyric before commencing a tour across Northern Ireland in 2020. It will also be debuted in Edinburgh during the annual summer festival and Michael is in talks to take it to the US.

Furthermore, he has been commissioned to write a play to commemorate the centenary of famous Armagh writer John O’Connor for next November.

This year he has also written a second play of his own which again he hopes will debut in 2020.

It’s a fantastic turnaround for the father-of-three who just four years ago was forced to leave his job as a top political officer at Stormont due to ill-health.

His world changed dramatically when he was diagnosed out of the blue with a neurological condition. Having been used to long days writing speeches and policy documents for government ministers and former Secretaries of State, he suddenly found himself at home in Antrim with plenty of time on his hands.

“I remember so vividly sitting at home thinking that I was only 50 and wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I had developed a neurological condition which started as tremors and spread through the rest of my body in a matter of months. I was given medication that helped but treatment is ongoing and my balance, my hearing and sometimes my speech can be affected.

“While to everyone else I look alright, every day is a real struggle and, for me, writing has been my absolute salvation. It was a traumatic time and it’s still a debilitating condition to have but thankfully I am in a better place now.”

His life-changing diagnosis also came at a time when Michael had just found new happiness with his second wife, Pam (47), who is a DUP MLA for South Antrim.

Pam has three grown-up children, William (26), Daniel (25) and Hannah (22), and Michael also has three, Connor (23), Courtney (20) and Jack (18). Hannah and Jack live with the couple in Antrim.

Christmas for Michael is about celebrating with family. He and Pam now have two Christmas Days. The couple enjoyed a quiet dinner together on Christmas Day and then on Boxing Day Michael cooked another turkey with all the trimmings for their children.

Michael also finds the festive period a time when he remembers loved ones who are no longer here.

He says: “I love getting the candles lit and some Christmas music on and a nice glass of wine and thinking about people who have been in our lives and are not there anymore.

“Everything stops for a couple of days over Christmas which I think gives you the space to remember loved ones and raise a glass to them.

“With two families we no longer define Christmas as one day and we had a second Christmas Day in our house on the 26th which was like Piccadilly Circus with 16 family members there.”

While 2019 has been a wonderful year for Michael, it was a very bittersweet opening night at the Lyric for Ruby in February when the man whom he credits with encouraging him to write, the esteemed local director and playwright Sam McCready, passed away.

Michael says: “A friend, the singer Kaz Hawkins, introduced me to the late great Sam McCready and he transformed my life. He made Ruby happen when he agreed to look at my script and mentor me.

“He was a real inspiration and he gave me the confidence and belief in myself to write things and put them before the public. If it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have done it.

“To pass away on the night the play opened in the Lyric made it a very emotional run. We felt there was no doubt he was looking over us and he still guides me. I still read his notes and emails and the little nuggets of wisdom in them. He might not be here in body but he is still here in spirit.”

‘Christmas morning was full of fun in our house’

Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew can look back on 2019 with pride after his team made history this year.

The veteran Irish League player takes nothing for granted, however, and is going into 2020 cautiously optimistic and grateful that he has been returned as skipper again.

Linfield won the league and clinched the League Cup this year. But by far the biggest highlight was the Blues’ run in the Europa League, where they reached the final play-off round, narrowly missing out on the lucrative group stages against Qarabag FK of Azerbaijan.

As he reflects on the year, the 33-year-old father-of-two from Bangor is naturally thrilled by his team’s success: “Our European adventure exceeded all expectations.

“Getting to the final qualifying round just doesn’t happen very often in Irish League football. Winning the league is the pinnacle and as captain you do have that extra bit of weight on your shoulders.

“I’ve won it seven times now but as you get older you don’t know how long you are going to be able to carry on for.

“It just makes being a part of Linfield every year even more special and I don’t take it for granted, I am just thankful to be playing every week.

“Looking towards 2020 I just hope we continue to be successful as a club and squad and that I continue to contribute and stay healthy and fit.”

Announcing Jamie as captain for another year in October, manager David Healy described him as “a vital, consistent and dependable member of our squad”.

Unsurprisingly football played a huge part in Jamie’s Christmas celebrations as he prepared for the annual big Boxing Day clash with arch rivals Glentoran and again this week his New Year’s Eve celebrations will be tempered by the fact that he is playing on January 1.

Christmas is quiet and spent with his lovely family in Bangor — wife Claire (33), who works in corporate communications for North Down and Ards Council, and their two young children Isla (3) and Arthur (2).

Taking it in turns to spend the day with their parents, this year the couple enjoyed a traditional turkey dinner hosted by Jamie’s mum and dad, Heather and William.

“The kids both are aware of Santa and get very excited when they see him, so Christmas morning was full of fun in our house and I think it is just going to get even more exciting as time goes on,” he adds.

“They opened their Santa presents and then we went to Claire’s mum’s and they opened more presents there and then to my parents’ house where they got even more.

“Christmas was quiet for us. I had the match on Boxing Day so I had to take it easy. We went to my parents’ church on Christmas morning and then had a lovely dinner with them and then home to get the kids to bed.

“On Boxing Day for the first time this year we hosted Claire’s parents, her nanny and my parents for dinner which was lovely to go home to after the match.

“New Year’s Eve will also be quiet because I have a match the next day and usually I am in bed and asleep before midnight.”

Although a devoted family man, Jamie, who also runs his own soccer coaching school, Supreme Sports, says he does feel that he misses out a bit on the festive celebrations because of his football, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He says: “I believe if you want to be successful and do well in life you have to give it all you have got and I do that with my football. Being with Linfield so long, it is a massive part of my life, and it gets my full attention and my family have bore the brunt of that, but Claire is used to it and very supportive.

“Christmas is a busy time in football and I do feel that to a certain extent I miss out, but it is the sacrifice you have to make if you want to do well and be a success.

“On the flip side you are a long time retired in this game and I will have many years to enjoy Christmas when I am not playing.

“The games over the holiday period are very exciting and I get a buzz from that.”

‘It was great to pass my test,I’ve already driven 10,000 miles’

Aimee Boyle took a gamble when she decided to follow her heart and drop out of her university degree to become a model.

The 22-year-old from Fermanagh is now one of the rising stars in the industry here and this year was thrilled to sign for a second model agency in Dublin.

Working with CMPR in Belfast, she now moves between the two cities as she is in increasing demand with 1st Option Models in Dublin.

She says getting her driving licence this year was a must: “I passed my driving test first time and bought my first car which I love. I’ve had it just over six months now and I have already 10,000 miles on it so I think that speaks for itself, I’m always on the go.

“I’ll look back on 2019 as a great year. With modelling and the nature of the job, I never know from one week to the next where I could be working, and what part of the country it could be in but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I signed with 1st Option Models in Dublin in August and that was a big boost for my career. Between jobs both north and south I am now working at least three days a week if not more some weeks, which is amazing.

“I love the job I do and I am thankful for that.”

Aimee, who lives in Belfast, is from Newtownbutler where she returns for regular visits to see her mum Angela and brother Ryan (21).

She moved to Belfast at 18 to study for a communications, management and public relations degree at the Ulster University but left after two years to pursue her dream of modelling.

She adds: “I dropped out of university because my heart was elsewhere.

“I was getting so many bookings with CMPR for photoshoots and shows that I found it hard to commit to my studies.

“I just thought, what’s the point in doing something if you can’t put 100% of your heart into it? So I left. I’ve been living in Belfast ever since. I have some great connections up here through modelling, as well as some amazing friends. Plus, I fell in love with a Belfast boy.

“Belfast feels like home for me now, but getting my own car this year means it’s just a skip down the road to home again so it’s easy to blend the two.”

That Belfast boy is none other than Glenavon footballer Conor McCloskey (27), who Aimee spent Christmas evening with, after a dinner at home with her mum and brother.

Her modelling career began in 2014 when she was scouted by Cathy Martin of CMPR, who is also director of Belfast Fashionweek.

As well as a regular on the runway at Belfast Fashionweek, Aimee has become the “Face of Blush” — a high-end ladies boutique on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.

“I remember my very first gig was a shoot for the Belfast Fashionweek Launch of AW14, it definitely was a ‘small fish big pond’ moment for me,” she says.

“About two weeks later I got a booking with Blush to shoot content for their website. At the time it’s safe to say I made a lasting impression on the girls from Blush as I have been their in-house model ever since.

“I’ve also been fortunate enough to model for Kevan Jon, one of the UK designers they stock, and I’ve been house model for them too for several seasons. The team from Manchester fly me over to shoot content for their collections and I love that.”

Aimee is looking forward to one of her favourite nights of the year, New Year’s Eve, when she will hit the bars in Belfast to celebrate and ring in 2020.

She adds: “I love New Year’s Eve. You’ll find me in a frock from Blush with a sweet gin in one hand and the biggest smile on my face. It’s such a nice time for reflection and also super exciting to think what the New Year will bring.”

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