Belfast Telegraph

Dean McIlwaine's dream realised as salon unveiled seven weeks after tragic death

'We made up our minds barber shop would still open... he would have been on a real high the way it turned out'

By Ivan Little

Co Antrim man Dean McIlwaine had his heart set on opening his own barber's shop before his tragic death in July. Now his parents Karen and Rod and brother Glen have made his dream a reality in his memory.

The smart tweed waistcoat and cap mounted in a pride-of-place position on the wall may look a little out of keeping with the decor of a barber's shop, but they're singularly at home in Dean McIlwaine's chic new salon at Glengormley.

For they're poignant and highly personal reminders of the award-winning Glengormley man, who died before he could see his dream coming true in the shape of the barber's shop he'd longed to open and which he'd designed from top to bottom.

On the opposite wall is a now-familiar picture of a smiling Dean, a photograph that became ever-present in the papers and on the television as the search went on for him in July until his body was found by volunteer search teams on Cave Hill, nine days after he disappeared.

Dean's mother, Karen, picked the "special" photograph, which was taken at a restaurant in Newtownabbey.

She says: "He's wearing his favourite waistcoat in the picture. He really loved it and he was always wearing a cap. That was just him."

The touching tributes to Dean on the walls are just about the only things that the 22-year-old barber didn't plan for the business venture that had so excited him.

Everything else in the classy barber's shop is exactly as he envisaged it. "The only pity is that he never got to see the shop completed," says Karen, who like the rest of her family is still reeling from the raw, agonising pain of his loss.

And what also gnaws at Karen, her husband Rod and son Glen is the fact that they still have no real answers about why Dean's life ended in Cave Hill Country Park, high above Belfast, at a time when he had everything to live for.

Police said there was nothing suspicious about Dean's death and his inexplicable disappearance still haunts the McIlwaines.

"We may never know what happened," says Karen, but what's never been in doubt has been her family's determination to make sure that Dean's plans for a barber's shop didn't pass away with him.

"We made up our minds that the shop would still open. And Dean would have been on a real high with the way it has turned out, but it just wasn't to be."

Dean's parents admit that overseeing the completion of the shop has been traumatic.

"At the start I just couldn't go inside," says Karen. "And it still upsets me every day I visit it. But we are doing this for Dean."

Karen says the grieving process has become harder as the days and weeks have gone on.

"It's as if I haven't seen him for a year," she says. "I can't explain it. It's heartbreaking and soul-destroying for Rod, Glen and me. The day of his funeral is like a blur to me now."

Husband Rod says: "I just can't get my head around the fact that Dean's not with us anymore. We miss him every day."

Rod acknowledges that the family have tried to find a focus through their grief by adding the finishing touches to Dean's shop, which he only told his parents was on his mind in April.

"I thought he might be better to wait until he was about 25, but there was no holding him back. He was a very fast learner. He started off on cars and he was good with them, too.

"But I didn't like the thought of him working with all that dust and he started helping his mum in her hairdressing salon. The next thing we knew he was going to tech and he became obsessed with barbering in the four years he was there."

Dean's first job was in Gavin James' barber's shop in north Belfast before moving to Peter Oliver's in the city centre, where Dean first entertained the idea about going out on his own.

With financial backing from his parents, Dean and his fiancee, Demi-jo McMahon, who'd been house-hunting, set about shop-hunting, too.

Dean found an empty unit - an old fruit and flower shop - in a sprawling housing development off the Doagh Road.

It's off-the-beaten track location appealed to Dean, according to his brother Glen, especially as it had plenty of car parking spaces.

The premises on the Woodford Road weren't much to look at, apparently. But that was then.

It's strikingly different now, with a fashionably stripped-down modern look that would make an interior designer proud.

And as Dean put exactly what he wanted in his shop he jokingly urged his mother Karen - a ladies' hairdresser - not to try to influence him.

"He didn't want a ladies' salon. He wanted a barber's shop for men," says Rod.

Dean's trademark sense of style is reflected throughout his shop with its exposed brickwork at the reception desk and at the four barber's stations.

The distinctive lighting and ornate mirrors were also carefully chosen by Dean, who selected a print for a wall from artist Terry Bradley's Belfast: No Mean City series, because he believed the dress sense of the character on the poster was akin to his own.

The perfectly co-ordinated wallpaper and flooring were the last pieces of the jigsaw, but Dean never got to see them in situ, just as he wasn't able to view the sign outside for 'Dean Samuel's Gentlemens Barber Shop'.

The sign - the name incorporates his two Christian names - was erected on the very day that Dean went missing, July 13.

Dean planned to welcome his first customers at the end of that month, but his friends will get a chance to see his shop in all its glory tomorrow at an open day.

However, the serious business of running the barbers will start on Monday.

Former colleagues will initially be doing the cutting, but Rod says they'll be recruiting their own staff down the line.

Twenty-seven-year-old old Glen, who's thinking of becoming a barber, says he always believed that the Woodford Road shop might have been the first of a chain for Dean.

"He was talking about developing his own range of hair products, too," adds Glen.

Dean, who had been due to start teaching at Belfast Met, had also confided in friends that he wanted to open an academy of his own one day.

"The sky was the limit for Dean," says a friend.

And on an old-fashioned transistor radio which sits in Dean's shop, a cousin has added a plaque in tribute to the barber which reads: 'Breathe in this moment. It's a big sky'.

Karen says that the support for her family has been astonishing.

"We've had letters and cards from all over the world. There was even one which was just addressed to 'The McIlwaines, Newtownabbey' and the postman was able to deliver it."

To thank the Community Rescue Service for their tireless efforts during the massive search for Dean, which united both sides of the community, the McIlwaines are organising a series of fundraising events including a country and western concert in McConnells of Doagh on Monday, September 22.

"Dean was a huge Garth Brooks fan and Johnny Brooks will be performing his tribute act," says Karen.

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