Belfast Telegraph

Faces of 2017 and the ones we should be looking out for in new year

By Claire McNeilly

Northern Ireland personalities who made headlines  with their achievements, talent and inspiring stories.

Brendan Rodgers

Anyone can manage Celtic, right?

 Surely all you’re doing is cantering to victory in a one-horse race.

Well, if it was that easy, then ‘anyone’ could take the Glasgow giants on a run of 69 unbeaten matches in domestic football, and ‘anyone’ could win four trophies in a row.

Except no-one has ever got close to the record-breaking streak of invincibility achieved by our own Brendan Rodgers in his second season with the Scottish club. And no-one since the legendary Jock Stein has brought four consecutive items of silverware into the Parkhead boardroom.

Carnlough man Rodgers has rebuilt a reputation damaged by a difficult last few months at Liverpool, so much so that he’s back on the radar of Premier League clubs.

And the seemingly indefatigable football boss also found time in 2017 to complete his book, the considerable proceeds of which went to the Northern Ireland Hospice.

Bernard MacLaverty

Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel has been a long time coming — 16 years to be precise.

And it is even longer than that since two of the Belfast man’s works, Cal and Lamb, were made into acclaimed movies, and Grace Notes was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Was Midwinter Break, the story of a Northern Ireland couple attempting to save their disintegrating relationship in Amsterdam, worth the wait?

Well, read this from The Guardian’s Justine Gordon: “This is a quietly brilliant novel, which makes for essential reading at any stage of life.”

The former St Malachy’s College pupil says he first came up with the idea for Midwinter Break in the early Noughties, but “things got in the way”.

And there were doubts as to whether the book would ever be written.

What’s not in doubt is that MacLaverty — just turned 75 — made a stunning comeback to the literary world in 2017.

Rory McIlroy

Why would Rory McIlroy be ‘one to watch’ in 2018?

He is, after all, one of the world’s most famous and highest-earning sportsmen.But there’s no doubt this is a pivotal year for the golfing genius from Holywood. McIlroy, now 28, is slipping down the world rankings after a 2017 racked by disappointment and injury.

Once again he failed to get near his own Holy Grail — victory in the Masters — and went through a winless golf season for the first time since the late Noughties.

It’s just over 10 years since a fresh-faced teenager from Co Down made his pro debut at the 2007 British Masters.

Rory went on to bag four Major championships.

But it’s coming up to four years since the last one and Rory, now happily married to Erica Stoll, has to convince his biggest critic — himself — that he can still win at the very highest level.

Michael Smiley

An actor from Holywood making it big in that other Hollywood...you immediately think of Jamie Dornan.

And although our Jamie’s doing great things in Tinseltown, Michael Smiley’s phone is never silent either.

Now approaching his mid-50s, Michael has always been the face — and indeed that distinct Northern Ireland accent — that many of us couldn’t quite put a name to.

But prominent roles in two blockbusters — Star Wars: Rogue One and Freefire — have now hoisted him high up the list of must-have actors. As the former bicycle courier said recently, it has taken him a long time to become an overnight success.

When director Ben Wheatley, however, got the nod for Freefire, there was only one choice in his mind as to who would play Irish freedom fighter Frank.

With seven major projects, including the highly-acclaimed Jawbone, completed in 2017, Smiley’s diary — just like his bank account — is swelling.

Joshua Burnside

If Joshua Burnside got a pound for each time he was played on Spotify during 2017, he’d be a multi-millionaire by now.

In the meantime, he’ll have to make do with the deserved critical acclaim for debut album Ephrata, which landed him the prestigious Northern Ireland Music Prize in November.

The award has been a springboard for the likes of Ciaran Lavery, Soak and Foy Vance in the past, and great things are now expected of multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Joshua, who hails from Lisbane, Co Down.

Guy Garvey, lead singer of Elbow, and BBC6’s Lauren Laverne have joined his growing fan club.

And Charlotte Dryden, CEO of the Oh Yeah music centre, said: “Joshua’s rise over the last year has been astounding and his album is an inspired piece of work, full of influences from as far as Colombia, Eastern Europe and North America.”

Tickets for his live shows are now a 2018 must-get.

Nigel Dodds

Who was the most influential politician in the United Kingdom in 2017 — Theresa May? Jeremy Corbyn?

No, step forward Nigel Dodds, Member of Parliament for North Belfast and leader of the DUP’s parliamentary group at Westminster.

Thanks to a successful General Election campaign led by the 59-year-old, Northern Ireland’s biggest political party now has 10 seats in the Commons.

Not only that, but the canny former barrister, along with party leader Arlene Foster, also manoeuvred themselves into a position where May’s Tories, smarting from that disastrous, misguided decision to go to the country early, desperately need the DUP to cling onto power.

As Brexit negotiations hung in the balance during a fraught day in Brussels, it was Dodds — back in Belfast — who held all the aces.

A controversial scenario, but few here turned their noses up at the £1.5bn ‘loyalty bonus’ for Northern Ireland that comes with it.

Patricia Ferrin

Next time you think life has dealt you a particularly bad hand, spare a thought for Belfast woman Patricia Ferrin.

To lose a child, especially to suicide, is unimaginable for most of us, but when that victim — Stephen Ferrin — is the third of your sons to leave this world that way, no-one would have blamed Patricia, faced with such overwhelming grief, for locking herself away from the world.

Instead, the courageous 56-year-old lent her support to the city’s first ever March For Life rally, aimed at promoting awareness of the frightening increase in suicides amongst young people here.

It followed Patricia’s harrowing, heartbreaking interview in this newspaper in September, which chronicled a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to prevent her deeply troubled son from following in his brothers’ footsteps.

“This is a pain that I hope nobody else experiences,” she said.

“I don’t have any sons left now. No sons. My heart is torn away.”

Paula Malcomson

“the greatest scene partner in God’s green earth,” was how Ray Donovan star Liev Schreiber described Paula Malcomson as another series of the highly acclaimed US drama series came to an end last autumn.

Sadly (spoiler alert) for millions of fans, Belfast actress Paula, who plays Ray’s long-suffering wife Abby, won’t be seen in any more episodes.

You wonder how she would have fitted a fifth series in anyway because, at the age of 47, Paula has never been more in demand.

Although she made her big-time breakthrough in Deadwood over a decade ago, the LA-based star could still walk through the streets of her native city without being recognised.

That all changed courtesy of Paula’s stunning performance as a suicidal mother in the highly acclaimed BBC drama Broken.

“I wanted to do something that spoke to that issue, the choices that people are faced with when they have absolutely nothing,” she said.

Claire Hanna

Claire Hanna is one of the most popular and effective politicians in Northern Ireland.

Who says so? Well, her rivals...

Our ‘Meet the MLAs’ interview series regularly features this question: ‘Which politician from another party do you most admire?’

TUV leader Jim Allister answered: “Claire Hanna, able and effective. I admire people because of their ability, their capacity to think on their feet and put in a good performance with obvious sincerity.”

Ulster Unionist Rosemary Barton said: “Claire Hanna of the SDLP; she’s very clever and very much on her brief.”

Steve Aiken said: “I’d love to have Claire Hanna and her colleague Nichola Mallon in the Ulster Unionist Party.”

With three daughters to look after, including baby Niamh, Claire might also be one of the busiest MLAs — and also one of the ones most frustrated by the Stormont impasse.

Her new year resolution: to have the Assembly back up and running as soon as possible.

Ryan Burnett

From British champion to becoming unified world bantamweight champion in just 12 months, boxer Ryan Burnett is clearly someone to watch.

The 25-year-old Belfast fighter, engaged to Lord of the Dance star Lara Milner, announced himself on the world stage when, after winning the IBF bantamweight title in June, he returned to Belfast’s SSE Arena and defeated WBA champion Zhanat Zhakiyanov in a brutal duel.

Going into the New Year, Ryan’s promoter Eddie Hearn is eager for him to annex at least one more of the two major belts, while he has also hinted at the possibility of Burnett defending his titles in the United States.

When Ryan defeated Zhakiyanov, Peter Nelson, the influential boss of HBO television, flew in to be ringside and admitted he was blown away by the atmosphere in Belfast.

The past year may have brought considerable success, but Ryan believes that he can top that in 2018.

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