Anne Hailes: I think Bette Midler would suit title role in Helen Wilson the movie

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Helen Wilson – an interview on Féile FM led to an invitation to join the team and then to working with NVTV
Helen Wilson – an interview on Féile FM led to an invitation to join the team and then to working with NVTV

I COULD write a book about this colourful woman, though perhaps a film would be more appropriate. I’d cast Bette Midler to play her and It would be full of humour, adventure, romance and inspiration.

If you know Helen Wilson you’ll know what I mean. And more and more people are getting to know this vivacious 81-year-old through her programmes on Northern Visions Television, NVTV.

We met in Cafe Nero in town. I went to the Chichester Street branch and waited. My phone rang: “Where are you?” I should have been in the Fountain Street cafe but she brushed away my apology, “Don’t worry, I’m never bored,” she said, “I’m a people watcher.”

Her story is engaging. Born in east Belfast, pupil at Strandtown Primary, three brothers and two sisters and, being the youngest, believes she didn’t have much chance to express herself although she made up for that in later life.

She grew up to be decisive and has no trouble doing her own thing. At the tender age of 14 her parents signed her up for a secretarial course in Belfast School of Commerce but she hated it!

“I told the principal, left not long after and went straight to CE Bourke’s of Newtownards Road and asked for the boss. I remember Mr Bourke saying: ‘Now missy what can I do for you? Does your mother know your here?’ ‘No’ I replied, ‘but she will when you give me a job.’"

He did and from the shoe department she was soon working in the office where she stayed until she was 21, leaving only to get married.

Young love

“I met Ron when I was on holiday in Donegal and we hit it off. It was very romantic. I was only 16 and he made me laugh.”

Although they got engaged when she was 18 her father said: ‘No marriage till you’re 21.’

Ron worked in the shipyard as a fitter and turner but in 1961 men were being paid off and, as luck would have it, at just that time he was offered a job in the Merchant Navy.

“Although he accepted, it meant he was away sometimes for months at a time and that was difficult as by then we had young children. Mark was born in 1960 and Mandy in 62 so the separation wasn’t ideal.”

Again the future was talked about and options considered. They looked at Canada and Australia but Helen fancied South Africa so, in typical fashion, she won in the end.

Once more, she kept the news to herself, didn’t tell her family until the last minute because she knew they would be against it.

“We had Christmas all together, left in February and arrived to take up our new life on St Valentine's Day.”

It wasn’t the dream they hoped, Although he found work, Ron’s health failed and it fell to Helen to find employment to keep the family together; their second daughter Niccola was born in 1972 but her husband’s illness meant Helen had to make the difficult decision to put the family home in Johannesburg on the market to pay medical bills. Although they returned home twice over the years, in 2006 it was home to Dundonald for good. Sadly they had only settled when Ron died.

Once over the shock, Helen asked herself what she was going to do with the rest of her life. She had become a ‘befriender’ at the Ulster Hospital when a new and unexpected chapter in her life began. She was interviewed about her work on the Féile FM radio station at Conway Mill and such was the impression she made, she was immediately asked to join the team. There she met Mary Ann Quigley and the two formed a friendship which has taken them to NVTV and their own programmes.

On Air

“I thought the output was a bit serious so I suggested we should be doing programmes for older people, presenting the lighter side of life, a few laughs combined with useful advice.”

The result is Our Parlour, 30 minutes of interviews and local stories and Coffee Break, a shorter chat show. The daunting fact is that NVTV is beamed into 100,000 households here and a whopping 40 million across America but Helen isn’t fazed – in fact, she likes people to stop and say hello.

An ace networker, I’ve watched her chatting up a young man, inviting him to appear on her programme. When she was covering the Lagan Dragons breast cancer survivor boat team, this fiesty woman wasn’t content to stand on the bank and report. No. She lowered herself into the small boat and got rowing. Her little black book contains top names from all walks of life and with three wardrobes, she is always top drawer – an example of never giving in and maturing with style.

:: See

Faces Of Fiacc Evening

ALTHOUGH only seven years of age, a young lady from the Glens held her audience as she read three poems written by the Belfast-born poet Padraic Fiacc. Grace McVeigh, a pupil at Glenravel Primary School, was just one of a number of admirers of Fiacc who gathered in the Linen Hall Library to celebrate his work.

Sadly the 94-year-old poet was unable to join the gathering as he is in poor health at the moment. His niece Mary B O’Connor had flown in especially from Connecticut to visit him and take part in the evening of music and poetry hosted by Michael McKernon.

Feile Women Singers performed Fiacc poems set to music, Willow to Sing, from Coltas, and Mezzo soprano Marion Jordan also sang.

Liam Friel, Hammond Journeaux and Francis O’Hare read,and Dr Margaret Wright discussed Stolen Child and the significance of this poem and Fiacc’s work in general within the wider context of Irish poetry after Yeats.