My stage train­ing

Re­tail sec­tor spokesman Aod­han Con­nolly tells Ryan Mcaleer about land­ing in the me­dia glare over Brexit and how act­ing pre­pared him for the role

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - @Ryan­m­caleer­biz

Ni re­tail spokesman Aod­han con­nolly on us­ing his act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

CHRIST­MAS is tra­di­tion­ally a busy time of year for su­per­mar­kets. But for Aod­han Con­nolly, whose job it is to speak on their be­half, busy doesn’t quite cut it for the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic whirl­wind of the past few months.

Like many other busi­ness lead­ers, the direc­tor of the North­ern Ire­land Re­tail Con­sor­tium has been cast into the Brexit spot­light to speak for fears and frus­tra­tions of em­ploy­ers.

Throw in the Pri­mark fire and the most chal­leng­ing weeks for Belfast city cen­tre since the Trou­bles, and it’s been an in­ter­est­ing time.

“Be­ing in the spot­light has its own chal­lenges, and you have to be very care­ful what you say. But it has its own re­wards. I was at the Def Lep­pard con­cert and I had five or six peo­ple come up and say: ‘You’re the man who keeps talk­ing about Brexit, keep it up’,” he ex­plains.

“I do get some pretty nasty trolls on Twit­ter, but I do give them the due rev­er­ence they de­serve.

“The joke that keeps float­ing around is that I’m not ac­tu­ally fat — it’s a thick skin from work­ing in pol­i­tics!”

Be­ing so busy means the 42-year-old Ar­magh na­tive finds less time to en­gage in his artis­tic and cul­tural side.

An Ir­ish speak­ing multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist, Aod­han is also an award-win­ning stage ac­tor who has ap­peared on TV, in­clud­ing com­edy Give My Head Peace. He also does reg­u­lar voiceover work for car­toons broad­cast on Ir­ish lan­guage sta­tion TG4.

Grow­ing up in An­nakera, just out­side Por­ta­d­own, an in­ter­est in the arts and cul­ture was in­stilled in Aod­han and his younger brother Peadar Og, mainly from his mother Kathleen (nee Mar­ley) and fa­ther Peadar.

“We grew up in a bilin­gual house­hold. My dad would speak Ir­ish and my mum would speak English,” he says.

“My fa­ther just had a real in­ter­est in the lan­guage. I think he got it from his mother. He started go­ing to the classes in the 1970s and de­cided that we would learn Ir­ish.

“He was very keen that we saw it as a nor­mal lan­guage and not a nov­elty.”

Although there were no Ir­ish-medium schools in Por­ta­d­own at that time, the fam­ily at­tended Ir­ish lan­guage Mass and stayed in the Gaeltacht in Done­gal up to seven times a year. “Our house­hold was never po­lit­i­cal and I sup­pose that’s one of the rea­sons why I have al­ways been in­ter­ested in the process of pol­i­tics.” he adds.

“My fa­ther and my mother were very strong into cul­ture, they al­ways made sure we had drama, mu­sic, lan­guage and the sto­ries, but in terms of pol­i­tics, my par­ents had their own pol­i­tics and they gave us the space to made our own mind up.”

First at­tend­ing St John the Bap­tist Pri­mary School, Aod­han went on to St Pa­trick’s Gram­mar in Ar­magh, where he en­joyed academia and the arts in equal mea­sure.

“My fa­ther was like a taxi driver. I was de­bat­ing, I played tuba in the orches­tra, play­ing Ir­ish tra­di­tional mu­sic, play­ing a bit of foot­ball. We were out of the house five or six nights a week,” he ex­plains.

While he no longer plays the tuba, he still joins in on tra­di­tional ses­sions and plays at fam­ily oc­ca­sions.

“I’m the an­noy­ing fella at the house party who picks up the gui­tar,” he adds.

“I take no­tions on things. My mis­sus says I just wake up one day and de­cide I’m go­ing to do some­thing and go and do it.

“I’m jack of all trades. Be­tween the mu­sic, the lan­guages and the cook­ing, I just like to have a lot of things on the go.”

But his love of drama has stayed with him. And he says that his time on the stage was be­yond mea­sure in help­ing him pre­pare for the job he does to­day.

“I have al­ways said that the rea­son I’m able to do my job now, should it be speak­ing to the Press, or give a lec­ture in front of 800 peo­ple, it’s all from the lessons I learned while part of the Phoenix Play­ers in Por­ta­d­own, with Den­nis and An­gela Mc­k­eever.

“I’m al­ways very grate­ful for what the Mc­k­eev­ers did. It gives you con­fi­dence and an abil­ity to ex­press your­self.”

One of his proud­est mo­ments came when he was named best ac­tor at the fi­nals of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Ul­ster Drama Fes­ti­vals for his por­trayal of a Bri­tish soldier in Bren­dan Be­han’s The Hostage.

“Some of the Brex­i­teers may think it’s apt, but I also played Ju­das in Je­sus Christ Su­per­star,” he jokes.

His act­ing CV also in­cludes TV ad­verts and a few bit parts in the afore­men­tioned Give My Head Peace.

“One of the re­grets I have due to my work be­ing so busy is that I don’t get to do as much of the act­ing as I’d like,” he re­veals.

Most the drama in Aod­han’s life these days comes through his work.

He re­called that he had se­ri­ously con­sid­ered pur­su­ing it af­ter leav­ing St Pa­trick’s, but in­stead he opted for law at Cam­bridge.

He spent two-and-a-half years at Gir­ton Col­lege be­fore home­sick­ness brought him back to North­ern Ire­land, where he stud­ied his­tory at Queen’s Univer­sity.

A ca­reer span­ning the world of cul­ture, char­ity and con­sul­tancy fol­lowed. Aod­han be­came direc­tor of An Cul­turlann cul­tural cen­tre in Belfast and Ir­ish lan­guage sta­tion Ra­dio Failte, be­fore work­ing for the Prince’s Trust.

He re­turned to the world of pol­i­tics full-time when he went to work for Cham­bre Pub­lic Af­fairs. Part of the role in­volved work­ing closely with the Bri­tish Re­tail

Con­sor­tium, which made him an of­fer he couldn’t refuse in 2012 to set up a lo­cal branch of the trade as­so­ci­a­tion.

Go­ing from rep­re­sent­ing sin­gle clients to around 100 dif­fer­ent busi­nesses, each with their own nu­ances, came as some­thing of a cul­ture shock.

But his skills from the stage have kept him in good stead, par­tic­u­larly when cast into the me­dia glare.

“It’s about how you take mes­sages and make them tan­gi­ble to peo­ple. Those trans­fer­able skills don’t change,” he says.

“I’ve been do­ing this for six years, but the rea­son why I’m in the spot­light now is the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, be­cause Brexit is go­ing to make a huge dif­fer­ence to house­holds and busi­nesses here.

“But it’s not just a case of us be­ing wheeled out for a vox pop. Any­thing we say has a ba­sis — it comes from the good work of our pol­icy teams.”

Out­side his job and in­ter­ests, much of Aod­han’s life is ded­i­cated to his 13-year-old son Thomas.

“I’m a very hands-on dad, the time I have with Thomas is very pre­cious,” he re­veals.

“We do mu­sic, lan­guages, we go run­ning and a lot of cook­ing to­gether.

“He was a won­der­ful child, but I’m hugely proud of the young man he is be­com­ing.”

Both Aod­han and his brother Peadar Og now live in Belfast: “We are ex­act op­po­sites. He is skinny, blued-eyed and bald. You couldn’t tell we were sib­lings un­til we open our mouths.

“My brother is one of life’s good guys.”

Liv­ing on the Malone Road, Aod­han ad­mits he’s still a coun­try boy at heart, vis­it­ing his par­ents ev­ery week in Por­ta­d­own.

“I’m very close to my par­ents. The older I get, the more I come to ap­pre­ci­ate them,” he says.

“I would like to move closer to home. But south Belfast is nice, ev­ery­thing is on your doorstep.”

He also en­joys open­ing up his own home and cook­ing for friends and fam­ily.

“It’s some­thing I got from my mum. It’s not just about the food, I en­joy the en­ergy and the pas­sion that goes into the food. But what I re­ally en­joy is when I have my fam­ily and friends around me and hav­ing that time for each other.”

Un­usu­ally for the world of po­lit­i­cal lob­by­ing, the Brexit era has proved the cat­a­lyst for turn­ing the some­times com­pet­ing sec­tors and in­dus­tries in North­ern Ire­land into a united voice.

As rep­re­sen­ta­tive for large su­per­mar­kets, fast food chains and other ma­jor re­tail­ers, Aod­han now finds him­self sing­ing from the same hymn sheet as farm­ers, food pro­ces­sors and other in­dus­tries when it comes to the im­pact of Brexit.

“I think there’s an un­der­stand­ing that we’re all in this to­gether. I think that there is a col­le­giate en­vi­ron­ment now that would never have hap­pened be­fore.

“I’m re­ally pleased we’ve built those re­la­tion­ships. But as well as that, I’ve got some par­tic­u­larly good friends out of this.

“It’s not of­ten in your work­ing ca­reer, that you get peo­ple from dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries mix­ing as well as this and it’s to be cher­ished.” But will it last? “I hope that the ge­nie is out of the bot­tle,” he says. “One of the rea­sons this has hap­pened is be­cause we don’t have an Assem­bly, and other than (in­de­pen­dent) Lady Her­mon, the only voice at West­min­ster is the DUP.

“Civic so­ci­ety and busi­ness so­ci­ety pre­vi­ously put their heads above the para­pet on other things, but quickly went back down again.

“I think and I hope this is a cross­ing-of-the-ru­bi­con mo­ment for busi­ness, that we do make our con­cerns known, should it be for house­holds, for jobs or for busi­nesses,

“Be­cause if we’re think­ing about eco­nomics and how to make North­ern Ire­land a bet­ter place to live, to work and to in­vest, then it does take it out of sim­ple tribal pol­i­tics.”

I think there is an un­der­stand­ing we’re in this to­gether.. I’m pleased we’ve built re­la­tion­ships Next week, we speak to Home­care In­de­pen­dent Liv­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive Mairead Mackle

At Stor­mont last month with Stephen Kelly Man­u­fac­tur­ing NI; An­gela Magowan, CBI NI; Glyn Roberts, Re­tail NI, and Colin Neill, Hos­pi­tal­ity NI

Aod­han Con­nolly has found him­self in the spot­light in re­cent times as he ar­tic­u­lates the po­si­tion of busi­nesses in the Brexit dis­cus­sions. Right: On the View From Stor­mont TV pro­gramme, and (left) out­side Pri­mark

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