The glamorous life and painful last days of Vincent Hanley

Pioneering DJ Vincent Hanley died of Aids 30 years ago on April 18th. His close friends recall a vivacious personality – and how their world changed on his death

Vincent Hanley reports from New York for RTÉ show 'MT USA', a music television show aimed at young people that aired in the 1980s. Video: RTÉ

 

In 1984, the RTÉ Guide wrote of an exciting new television programme aimed at young people: “Non plot-oriented MT USA brings us the latest on the video story from where its headlines are made. Vincent Hanley’s links will come from locations in Manhattan and adjoining parts.”

The programme, which introduced countless Irish people to their favourite new pop songs, made Hanley a star.

But three years after MT USA (Music Television USA) began, Hanley was dying of Aids in St James’s Hospital in Dublin. His vivacious and glamorous life was ending, surrounded by just a small number of friends and family.

It is 30 years since Hanley died, and in some ways it’s hard to quantify the impact he had on popular culture. But his influence was seismic.

For the first time in Europe, a music video programme was broadcast on a terrestrial station, causing ructions in family homes when it clashed with GAA on Sundays. His links from Central Park, Times Square, Fifth Avenue, and elsewhere around Manhattan, offered a glimpse of American glamour that was escapist and aspirational in grey 1980s Ireland.

Hanley was a star, drawing huge crowds at DJ sets around the country. Fab Vinny was the epitome of cool. The timbre of his voice, which resided somewhere between Wogan and Gogan, saw him conquer both 2fm and Capital Radio in London.

He was also a gay man who, at 33, became Ireland’s first high-profile victim of Aids. His friends remember him as tremendous fun, generous, hugely likeable, a young man from Clonmel who had the drive, talent and style to make it big.

He used to call the station the Stations of the Cross
- Larry Gogan

After starting straight out of school as a reporter in Cork, he moved to Dublin, where he had a programme on RTÉ Radio 1, and also worked as a continuity announcer on television, back when you could see as well as hear them.

Along with Jimmy Greeley and Mark Cagney, Larry Gogan and Hanley were the original 2fm (or, when it launched in 1979, RTÉ Radio 2) DJs. “He hated restraints that RTÉ put on,” Gogan remembers, “‘You can’t play this or that.’ He used to call the station the Stations of the Cross.”

Hanley’s nickname for Gogan was ‘Larry Love-A-Bubble’, and Gogan and his late wife Florrie were one of the few people permitted to visit Hanley in his last days.

“If he had lived he would have been a worldwide DJ, Ireland was too small for him. He would appeal to an audience anywhere. His love of music, his love of radio shone through him. He was a genius for radio.” 

Close friends

Terry O’Sullivan met Hanley in 1976 and they became close friends. At the time, Hanley was living in a mews in Monkstown, Co Dublin, with Charles Self who was later murdered at the address in 1982, in a crime which remains unsolved.

Clonmel was proud of Hanley and, as his profile grew, he couldn’t walk down the street without being stopped multiple times. Hanley wanted to be famous, O’Sullivan says, but not in a narcissistic way. He wanted to be good at his job.

It was not fame for fame’s sake...he had a vision. He saw the prevailing winds of popular mass entertainment

“I would never have thought that if he was living in this era, Vincent would be photographed too often, or “opening up”, he wouldn’t be into that at all. He was too stylish for that, a bit of class about him. It was not fame for fame’s sake, but he had a vision. He saw the prevailing winds of popular mass entertainment.”

In London, Hanley hosted a show on Capital Radio, making friends including comedian, DJ and presenter Kenny Everett. With an audience of eight million people, Hanley’s star was on the rise.

When the pay-cheques came, Hanley made two big purchases, an 18-carat gold Cartier tank watch and a Cartier ring, which he bought in Weirs in Dublin. The next thing he wanted to buy was a BMW cabriolet from a dealership in Hyde Park.

Vincent Hanley and Terry O’Sullivan who met in the late 1970s. “It was not fame for fame’s sake... he had a vision. He saw the prevailing winds of popular mass entertainment.” Photograph: courtesy of Terry O’Sullivan
Vincent Hanley and Terry O’Sullivan who met in the late 1970s. “It was not fame for fame’s sake... he had a vision. He saw the prevailing winds of popular mass entertainment.” Photograph: courtesy of Terry O’Sullivan

He never bought the Beamer, because abruptly, about the age of 27, he moved to New York. “New York, New York, that’s where I wanted to be. I think I was looking for breathing space,” Hanley told the RTÉ Guide.

“He just upped sticks and went to New York out of the blue,” O’Sullivan remembers. “I was stunned. I didn’t know what he was doing and why he was doing it. ‘I want to make it big,’ he said. He was barely in London two years.”

In New York, Hanley shared an apartment with a man named Philip, who O’Sullivan describes as a “very educated”, camp, African-American guy from Louisiana who worked in technology for one of the major banks in New York.

“He said: ‘You know what she’s [Hanley] doing?’ I said ‘what’s she doing?’ ‘She’s doing f**k all. She’s lying on her ass all day, going to dances with all these people, taking this, taking that, that’s what she’s doing.’”

O’Sullivan, a psychoanalytic-psychotherapist and founding member of the Rutland Centre, believes he would be in a better position than most to identify addiction, yet he still questions how he may have been in denial about what O’Sullivan says was Hanley’s cocaine use. 

HIV-Aids epidemic

Early 1980s New York and San Francisco. The clubs, the scene, the hedonism, the height of edgy glamour. Something was wrong. In 1981 or 1982 O’Sullivan was on holiday in Ibiza with a doctor friend when a group of English guys approached selling poppers – amyl nitrate.

O’Sullivan’s friend grew angry, saying, “Do you know there is something being noticed in New York at the moment that they think may be associated with the use of poppers?”

It was the first time O’Sullivan had heard any reference to what he would later understand to be the HIV-Aids epidemic. Information was sketchy and, like the poppers theory, often inaccurate. But something was wrong.

Vincent became sort of butched up. He was a queen trying to butch himself up; it was just a bit silly
- Terry O'Sullivan

Both TV producer Bill Hughes and O’Sullivan frequented the iconic New York gay club The Saint with Hanley. It was built on the site of the Fillmore East, a massive dance floor under a planetarium dome.

“Hundreds of men, all looking the same,” O’Sullivan remembers, “All in white shirts, all in moustaches, some absolutely gorgeous looking. Vincent tried to adopt that style, became sort of butched up. He was a queen trying to butch himself up; it was just a bit silly.” Hanley wasn’t a big drinker, preferring to sip on a glass of beer, but now switched to holding a pint to complete the butch aesthetic. 

NY gay scene

Hanley embraced New York and the gay scene. In the afternoons, he often went to Cafe Sha Sha in the West Village for coffee and key lime pie. For dinner, he loved the Japanese restaurant, Meriken in Chelsea. “Tempura oysters,” Hughes remembers.

“Every time he’d put a bite in his mouth he said, ‘my mother would be screaming now’. He was such a funny guy, such a bundle of energy, a brilliant mimic, taking the piss, taking everybody off, he found endless joy in taking the piss out of people. He had a sort of a persona like, ‘no listen here, mammy! Don’t you start at me!’

“The real country busybody was his alter ego. Whenever he wanted to get a viscous point across he would slip into his alter ego and pretend to suck on a woodbine, and then deliver some cutting, caustic, vile summary of whatever was happening on the news at the time, or whatever piece of Paddy Whackery upset him.” 

Birth of MT USA

Hanley and Conor McAnally of Green Apple Productions, envisaged MT USA. The idea was genius. MTV turned on in 1981, and by the mid-1980s music videos were the medium through which pop culture was being visualised.

Hughes came on board as a producer in the programme’s second series. The production went like this: Hughes flew to New York every Sunday and had dinner with Hanley where they discussed that programme’s links. On Mondays they’d recce the locations because permits were needed. On Tuesdays the programme was shot. On Wednesdays, Hughes flew back to Dublin. Thursdays was the edit in Windmill Lane, which often went through the night.

Because RTÉ’s signal was still analogue, many videos had to be converted to PAL, which couldn’t happen in Ireland, so the videos were flown to London, transferred to PAL and then couriered back to Dublin. There was no standard sound mix, so a sound engineer was on hand during the edit to boost and re-equalise the video sound to suit being broadcast on mono. Then there were colour corrections, and the graphics were fired live. The edit was initially done on 2ins tape, then on 1in, with a video engineer standing by a machine where the tapes were looped. The process of editing two dozen videos into one programme was painstaking. Hughes would “collapse” on Saturdays, and then fly back to New York again on Sunday.  

 MT USA was an instant hit and, across Ireland, Hanley became a bigger star, DJing at discos around the country, coming home from the States with generous presents, and amassing a huge TV audience.

Illness

But something was wrong. The year before Hanley died, someone remarked to O’Sullivan that he was looking thin. When a nudge-nudge-wink-wink article appeared in a newspaper, O’Sullivan rang Hanley asking him if he had anything to worry about, “I have a little problem with my eye,” Hanley replied, mentioning toxoplasmosis.

O’Sullivan thought the disease was something related to a deficiency in the immune system and perhaps had read something about it being transferred by cats to in-vitro babies.

Hughes remembers how ill Hanley was while, remarkably, they were still filming MT USA in New York. “For the last eight shows of MT USA, he was so ill when he went out on the street. It was winter, December, when we were shooting. The crew would help me fold cardboard boxes to put on the footpath. I’d get down on all fours and Vincent would sit on my back, just to get him through the link.”

Terry O’Sullivan: “I said, ‘what are you thinking?’ He said, ‘I wonder will it ever be the same again?’ He was 33 years of age” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
Terry O’Sullivan: “I said, ‘what are you thinking?’ He said, ‘I wonder will it ever be the same again?’ He was 33 years of age” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

In 1986, with rumours surrounding his health, Hanley agreed to come home and see an ophthalmologist. O’Sullivan heard photographers and journalists were going to be at Dublin Airport, so asked a contact in Aer Lingus to take Hanley off the plane at Shannon, where he collected him.

The following day, Hanley spoke to Gay Byrne’s radio programme about his eye issue to try and fend off the rumours. Yet somehow, he avoided his medical appointment.

At that stage there was no hope. It was a death sentence
- Terry O'Sullivan

Hanley and O’Sullivan drove to Dungannon for a DJ gig. When Hanley removed his shirt in a hotel room while he was changing, O’Sullivan saw how emaciated he was. That Christmas, Hanley finally confirmed his illness to his friend. “At that stage there was no hope,” O’Sullivan said. “It was a death sentence.”

Hanley, however, thought he would live. He went back to New York for a month but became more and more ill. Back home, O’Sullivan arranged for treatment in St James’s Hospital, where a doctor and nurse there were the main port of call for people with Aids in Ireland at the time. 

Last days

In February, O’Sullivan collected Hanley from Dublin Airport, “You could smell the death off him.” Hanley had been sitting next to the actor Gabriel Byrne on the flight over. He said goodbye to Byrne and got in O’Sullivan’s car. At St James’s Hospital, the doctor came out to O’Sullivan after about 15 minutes with Hanley. “‘Look, Terry, the bottom line here is that Vincent is close to death. I know it’s putting something on your shoulders, would you like me to let him go now?’ I thought about it and said, ‘no, could you hold on to him for a while because I know he’d like to say goodbye to people’. I regretted that terribly. I think it prolonged his suffering, and mine, to tell the truth.”

Hanley went between the hospital and O’Sullivan’s mother’s house on Hatch Street where she cared for him. 

The diary entry of Tonie Walsh, the LGBT rights activist, DJ and archivist, from Easter Monday 1987 reads: “Bank Holiday Monday Earl’s Court. I feel exhausted from the weekend of non-stop dancing and drinking and not getting enough sleep. I was told of Vincent’s death on Sunday night while dancing in Silks in Shepherd’s Bush. It was shocking news and I regret not being able to make it to the funeral.”

We need to begin a conversation in earnest around that period, the shocking waste of life and destruction
- Tonie Walsh

Speaking over the phone, Walsh says of that weekend: “All of the men I was dancing with the night the news came in that Vincent had died, they’re all dead, bar one. Some of us were already inured to the horror that was stalking us. It was a f**king awful culture, it really was, and we’ve yet to open up and talk about it.

“We need to begin a conversation in earnest around that period, the shocking waste of life and destruction, but also how we coped, how we coped with the horror, and said our goodbyes, or didn’t in some ways.” Walsh cries: “I still feel guilty about funerals I didn’t go to. I just was so exhausted with funerals.” 

Denial

O’Sullivan says Hanley remained in denial. The week before he died in April 1987 he asked his doctor to let him off for a few days so he could go to Ashford Castle. It was an almost insane request for someone so close to death. Hanley persisted, and got a taxi from Dublin to Cong, Co Mayo and spent the week there.

There was no sign of him when he was due to be back in Dublin. O’Sullivan went searching, eventually finding him on the top floor of O’Sullivan’s mother’s house, “There he was in bed, looking out the window. I said, ‘what are you thinking?’ He said, ‘I wonder will it ever be the same again?’ He was 33 years of age.”

O’Sullivan made him scrambled eggs and toast, and the next day, Monday, brought him back to St James’s Hospital. Defiant, Hanley jumped down the steps out of the house three at a time. By the weekend he was dead.

Hughes still has a photo of Hanley in his office. The last thing Hanley said to O’Sullivan was: “I’m sorry”.

“I hear that ‘sorry’ as if it was put into my ear canal with a megaphone, but it was croaking. He was really, really weak. I had to put my ear to his mouth: ‘I’m sorry’. I just squeezed his hand and said: ‘You have nothing, nothing, nothing to be sorry about. Nothing’.”

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