Thursday 22 February 2018

'At least we could hold his hand' - Snapchat star Rosie Connolly on tragically losing her dad at 18

Her dad died tragically and her mother got breast cancer - but social media star Rosie Connolly's stepdad Billy has always been there for her

Rosie Connolly
Rosie Connolly
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Some might say that the beautiful Rosie Connolly has had a run of bad luck when it comes to family.

Her dad was catastrophically injured as a result of an armed robbery when he was 30 and died aged 50 in a separate incident, while her mum developed breast cancer aged 52. Rosie doesn't see it that way, however, and feels that she has been lucky to grow up with three parents who were all incredible, loving people. The third is her stepdad Billy, who accompanies her in this interview, and they have an extremely close bond.

Now 27, Rosie - real name Roisin - is the youngest of Peter and Anna's three girls, but the year before she was born, her dad suffered a devastating injury. He worked in the family pub, The Sheds, in Clontarf, and was the victim of an armed robbery one night. He wasn't opening the safe fast enough for the raiders' liking, so they expressed their displeasure by hitting him over the head with a rifle. Two weeks later, he had a massive brain haemorrhage as a direct result of the blow, which caused him to suffer a stroke. The perpetrators of this crime were never caught.

Peter was paralysed on one side so he couldn't work, and Rosie's mum Anna went all out to help him with his recovery and rehabilitation. Rosie was born the following year, and when her mum went back to work, her dad took care of her at home. This helped his recovery as it encouraged him to get better, but he struggled to cope with the huge limitations that had been imposed on him. He could no longer work or play football and he became depressed.

Rosie with her stepdad Billy Sullivan. Photo: Frank McGrath
Rosie with her stepdad Billy Sullivan. Photo: Frank McGrath

"I had a dad who was amazing and the kindest person in the world, but he really struggled after that," says Rosie. "He turned to alcohol a bit as a crutch, and while he was never abusive, there was tension in the house, and my mum wanted to protect myself and my sisters Fiona and Ciara from it. My parents broke up when I was seven and my dad moved down the road, so we still got to see him all the time. Mum and dad always had a lot of respect for each other so there was never any nastiness there."

Even so, Rosie must have picked up on the sadness of the situation, because she experienced a lot of anxiety from an early age. Her honesty about this is one of the reasons her followers love her, because she isn't afraid to be open about her history of panic attacks and anxiety. "I couldn't voice what was wrong as I didn't know what was causing it, but I always had a pain in my tummy," she says. "My incredible mum had it very hard, as she had three young kids, money problems and the situation with my dad to deal with. She did everything for us, and would literally give us the shirt off her back. We all loved my dad so much and a part of us always felt so sad for him. My mum even gets upset now about it because his life shouldn't have gone like that. It was very unfair because he was an amazing person."

When Rosie was nine, her mum Anna met musician Billy Sullivan at work, two years after her marriage ended. He was working a day job in security at Vodafone at that time in 1999, and she was facilities manager, and ergo, his boss. Now 59, the Clondalkin man liked Anna the minute he saw her and they grew close. Mindful of the circumstances and with her three daughters to consider, they took it very slowly and carefully, and really only got together when he left the job.

"I fell in love with Billy too," Rosie recalls. "I thought he was the funniest person in the world. The amount of conversations Mum had with us to make sure that we were OK with it was incredible. Our family had been through so much, but Billy brought the fun back into our lives. It was lovely to see Mum laughing again, but I also loved how respectful Billy was of my dad and how kind he was to him."

Billy says that he never tried to be a dad to the girls, he just strove to be their pal. His own childhood wasn't great as he had a difficult relationship with his late dad Edward, who was an alcoholic and could be abusive. His late mum Noreen was 'absolutely gorgeous' though and a fantastic mother, he says. Eventually, he moved in with Anna and the girls, taking it very slowly and gradually.

"Billy has a way of creating lightness in any situation, but if you have something serious to talk about, he's a great listener," Rosie says. "He's very level-headed and gives great advice and is just very sound. I used to be very shy and nervous, but he taught me to enjoy my life, have fun and to be myself."

What was it like for Billy initially being plunged into a household of women? "I learned very quickly that nothing was mine in the house," he laughs. "They took everything out on me. The girls made it easy for me because they were so grounded and were raised to be lovely, kind people. I never really saw myself in a dad role until I had to talk to a few of their boyfriends, and then I felt like one. I am very protective. I knew what those lads were thinking as I used to be one of them!"

Despite the separation, the family stayed really close to Peter and were devastated when he passed away aged 50, when Rosie was 18. The details of that weekend are clearly etched on her mind, beginning with the family attending her dad's uncle's funeral. Aside from the sadness of that loss, he was in great form that day, because he was so proud of his three beautiful daughters and loved showing them off to everyone. Rosie had just started driving and she dropped him home, which was the first time he was in the car with her. That was Friday evening, and on Sunday she received a call from her uncle to say her dad hadn't turned up for work in the family pub, which was very unusual.

They went to the apartment and realised he hadn't slept there the night before, so he was reported missing. Twenty-four hours of worry passed until the situation came to a heartbreaking resolution. A retired member of the RNLI was out on a yacht with his wife in Dun Laoghaire, when he came across Peter's body in the sea. The family will never know exactly what happened, but Rosie's dad lived by the seafront in Clontarf. He regularly walked along the wall so they can only surmise that he fell in somehow and drowned.

"We are blessed that we got Dad's body back," says Rosie. "If we hadn't, we might never have known what happened to him, which would be real torment. At least we could see him and hold his hand in the funeral home, because it's so important when you're grieving to be able to say goodbye. We also got to meet the man who found him, who was wonderful, and one of the coastguards who went out to recover my dad's body was my eldest sister's best friend, although he didn't even know my dad was missing."

Rosie, Paul and baby Harry
Rosie, Paul and baby Harry

The loss of Peter was devastating but it brought the family even closer. Rosie was studying makeup artistry at Senior College Dun Laoghaire at the time, although she always averted her eyes so she didn't look at the sea after that. She won a competition with TV3 to become a personal stylist at fashion brand Oasis, and then moved on to become the personal shopper at Arnotts.

In 2010, her mum Anna and Billy got married at Clontarf Castle, with the three thrilled girls as bridesmaids. Then, as if they hadn't been through enough, the family experienced another huge blow when Anna was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 during a routine mammogram. She was a fit and healthy 52, and underwent a mastectomy, reconstruction and gruelling chemotherapy. When her hair fell out, Billy shaved his head in support, on what happened to be their wedding anniversary. He also got his first tattoo, which says, 'Anna, my wife, my hero'.

"Anna was so weak from the chemo, which had the most horrific side-effects like blisters, piles and pain," he says. "I had to inject into her stomach every morning as part of her treatment, and we had to sleep in separate beds because if I touched her, the pain was excruciating. I stopped working and cancelled gigs so I could be with her seven days a week, and the kids were all a great support too. My mam got very sick and passed away in the middle of all this, and Anna couldn't even visit her in hospital because she was going through chemo."

While the treatment was gruelling, Anna has now recovered and her scans are thankfully clear. She is a member of the Plurabelle Paddlers, a rowing group who have all had cancer, and is really involved with breast cancer charities. For this reason, Rosie, Billy and the family will be taking part in the Great Pink Run in September to raise funds for Breast Cancer Ireland. They are very grateful for the pioneering research it conducts and awareness programmes it provides around Ireland. "I've always looked up to my Mum and thought she was incredible, but she has a strength inside her that I don't think she even knew she had," says Rosie.

On the personal front, Rosie is engaged to refrigeration engineer, Paul Quinn, and they are due to marry next May, when Billy will walk her down the aisle. Rosie and Paul met on a night out in 2013 and fell completely in love. A real people-person with great kindness, Paul had been through a lot himself as he is father to twins born extremely prematurely during a previous relationship. Sadly, baby Jacob only lived for three months, but thankfully Reuben survived and was eight months old when Rosie and Paul met. Paul was naturally still grief-stricken and was experiencing panic attacks, and Rosie helped him to deal with the situation through counselling and her own support.

When she fell pregnant with their son Harry during her mum's illness, it came as a bit of a shock, and although unplanned, the funny, gorgeous Harry is now two and has brought the family great joy and happiness. They also see a lot of Reuben, now four, whom they also adore.

Rosie started blogging her pregnancy fashion while expecting Harry, and a mixture of her keen eye for fashion and beauty combined with the warmth of her personality saw her rising to become one of Ireland's most popular bloggers and influencers. She is signed to the Andrea Roche Agency, and recently brought out a range of sunglasses under her brand, Aluxe.

With hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, Rosie is very aware of her responsibility to the many young girls who follow her. She talks to them about her struggles with anxiety and the challenges of motherhood, and shares frank images of her bare skin, which is prone to eruptions and has been an ongoing problem for her.

"I was so self-conscious growing up, particularly about my skin," she says. "Social media can be so shiny, curated and filtered, and I would hate for young girls to think that I have a perfect life. When I started blogging, I was unmarried, pregnant and living at home. I think people liked me because I didn't have that fairytale life.

"In our family, we have always been very honest and open, and I try to keep that mentality with blogging. I don't want to overshare, but if I'm having a bad day, I'll be honest about it. I hope it will encourage my followers to embrace themselves a bit more and not be so hard on themselves."

When she was looking for a childminder after having Harry, Rosie was thrilled when Billy agreed to take on the role three days per week. The situation works well because he gigs at weekends but is free during the week. When he was younger, Billy sang and played guitar in a band called The Vultures, who played with the likes of the Bay City Rollers. He now performs solo all around the country, and says that he lives for music and it keeps him sane (see the Billy Sullivan page on Facebook). The highlights of his career have been playing with The Boomtown Rats and meeting his hero, Wilko Johnson.

He and Harry have great fun together, and Rosie says that her little boy has become a real joker too and absolutely adores his grandfather. "Billy has broken down the barriers about blood making a family," she says. "He has been a better dad to me than some people's biological fathers are, and is more of a grandfather to Harry than anyone else could possibly be."

Billy even calls to the house on days when he isn't due to mind Harry and takes him off on adventures. "My mates slag me that my best friend is a two-year-old," laughs Billy. "We have six grandkids now as Fiona has three children and Ciara has two and I'm like a child at heart too."

What he finds amusing is that people stop him in the street and ask for pictures with him and Harry, having recognised them from Rosie's Snapchat.

He is delighted for her success, even though he admits to not being 100pc sure what the social media world is all about. "All I know is that she puts stuff on the internet and people like it," he laughs.

"She deserves all she has achieved and has worked very hard for it. Rosie is so kind and has a lovely heart - she's an absolutely beautiful person inside and out."

www.rosieconnolly.ie The Great Pink Run with Avonmore Slimline Milk takes place at Phoenix Park on September 9 and in Kilkenny Castle Park on September 10. To register, go to www.greatpinkrun.ie

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