BBC Radio Foyle presenter wins 2015 Speech Broadcaster of the Year award and recalls freak surfing accident that almost ended it all

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Lurgan’s Mark Patterson described himself as the ‘luckiest man in Ireland’ even before he was crowned the 2015 Speech Broadcaster of the Year at this year’s CIPR Northern Ireland Media Awards for his work at BBC’s Radio Foyle.

Take account of the fact that Stephen Nolan was in the same category and you see just how special the result was - and anyone who knows Mark will tell you it wasn’t a matter of luck but pure talent and a winning personality.

Mark told the ‘MAIL’: “To be honest I was totally shocked. Stephen has won so many awards down the years, and I was thrilled to be nominated among colleagues of his calibre.

“When Colin Murray read out my name that night I was actually shaking. You don’t build a media career on accolades, but it’s also really rewarding to be considered up-to-the-job by senior peers across the media sector here.

“I also see the award as an affirmation of the work done day and daily here in Radio Foyle. We’re not the biggest radio station in the world, but there’s just something about this place.

“We connect deeply with our listeners. I always remember what Gerry Anderson told me as I was starting out in Foyle. He had been across the water and roundly savaged on Radio 2 by loud voices in the Home Counties.

“He then came back to Derry, and the rest is history. Gerry told me to never take it for granted if you’re lucky enough to connect with people on a radio programme, whether on the local or national stage. I know how lucky I am to feel that connection pretty much every day of my working life.”

Mark is arguably the best known radio personality in Londonderry - filling the airwaves every afternoon with his regular show on Radio Foyle.

It’s a show he loves anchoring - and the Lurgan College educated presenter describes Derry as a city that “just gets under your skin”.

With a growing audience both on air and on social media - the Mark Patterson Facebook page being a place for constant interaction from listeners - he is perhaps at the top of his game.

But he takes none of it for granted - especially as last year it could all, so easily, have been taken from him.

Well known for his love of the surf, Mark had been holidaying in the Basque country with friends when a freak accident left him wondering if he would ever walk again.

“I dived off a fast, beautiful wave I had just surfed thinking that it was deep water beneath me. Only it wasn’t.

“I hit the ocean floor head first like a javelin and broke my neck at C6. For the first few minutes I was also paralysed down my left side. I was totally numb - scared senseless.

“Ironically my surfer mate Conor and I had just made a documentary for Radio 4 and it had gone down so well we had booked this surfing trip to celebrate finishing the show. Then in a second I was brought down to earth with a bang.

“I was on my own in the shallows for about half an hour.

“Were it not for Conor’s actions eventually getting me to the hospital in Bayonne, I’m not sure I would be sat here telling this story. Yes, bad accidents change things.”

Surgeons in France gave Mark a one in five chance of suffering permanent paralysis - and he was airlifted to Belfast and prepped for spinal surgery.

Thankfully, that surgery was deemed unnecessary in the end - but Mark still faced a period of gruelling rehabilitation - which led him to re-evaluate his life on many levels.

“I think I have become a meditative person. I have realised stress is useless, and I’ve tried to slow down a bit. Or maybe that’s just age.

“Once your health is taken away for a bit, you crave it back. At one stage I was thinking ‘How will I live in a wheelchair? Car? House? Stairlift? Will I still be able to do the radio?’

“For three months I was terrified of falling in the street. But I’m fine now.

“That said, every day, I still look at things like paths or kerbs and think ‘how is a wheelchair supposed to get past that?’ etc...”

Mark’s neck bone has healed perfectly and, with the help of the “amazing” physios at Altnagelvin he is on course for a full recovery.

But will he make it back to the water again?

“I started swimming after about four months, and just lately I’ve been back in the water on baby-waves. It feels fantastic.

“The accident was a freak thing that happened in a foot of water. I wish I could say it happened on a massive gnarly reef, but it didn’t. It could easily have happened on the front step.

“So it was an unlucky thing, but I feel like the luckiest guy in Ireland now that I’m back on my feet.”

He can even laugh about some aspects of his experience. “They did MRIs, X-rays, the lot. The French spinal surgeon showing me one brain scan said, ‘We find natheen’... Well, I laughed.”

The pull of surfing will always be there for him. “Salt water has become the most important thing in my life. It always makes you feel better, even on winter days.

“Perhaps as mammals we have a memory of coming out of the water onto the land? I don’t know - it always feels to me that I’m returning some when I reach the coast. My favourite places to surf are Castlerock and North Donegal.

“The older I get the most passionate I feel about the ocean; the great whales, dolphins and the like. We need to be kinder to them. In the water here, I have often been within touching distance of dolphins, seals and the occasional basking shark. Those encounters change you.”

Another encounter which changed Mark’s life was his first trip to Derry - in his 20s while the Troubles were raging and, he said, the city “felt edgy”.

“I first came to Derry on a stag do in my 20s. My old friend Steven McKinty was the Ulster Rugby captain back then, and our Derry mate Brian Sweeney invited us to stay in his family home in Miller Street for the stag.

“The impression made on me by Derry people like the Sweeneys was immediate. They were hospitable, funny and kind. Seeing the Walls up close at night for the first time made a huge impression too.

“Squires on Shipquay Street was the place to be on a Monday for the big band Night-Heat. The place was packed, the women so stylish and it felt a bit Vegas to this Lurgan lad.”

Drawn to move there - as a youth worker - he was filled with confidence that working with young people was important and “could change things”.

His first job in Londonderry was running the YMCA which he describes as “fantastic”.

“It was a time when they wanted to redefine their work with young people, and together in those years we were able innovate a lot of good things in the greater Waterside.”

But being “not from these parts” Mark said he was at times made to feel like an outsider - and even when he moved to work in the media he was “often reminded of his blow-in status” - but, he said, that is all different now.

“Derry is my home, no doubt about it.

“I’ve lived here longer now than anywhere else. I don’t know what it is about the place, but it just gets totally under your skin.”

“The Peoples Republic of Londonderry’s Waterside is the place I have been very happy to call home now for 20 years.”

And the people of Derry, it seems, feel a certain of Mr Patterson too - and his Facebook page is where he interacts with many of them.

Of it, he said: “It just seemed to connect with people from day one.”

“I get a genuine kick when someone online alerts me to an issue.

“Some days they will be on live radio just minutes later.

“It’s always the really simple things that connect as well, not necessarily the politics, but the personal or poignant story.

“Our thread about Gerry Anderson’s death was massive - I printed off every comment, pages upon pages, and gave it to his family.

“They told me it meant a lot.”

And on the subject of Gerry - Mark owes much of his attitude to the late broadcasting legend. “I feel blessed to have worked in the same studio as Gerry. With his advice in mind, I still get a kick every day when the radio show goes right.”