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Remembering Vincent Hanley, Irish DJ who set the 80’s on fire

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Irish DJ Vincent Hanley
Irish DJ Vincent Hanley
Sometimes when I’m walking through Central Park to the Bethesda Fountain I’ll look around and think of him, of how he looked in the decade when he left us in the 1980’s.

Young, handsome, impeccably groomed, wrapped up in a herringbone overcoat against the biting New York chill, he gamely fed the pigeons while talking direct to the camera.

His name was Vincent Hanley. He was still in his twenties when his groundbreaking show went on air. RTE, our national broadcaster, somehow had the sense to realize it was teenage catnip and so they let it run for three hours every Sunday, transforming our adolescence.

He had a gift, which is why he became sought after. He had understood the power of a dream.

In the 1980s most young Irish people believed in that dream just as ardently. It was a dream with a destination, the USA, and he broadcast glimpses of it back to Ireland though our televisions, dazzling our famished eyes.

I saw his show for the first time on a spring Sunday afternoon in 1984.  For three hours Music Television USA introduced me to the signature new wave hits of the 1980s, most of which I was hearing for the first time.

Unlike his contemporaries, Hanley had understood that the pop promo was the future of music.
What’s amazing is that he managed to sell this understanding to the mandarins of our national broadcaster RTE. They didn’t anticipate it, but Hanley’s show changed everything.

There was just something about him. He had an easy style that played well to the camera. He looked like he was having the time of his life in New York.

Later I would learn that he was born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary in 1954. It must not have known what to do with him.

To me he looked like one of the Village People, or maybe a younger, thinner Freddie Mercury. You could look like that in the 1980s and most then wouldn’t have understood what it indicated.

This was an era when people thought George Michael was straight, after all. But I had already been to America; I had picked up a few clues.

“He was the uber clone!” his friend and producer Bill Hughes told GCN in 2011. “Vincent had all the gay markers of the time -- the Levi 501s with the pert bum, the check shirt with the little vest underneath, the proper haircut, the mustache and the bomber jacket. Every gay man was trying to look like the Marlboro man at the time.”

Each week Hanley picked a different city location to give us worshiping micks back home a chance to gawk at the fabulousness. Sometimes he’d stand outside Radio City Music Hall if it there was a U2 gig happening. Other times he’d broadcast from the bright lights of Times Square.

“Hi, welcome to the city of dreams,” he greeted us. “This is New York and this is Music Television USA.”

Of course we were hooked. How could we have resisted a come on like that?

Hanley introduced us to Pat Benatar, Billy Idol, Suzanne Vega, Cyndi Lauper, the Bangles, the Go-Gos, REM, Michael Jackson and on and on. He played our own chart toppers too, interspersed with edgier, independent releases, mixing it all up in an irresistible three hour long souffle.

But it was strange beyond measure to be coming of age in an era where sex, the most universal and creaturely of impulses, was becoming lethal. In the 1980s love was a battlefield, but it was also becoming a graveyard.

Hanley’s groundbreaking show had filled our eyes with stardust and the promise of a brighter tomorrow, but the streets of New York also held a darker secret that gave the lie to all that glamor and aspiration.

Hanley didn’t know it yet, but he didn’t have long to live. In the last few months the show broadcast in 1987 his features became gaunter and the easy smile less frequent.

Rumors spread about his condition but he denied them. No one wanted to associate themselves with the stigma that surrounded AIDS, including Hanley himself.

It was understandable. Once tagged with those four letters you stopped being seen as human and became a disease carrier on a deathwatch instead.

Many doctors and nurses would refuse to treat you. Churches lined up to blame you for your condition. Kindness and understanding took a powder, and judgment and condemnation took the national stage.

So Hanley quietly slipped away from life at the age of 33 in a world where the idea of him meeting and one day marrying his partner would have seemed like science fiction. 

He was a man of his era.  He really seemed to have one overriding ambition for his own time, which was to make it dance.

I can still see him, standing proudly on the vibrant New York streets, comfortable in his own skin the way he could never be at home, wildly sharing his latest enthusiasms and enjoying our reactions.

His secret was that he embodied the promise of his own show. He was both the signpost and the destination. I wish he could have lived to understand how much that meant to us.

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