The life and untimely death of 'Ireland's first gay celebrity' Vincent Hanley

It has been almost 34 years since the untimely death of an iconic figure in Ireland's LGBTQ+ community, Vincent Hanley, due to complications from AIDS in 1987.

Vincent Hanley
Image: RTÉ

Born in Clonmel, County Tipperary in 1954, Vincent Hanley was a small-town boy who dreamed of the bright lights of the city. Growing up with his younger brother Fergus, Vincent was the more artistic one in the family and loved music and listening to the radio. Upon finishing school he became a student in Cork and once there his interest soon moved from studying to being a DJ in nightclubs across the city.

But it wasn’t until 1979 when Vincent was fortunate enough to be given a national platform. With the setting up of a new radio station called RTÉ Radio Two (now known as RTÉ 2FM), intended to attract a younger audience, Vincent gained his own programme from Monday to Friday and became one of the stations best-known and loved presenters.

His captivating voice, spontaneous and flamboyant on-air personality earned him the nickname ‘Fab Vinny’ which he embraced. Together with his handsome looks, well-groomed appearance, ambition and undeniable talent, Vincent had everything he needed to make it big.

During his career spent at RTÉ, Vincent lived his life as an openly gay man. What many people may not realise is that there were a lot of other gay people working for RTÉ during the 1980s. It was full of creative and artistic individuals. Even though homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in Ireland until 1993, RTÉ accepted the fact that these talented people were members of the LGBTQ+ community and in many ways, the company was ahead of its time.

After spending two years at RTÉ Radio Two, Vincent moved to London where he began a new career at Capital Radio. After declining an offer to remain there he moved to New York City in 1984. Vincent was now where he had always wanted to be. He was fascinated by New York and wanted to share the beauty and romance of the city with the people of Ireland. He would do this by producing and presenting a three-hour-long music video show titled MT-USA.

It was broadcast in Ireland on Sunday afternoons and not only was it revolutionary but the music videos that were featured pushed boundaries and at times became controversial. Vincent had succeeded in breaking into the market in the US and MT-USA was a huge success garnering huge audiences back home in Ireland.

Vincent Hanley on ‘Live Aid for Africa’ (1985)

However, when the show featured the music video to Madonna’s song Like a Virgin it received criticism and was claimed to be too sexual for the Ireland of those days. Even priests began to express their concerns on the impact it was having on young people and deemed it to be a bad influence. Nevertheless, the show ran with huge success until 1987.

Aside from presenting MT-USA, Vincent experienced everything New York City had to offer and he felt fully free to express himself as a gay man. However, the city that he loved so much was starting to become a centre for a new disease known as AIDS. The 1980s was a scary time for the gay community as depicted recently in Russell T Davies Channel 4 series ‘It’s a Sin’. AIDS showed no mercy and wiped out a generation of brilliant and talented people and sadly Vincent Hanley was no exception.

In 1986 Vincent came home to Ireland for Christmas and by then rumours about his health were swirling. He addressed the rumours about his health in an interview with Gay Byrne where he denied that he was suffering from AIDS. However, it was clear something wasn’t right as he began to look more and more visibly unwell.

He eventually admitted that he was suffering from a congenital eye disorder known as cerebral toxoplasmosis. Instead of acknowledging that he was dying from an AIDS related illness, Vincent tried to remain positive and look ahead to the future.

He spent his final days in quarantine in St James’s Hospital in Dublin surrounded by family and close friends. Like so many others whose lives were stolen by AIDS, Vincent had so much more living to do and dreams to accomplish. He passed away peacefully on 18 April 1987, just over two weeks after his 33rd birthday.

One of Vincent’s close friends Bill Hughes said at the end of a documentary devoted to Vincent which aired on RTÉ 2 in 2017 to mark the 30th anniversary of his passing, “if he were still alive he would feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz”, referring to how his friend would feel living in an Ireland that has changed so much for the better over the past 33 years for LGBTQ+ people.

We hope this article on Fab Vinny will bring back many fond memories of watching him present MT-USA on the streets of New York City during the 1980s, the music videos featured on his show and the lived realities of LGBTQ+ people of that generation.

You can watch Fab Vinny, the Claracha Gaeilge documentary devoted to Vincent which aired on RTÉ 2 in 2017 to mark the 30th anniversary of his passing on the RTÉ Player here.

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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