THE Duke of Edinburgh was said to be in good health and fine form at a presentation ceremony for the very award which he founded.
Close to 100 young people received Gold Duke of Edinburgh (DoE) Award certificates at Hillsborough Castle yesterday afternoon, and for some of them the appearance of the 91-year-old Duke was a nerve-wracking but welcome surprise.
Accompanied by the sword-bearing, uniform-clad Lord Lt of County Down, he and the rest of his entourage toured through the ornate halls of the castle speaking to youngsters and parents alike.
One gold award recipient who spoke directly with him was Conor Houston. The 21-year-old, from Whitehead, had cycled around Lough Neagh over four days – a distance of some 250km.
“We were talking about the cycle, and he was saying: ‘did any cars knock you down’?
“Thankfully no, I said.
“It is incredible. I didn’t really know what to say to him. My knees were shaking. Very exciting.
“My mum and I heard [it was him] as I was coming through the doors – so it was a nice surprise. It’s a very proud day. It’s something to put up on the wall.”
If the Duke does step down from public duties, given his advanced age and last year’s health scare which saw him hospitalised, he will leave some “big shoes to fill”, Conor added.
James McClements, representing a group of almost 20 from the Boys’ Brigade, also spoke with the Duke.
“Great he’s still able to come,” he said.
“We hope [it won’t be his last visit].
“We hope to see him for a considerable number of years.
“After last year’s scare at the time of the Jubilee, it’s nice to see him in good health.”
The 25-year-old from Glastry on the Ards Peninsula added: “Obviously, with the security, nobody knows there’s going to be Royal visit, so they were delighted to find out it was His Royal Highness.”
Kate Thompson, director of the Duke of Edinburgh award in Northern Ireland, told the News Letter: “He’s in great form. These visits are just very, very special occasions. As you know, he started the programme 56 years ago. And he still retains a huge interest in the programme.
“He loves the opportunity to get out and meet all the young people and find out what they’ve been doing.”
About 600 young people attain gold across the Province each year, 98 of whom were at the castle yesterday.
Gillian McCann, 28, from Carrickfergus, teaching at St Malachy’s, was supervising a quartet of Form Five pupils who were providing the music for the occasion.
They were themselves working towards their own Duke of Edinburgh awards.
“He was very interested in the boys and asked them what they were playing and what stage they were at,” she said. “He’s in great form”
She added: “Young people love to see him – they were all excited when they heard it was the Duke himself coming.”
Alan Milligan, from the 1st Drumcree BB, was there with twin brothers Bryan and Paul Stewart, both 19, who were collecting their gold award.
Mr Milligan, 58, said: “I think it’s great a man of his age is still able to attend these functions and speak to the young people and their parents. I think it’s quite remarkable.”
“It was great to see him; great he’s back in full health,” said Hannah Williamson, an 18-year-old from Royal School, Dungannon, now at Queen’s University.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”