Woman to Woman: From hotelier to High Sheriff

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I can think of worse places to be on a wet Monday morning than curled up in a window seat at the charming Beech Hill Country House Hotel, clutching a lwatte, and listening to its owner Patsy O’Kane regale me with stories of her life.

And this is a lady who has certainly lived.

She has been at the helm of her successful and beautiful hotel, a stunning Georgian mansion just a few miles from the centre of Londonderry, since she bought it in 1989, and in May 2014 she collected a MBE in recognition of her services to tourism and hospitality from Princess Anne at a special event in Buckingham Palace.

“I was very honoured,” the Magherafelt-born woman confesses, her south Derry accent soft and lilting.

“I just felt a sense of, ‘thank you,’ and I was very proud.”

Then just weeks after this very special occasion, the mother-of-two and grandmother-of-three found herself fighting for her life in hospital, after doctors discovered a 22cm, mercifully benign, lump on her liver, which had caused her to collapse one day at the hotel. It knocked her off her feet for a while, but ever the fighter, she bounced back, and in January of this year a new accolade took her by surprise, in the form of the bestowing of the title of High Sheriff of Londonderry.

In fact, the vivacious businesswoman was so shocked when she first learnt of her nomination that she thought it was a joke.

She admits that she actually “forgot all about it” until she received formal notification from the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, on behalf of the Queen, in January, confirming that she had been awarded the prestigious title.

“The previous High Sheriff Vindi Torney told me last November that she and the Lord Lieutenant (Dr Angela Garvey) had put my name forward for the position.

“I thought she was joking but she insisted that she wasn’t. As it turned out I forgot all about it until I received a letter from Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State, informing me that I was the new High Sheriff for the city.”

The office of High Sheriff has been around since Saxon times in England and was initially a lifetime appointment. Today, it is transferred annually and although the office retains certain key responsibilities to attend Royal visits, and promote voluntary and charitable work it is largely an honorary position.

As Patsy explains: “Around 1,000 years ago a High Sheriff was a military leader with responsibility for tax collection and law enforcement powers in England. The responsibilities have changed drastically through the ages and the role as it stands in Northern Ireland today is largely ceremonial.”

She confesses that she was “overwhelmed and excited all at once” to receive the award.

“I felt truly humbled to be given such a highly regarded position. The Beech Hill Country House Hotel is steeped in history and it is fitting that its rich heritage is now associated with such an historic title.”

The former home of one of Northern Ireland’s senior Lord Chief Justices, Michael Nicholson, this beautiful country mansion was opened to the public in 1991 by its present owners, Patsy and her brother Seamus Donnelly. Today it enjoys its well deserved reputation as one of the Province’s most successsful and popular places to stay, having hosted former US President Bill Clinton twice, as well as a wealth of other high profile guests, including Christy Moore, Mo Mowlam, Michael Palin and Seamus Heaney.

However, the high points of Patsy’s new role have been juxtaposed with the great sadness of losing her father Leo in April. He was 94 and suffered with Alzheimer’s disease for several years.

It is clear that she was very much a daddy’s girl, and he was her hero. “He was a darling,” she says.

“He always did have a great vision, but he also treated everything with a certain degree of caution. He would always say to me, ‘you’ve got to remember, personalise or perish’.

“He knew where every valve, every fuse, every screw, every beam was in this hotel. I miss him so much. I never valued my father enough, for everything he did. If I had to put a monetary value on my father, he would have cost me millions.”

Patsy says that her father “had a strong hand” in every success the Beech Hill has achieved since it opened its doors - and still does.

She continues: “He understood the importance of innovation and creativity, and being the best at what you do.

“He was always quietly operating industriously in the background but was so generous with his time, knowledge and expertise. Those are some of the qualities I hope I can bring to my role as High Sheriff for the city.”