FION­NU­ALA JAY-O’BOYLE

LORD LIEU­TENANT OF BELFAST ON THE ROY­ALS AND ILL­NESS THAT CHANGED HER LIFE

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE -

There is an old say­ing that if you want some­thing done, ask a busy per­son. In that spirit, should you need a hand out, I’d sug­gest look­ing no fur­ther than Fion­nu­ala Jay O’Boyle. Let’s just say the in­de­fati­ga­ble Mrs JayO’Boyle CBE is a doer.

Her CV (too long to re­pro­duce here) cites a list of im­pres­sive or­gan­i­sa­tions, a cou­ple of which, hav­ing seen the niche or the need, she founded her­self — Jay As­so­ci­ates, a pub­lic and govern­ment af­fairs con­sul­tancy, and the Belfast Build­ings Trust.

But it’s not the tra­jec­tory of her pub­lic ser­vice that is the most im­pres­sive thing about the woman who cur­rently holds the ti­tle ‘Lord Lieu­tenant of the County Bor­ough of Belfast’. It’s the lady her­self.

The 57-year-old is one of those peo­ple with a gen­uine gift for im­me­di­ately putting you at your ease. She’s warm, per­son­able, en­gag­ing and in­ter­est­ing. And she could talk for Ire­land.

All these are at­tributes, need­less to say, in her role as Her Majesty, the Queen’s Lord Lieu­tenant for this par­tic­u­lar ‘county’ of the UK.

As Fion­nu­ala her­self puts it: “It’s the sort of job where you’ve got to like peo­ple and got to like meet­ing peo­ple.”

On the day I speak to her, she reels off a list of di­verse events she has lined up for the week ahead — speak­ing to a group of Jewish ladies, meet­ing with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Pol­ish com­mu­nity, an event with RAF 100, the in­evitable ad­min­is­tra­tive work ...

The Lord Lieu­tenant is the Queen’s per­sonal rep­re­sen­ta­tive here, and the role re­quires that he or she up­hold the dig­nity of the Crown and en­gen­der a pos­i­tive at­mos­phere and a spirit of co-op­er­a­tion, as well as or­gan­ise of­fi­cial royal vis­its.

With con­sid­er­able ad­mi­ra­tion, Fion­nu­ala de­scribes the Queen as “a for­mi­da­ble lady” — the same phrase she uses to de­scribe her own mother, Betty.

Her Majesty’s visit to the Repub­lic of Ire­land was she adds, “a shift­ing of tec­tonic plates”.

She cites too the visit of Prince Charles to Glas­nevin Ceme­tery, where he laid wreaths in mem­ory of all from Ire­land who died in the world wars and all who died in the Easter Ris­ing.

Fion­nu­ala her­self was the first Lord Lieu­tenant since Par­ti­tion to lay a wreath at Glas­nevin to com­mem­o­rate all the Ir­ish men and women who served in the First World War.

“At an event com­mem­o­rat­ing the Bat­tle of Jut­land, I re­mem­ber be­ing struck by the num­ber of fam­i­lies from Tralee and Din­gle and all over Ire­land,” she says.

“It’s about re­spect. Al­low­ing peo­ple’s voices and sto­ries to be heard.”

Of the Queen, she adds: “There is ab­so­lutely a gra­cious­ness about her that is quiet and breath­tak­ing. A majesty and a gra­cious­ness.

“She must be phe­nom­e­nally proud of her son, the Prince of Wales, and of her grand­sons.”

Fion­nu­ala says she is de­lighted that Prince Charles will fol­low his mother as the next Head of the Com­mon­wealth. The role is not hered­i­tary, but the 92-year-old Queen did say it was her “sin­cere wish” that Charles would fol­low her.

Fion­nu­ala also points to the youth work be- ing done by the new gen­er­a­tion of younger roy­als in­clud­ing Wil­liam and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cam­bridge. The Queen’s grand­son, Prince Harry was, of course, a re­cent vis­i­tor, and Fion­nu­ala de­scribes his bride to-be, Meghan Markle, as “just de­light­ful.” The cou­ple’s en­gage­ments here in­cluded a visit to Amaz­ing the Space, in Lis­burn, which helps young peo­ple across North­ern Ire­land be­come ambassadors for peace within their own com­mu­ni­ties. They also dropped in on Cat­a­lyst Inc in Belfast, which pro­vides sup­port for young en­trepreneurs, vis­ited the Ti­tanic cen­tre and also called into the his­toric Crown Bar.

It is this sort of packed visit which Fion­nu­ala and her team have to co-or­di­nate.

Does she have a favourite royal? She is much too dis­creet to say.

“Each of them brings some­thing spe­cial,” she stresses. “The Queen has been com­ing here since she was a young girl, so she has a very long as­so­ci­a­tion with this place. The Duke of Edinburgh is just re­mark­able.”

But she does talk about favourite royal mo­ments, among them the Queen trav­el­ling by train past Benone strand and the hills of Down­hill, and the Duchess of Glouces­ter shar­ing a fun-filled af­ter­noon tea with the en­tire Flem­ing Ful­ton School on the oc­ca­sion of the school’s 50th birth­day.

“North­ern Ire­land,” she in­sists, “is very, very close to the hearts of the roy­als.”

Fion­nu­ala is the third fe­male — and the third woman in a row — to hold the ti­tle, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Olympian Dame Mary Peters (2009 to 2013) and Lady Ro­mayne Card­well (2000 to 2009).

The first Lord Lieu­tenant here was the 6th Mar­quess of Lon­don­derry, the grandly monikered Charles Ste­wart Vane-Tem­pest-Ste­wart.

Long be­fore that, Henry VIII had ap­pointed a Lord Lieu­tenant whose brief would have been very much mil­i­tary mat­ters. Fion­nu­ala laughs heartily. “I can’t see my­self in that role,” she says. “Although the link is main­tained today with our du­ties with the Armed Forces.”

From a na­tion­al­ist back­ground in Lon­don­derry, did she take flak when she took on a role so closely con­nected with the Royal Fam­ily?

She re­marks that there were un­doubt­edly a few com­ments made, “But for me it was never an is­sue”.

The Queen has a gra­cious­ness about her that is quiet and breath­tak­ing

I’m stag­gered by what peo­ple here do for oth­ers in quiet, un­der­stated ways

Nor was it a role, she adds, she ever ex­pected to take on board, “But I am deeply hon­oured and deeply priv­i­leged.”

Her orig­i­nal dream was to be an opera singer, and by the age of 21 she’d al­ready at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the Guild­hall com­pany in Lon­don.

“They told me, quite rightly, I was too young and would have to wait un­til I was 23,” Fion­nu­ala says.

But then life cru­elly dealt a ham­mer blow. She was struck down with a rare strain of glan­du­lar fever. The ill­ness, which was to re­turn in her early 30s, put paid to her pro­fes­sional singing am­bi­tions.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what am I go­ing to do with my­self now?’ I could never have imag­ined then I would go on to do what I’m do­ing now.”

She grew up in a happy, close- knit, mid­dle-class fam­ily in Derry. Her late fa­ther, Tommy, worked in the trans­port in­dus­try, and her mother, Betty, is a re­tired teacher. She has a brother, Rory, and a sis­ter, Ni­amh, to whom she is very close.

The fam­ily also had a home in Done­gal, and Fion­nu­ala grew up in a mu­si­cal house­hold — “very happy and se­cure.”

De­spite Derry’s trou­bled his­tory, she re­mem­bers com­ing to Belfast in the Sev­en­ties to study at Queen’s and the “pretty ma­jor shock to the sys­tem” of the po­lar­i­sa­tion and sec­tar­i­an­ism she found in the city.

A city, it must be said, she has come to adore.

“I have never, ever re­gret­ted stay­ing in Belfast. There is a grit­ti­ness, a warmth and a charm about this city and its peo­ple that is unique.

“And some­thing that you never find any­where else in the world ei­ther — a city framed by an am­phithe­atre of hills. Wher­ever you are in Belfast you can see those hills. It is a spec­tac­u­lar city.

“My heart al­ways quick­ens when the plane comes in over it or when I’m com­ing down the M2 ... that breath­tak­ing view of Belfast har­bour as you come down into the city.

“But Belfast’s great­est re­source is its peo- ple. They have suf­fered a lot, but I am al­ways stag­gered by what peo­ple here do for other peo­ple in quiet, un­der­stated ways.”

“My role has al­lowed me to meet so many fan­tas­tic he­roes and hero­ines... who tell me they’re not.”

She’s mar­ried to re­tired pol­i­tics lec­turer Richard, whom she met at Queen’s and to whom she’s been mar­ried for 30 years. They share a love of her­itage and mu­sic (Fion­nu­ala, who was awarded her CBE for ser­vices to her­itage, has served on the His­toric Build­ings Coun­cil, The Ir­ish Land­mark Trust, as a mem­ber of the His­toric Royal Palaces Ad­vi­sory panel on Hills­bor­ough Cas­tle and on the board of The Ar­chi­tec­tural Fund). She sums up the sup­port Richard gives her: “He’s a saint.”

Her team in­cludes 22 deputies, and on any one night there can be sev­eral func­tions to at­tend.

“The of­fice has to be rel­e­vant and con­nected and seen to be of use, so if peo­ple ask us to be there, we make ev­ery ef­fort.” How does she un­wind? She and Richard have a house in France. Then there’s “opera, mu­sic, the­atre, we cook ...”

St Ge­orge’s Mar­ket (“Can you be­lieve that once it was un­der threat and they tried to close it down?”) is a favourite haunt. “The vi­brancy is so quintessen­tially Belfast. “When we have vis­i­tors com­ing we love to take them there.” De­spite her packed sched­ule — or maybe be­cause of it — she’s care­ful about her health, es­pe­cially in the light of the ill­ness that re­turned in her early 30s. She de­scribes it as a vir­u­lent form of glan­du­lar fever. “I sup­pose no one ever said ‘ME’ ... the symp­toms were very real.” She adds: “I have noth­ing but ad­mi­ra­tion for the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion — for doc­tors and nurses — but I just think that some­times they need to be a wee bit more lis­ten­ing.” Nowa­days, she says, she keeps ex­tremely well. “I am very much a fan of the Fra­mar holis­tic ap­proach. I be­lieve in lis­ten­ing to your body.” Opera and mu­sic still play a ma­jor role in her life. “That part has never left me. And I be­lieve very much that opera is for peo­ple from all back­grounds.” She de­scribes her­self and Richard as opera trav­ellers tak­ing in per­for­mances in the likes of Mi­lan and Barcelona. But “at last we have a suc­cess­ful opera com­pany in Belfast that is punch­ing well above its weight (Fion­nu­ala is Vice Chair of North­ern Opera and a pa­tron of Teach­ers of Singing in Ire­land)”. She loves read­ing too — “Any­thing from bi­ogra­phies to the pages of Hello!” You just won­der where she finds the time... The Belfast’s Lord Lieu­tenant’s of­fice is one of the busiest out­side Lon­don, she in­forms me at one point. I can well be­lieve it.

CHANG­ING MONAR­CHY: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s re­cent trip to Belfast; left, the Queen with Mary McAleese in Ire­land; be­low left, Prince Charles at Glas­nevin Ceme­tery

BUSY BEE: Fion­nu­ala Jay-O’Boyle and, clock­wise from top, greet­ing the The Duchess of Glouces­ter at Belfast City Hall; with Wil­liam Humphery, Michelle McIlveen, Dean John Mann, Ar­lene Foster and Christo­pher Stal­ford at the St Annes ser­vice for the...

MU­SI­CAL TAL­ENT: Fion­nu­ala in a 1981 pro­duc­tion of Mozart opera The Mar­riage of Fi­garo

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