Leona O’Neill

They’re off to the royal wed­ding! Mother and daugh­ter Cather­ine Cooke and Julie-Ann Coll were among a hand­ful of peo­ple from North­ern Ire­land in­vited to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s big day next Satur­day. Here, as they are treated to a re­gal af­ter­noon

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - COMPETITIONS -

“Cather­ine Cooke and her daugh­ter Julie-Ann Coll were cho­sen to be among the 1,200 VIP guests to at­tend the royal wed­ding next week. Julie-Ann talks about why the day will have poignancy as she re­mem­bers her baby son Mark who in­spired her to vol­un­teer for the char­ity Life Af­ter Loss.”

On May 19, a Lon­don­derry mother and daugh­ter will stand proudly in St Ge­orge’s Chapel at Wind­sor Cas­tle and watch Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry. Tullyally women Julie-Ann Coll (35) and Cather­ine Cooke (53) were picked to be among the 1,200 VIP guests to at­tend the royal wed­ding. For Julie-Ann, the day will have poignant sym­bol­ism for her.

The death of her baby son Mark sent her on a char­i­ta­ble jour­ney that led to this spe­cial day.

Julie-Ann, mum to Kerri-Lynn (17), Macken­zie (12), Rob­bie (4) and Jay­den (2), vol­un­teers for Life Af­ter Loss, a preg­nancy and in­fant loss char­ity in North­ern Ire­land.

At last year’s royal gar­den party at Hills­bor­ough Cas­tle she met Prince Harry and told him of her jour­ney. So taken was he with her in­spi­ra­tional story, an in­vi­ta­tion was dis­patched to her to at­tend his nup­tials.

She says: “We help fam­i­lies who have been through mis­car­riage, still­birth and neona­tal death. Four­teen years ago I suf­fered the loss of a child my­self.

“I lost my baby, Mark, at 22 weeks. I went into early labour on Re­mem­brance Day 2004. We would usu­ally have gone to the Ceno­taph and to church, but I wasn’t feel­ing well and had stayed be­hind. It didn’t feel like I was in labour, I just didn’t feel well. On Mon­day morn­ing when I got up I was fine but that night I knew some­thing was wrong. I was get­ting pains on and off, I was los­ing blood and felt aw­ful. So we went to hos­pi­tal and they told me I was in the early stages of labour.

“The hos­pi­tal pre­pared me for the worst, but be­cause there was a heart­beat, I thought there was hope.”

Julie-Ann says that she thought she would be on strict bed rest un­til her baby ar­rived weeks later. How­ever, trag­i­cally, that wasn’t to be and at just 22 weeks ges­ta­tion, her baby ar­rived.

“I was in hos­pi­tal for ex­actly a week,” she says. “On a Mon­day night I took re­ally bad labour pains af­ter vis­it­ing time was over. Ev­ery­one had gone home ex­cept my granny. I re­mem­ber cry­ing to her that I was in such pain. “She got the doc­tor, who ex­am­ined me and told me that the baby was com­ing. Sec­onds later I was in the labour ward and my part­ner was there shortly af­ter­wards. Within 20 min­utes Mark was born. I re­mem­ber clos­ing my eyes be­cause I didn’t know what to ex­pect when I saw him. I didn’t know what a 22-week old baby would look like. You are not pre­pared for some­thing like that.

“They rushed the baby out of the room. When they brought him back in a lit­tle Moses bas­ket he was ab­so­lutely per­fect. He was a per­fectly formed lit­tle baby from head to toe. He was just too weak to sur­vive.

“I got to hold him and cud­dle him for a cou­ple of hours and then we got him chris­tened. We named him Mark Wil­liam Ian Cooke. We buried him two days later.

“It was a dev­as­tat­ing loss. But my lit­tle girl was three years old so I had her at home to keep me grounded and keep me go­ing.

“He was a very spe­cial lit­tle boy. He lived for just a short while, but his life had mean­ing. I like to think I’ve helped many peo­ple, many fam­i­lies in his name.

“Ev­ery­thing I do with re­gards the char­ity, I do it in mem­ory of Mark. He is part of the fam­ily. My 12-year-old got con­firmed a cou­ple of Sun­days ago and we had left­over bal­loons and my four-year-old asked if we could give baby Mark a bal­loon. So I gave the kids mark­ers to draw on them and we let them go then up into Heaven.

“It was beau­ti­ful. He is al­ways thought of, whether it is a big event or just sit­ting at home.

“Through the char­ity I have been able to help peo­ple who have been through a loss like mine. It’s sad that it takes a tragedy to help some­one else, but, if you do one good deed out of it, it is worth­while. It keeps Mark’s mem­ory alive.”

Julie-Ann says she was se­cretly hop­ing to get in­vited to the royal wed­ding af­ter spend­ing time talk­ing with Prince Harry last year.

But she was as­tounded when her wildest dream came true — and she was knocked for

I have been able to help peo­ple who have been through a loss like mine

six when her mum, a fel­low char­ity worker, was also in­vited.

“It was a to­tal shock to get the in­vi­ta­tion,” says Julie-Ann. “It was out of the blue. One day I opened a let­ter from our Lord Lieu­tenant. It said ‘con­grat­u­la­tions, you have been cho­sen to go to the royal wed­ding’. It gave us some de­tails of the day and in­struc­tions as to how to let them know if we were go­ing to ac­cept or not.

“It didn’t sink in at first. I was look­ing at the in­vi­ta­tion, and I was phon­ing my mum and telling her and telling the kids ‘I’m go­ing to the royal wed­ding’, but I still hadn’t ab­sorbed it un­til three or four days later. I just sat think­ing, this is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing, we are go­ing to the royal wed­ding!

“I had met Prince Harry at a royal gar­den party at Hills­bor­ough Cas­tle last Septem­ber and he was re­ally in­ter­ested in the char­ity.

“Me and my hus­band Stephen made the trip up that day.

“I thought that we might get a look at roy­alty from afar. I knew I had to be at a cer­tain place at a cer­tain time but I thought that was just pro­to­col be­cause I had never been to any­thing like that be­fore. I was told to go to a point and stay there.

“So when Prince Harry came, I saw him start­ing to make his way along all the peo­ple be­fore me. And then it started to kick in, I thought I might get to see Prince Harry up close. Lit­tle did I know that he would come over and have a full scale con­ver­sa­tion with me. He asked me about the char­ity and about what I do. I told him we were not coun­sel­lors, that we were more of a sup­port group.

“He thought that was a great idea and said that some­times peo­ple don’t want to go to a coun­sel­lor, and at times he thought it was bet­ter to talk to some­one who has ac­tu­ally been through it them­selves. He seemed re­ally in­ter­ested. So I couldn’t be­lieve it when I got the in­vi­ta­tion my­self. Ev­ery­one who knows me knows what I’m like.

“When the of­fi­cial friends and fam­ily in­vites came out I was telling peo­ple that it wouldn’t be long un­til my in­vite is here.

“So when I did ac­tu­ally get the in­vite I had to take the let­ter to work to prove that it was re­ally hap­pen­ing.”

Mum Cather­ine, who works at Foyle Women’s In­for­ma­tion Net­work and has been in­volved in com­mu­nity work for three decades, was equally as gob­s­macked when she re­ceived her in­vi­ta­tion.

“Our or­gan­i­sa­tion of­fers be­spoke train­ing and in­for­ma­tion, advice and sup­port, pol­icy work and ad­vo­cacy to women through­out the whole of the north-west,” she says. “It’s about sign­post­ing women to agen­cies who would have the ex­per­tise to of­fer what­ever sup­port mech­a­nism they re­quire.

“We do a lot of train­ing around con­fi­dence and self es­teem and giv­ing women a voice. We en­cour­age women to en­ter public life and po­lit­i­cal life and to reach their own po­ten­tial.

“I couldn’t be­lieve it when I got the in­vi­ta­tion. It was like win­ning the lot­tery.

“It’s just a great ac­co­lade for ev­ery­one who works along­side of both me and Julie-Ann, be­cause there are more than us who make up the or­gan­i­sa­tions.

“There are a lot of women out there and it’s as much for them as it is for us, and half the city is re­ally ex­cited for us.”

Cather­ine says she had pre­vi­ously been de­lighted that her daugh­ter had been in­vited and was se­cretly hop­ing she would take her as her plus-one. Lit­tle did she know that her own in­vi­ta­tion was wait­ing in her let­ter­box.

“Julie-Ann had phoned me to say that she had got the in­vite,” says Cather­ine. “She was squeal­ing with de­light down the phone and I thought she was jok­ing.

“Be­cause she had met Harry last year and they had got on so well, when the wed­ding was an­nounced she kept jok­ing that she was wait­ing on her in­vi­ta­tion.

“When she first phoned me to tell me, I didn’t be­lieve her un­til she read out the word­ing on the ac­tual let­ter. And I was se­cretly hop­ing that she would in­vite me as her plus-one. And then I went home later that day and I had a let­ter of­fer­ing me the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend the wed­ding.

“No mat­ter where we go now, peo­ple are ask­ing us about it. I was shop­ping in Tesco on Satur­day and I must have been stopped six times by peo­ple ask­ing if I was the lady go­ing to the royal wed­ding.”

‘I bought a neck­lace with a Novem­ber birth­stone neck­lace... it will be like I’m tak­ing Mark with me’

The ladies spent a glo­ri­ous day in the op­u­lence of the Gal­gorm Re­sort, where they geared up for the big day with a styling ses­sion, a deca­dent, royal-themed af­ter­noon tea and lux­u­ri­ous spa treat­ments in Gal­gorm’s award-win­ning spa and ther­mal vil­lage.

Cather­ine says she needed the pam­per­ing as the nor­mal wed­ding pres­sures are be­ing am­pli­fied with the eyes of the world are on them.

“We haven’t been given any guid­ance on eti­quette yet,” she says. “But we have been prac­tis­ing in front of the mir­ror.

“We don’t know what we are wear­ing yet, but there is a group of young de­sign­ers in Derry’s De­sign and Tex­tile Hub on Shipquay Street who are re­ally ex­cited about us go­ing too. They are go­ing to make us a hat.

“There are a lot of peo­ple get­ting in­volved and it’s bril­liant for our coun­try.

“There is pres­sure go­ing to a wed­ding at the best of times, but the royal wed­ding! The eyes of the world are go­ing to be on us.

“We saw some beau­ti­ful out­fits from the Win­some Lady bou­tique in Bal­ly­money while we were at Gal­gorm, which gave us real food for thought about what we should be wear­ing.”

The ladies have sent their ‘plus-ones’ back and are ea­gerly await­ing fur­ther in­struc­tions.

“We know that it’s go­ing to be at Wind­sor Cas­tle and the times that we have to be there in the morn­ing,” says Julie-Ann. “We have to be there at 8am and the wed­ding is at 1pm. Other than that, it is all pretty hush hush. We don’t know where we go af­ter the ac­tual wed­ding. We’re not sure yet.

“It’s go­ing to be a girls’ week­end,” she says. “My dad Ian is at a stag week­end in Krakof and my hus­band Stephen is stay­ing here. Stephen’s dad died in Jan­uary, so I am tak­ing my mother-in-law Mar­cia, be­cause she loves the roy­als.

“Mum is tak­ing my sis­ter Stephanie as her plus-one. Ev­ery­one is su­per ex­cited.

“There are nerves at the minute. We were even ner­vous com­ing to the Gal­gorm. And to be met and greeted with cham­pagne and be treated like roy­alty, it’s def­i­nitely given us a flavour of what we should ex­pect when we go to Wind­sor Cas­tle. We could eas­ily get used to this kind of lux­ury.” And Julie-Ann is go­ing to make sure that a spe­cial lit­tle boy will be there with her in spirit on her big day. “I have loads of dif­fer­ent neck­laces with all the kids’ names of them,” she says. “But me and my daugh­ter were out shop­ping the other day and I saw this lit­tle neck­lace sit­ting at the counter. “It was a Novem­ber birth­stone. And I thought I’d take that and wear it on the day. Mark was born in Novem­ber, so it’ll be like I’m tak­ing him with me. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be go­ing.” Gal­gorm are host­ing a Royal Af­ter­noon Tea event next Satur­day, May 19. Those lucky enough to get a ticket will be treated to fash­ion, bub­bles and a royal wed­ding themed af­ter­noon tea, all while watch­ing the royal wed­ding take place on the big screen. Tick­ets for the event are avail­able now at www. gal­gorm.com

FAM­ILY AL­BUM: Julie-Ann Coll’s chil­dren Macken­zie, Rob­bie, Kerri-Lynn and Jay­den; be­low, Cather­ine and hus­band Ian with daugh­ters Julie-Ann, Sarah Jane Peo­ples, Stephanie Cooke and Chelsea Lam­rock

FIVE-STAR TREAT­MENT: Julie-Ann Coll and mum Cather­ine Cooke en­joy af­ter­noon tea at Gal­gorm ahead of the royal wed­ding next week

DRESS­ING TO IM­PRESS: Cather­ine looks on as Julie-Ann chooses an out­fit for the big day

BDFFSDE: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle thrilled the public when they got en­gaged

GLAM­OUR SHOW: Julie-Ann Coll, Cather­ine Cooke and Gal­gorm’s David Fal­loon. In­set, Julie-Ann look­ing through dress se­lec­tions

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