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Renowned hotelier was a leading light in the hospitality industry

Leading restaurateur and hotelier Norman Carmichael, who passed away yesterday aged 81 following a short illness, was the epitome of a self-made man.

From working as a conductor on London buses, then as a door-to-door drapery salesman in his native Cookstown, Norman used his savings to break into the pub and entertainment business, attracting top national and international acts to the area despite the Troubles raging at the time.

That then provided a foundation stone for his North Down-based Carmichael Group empire, which at its peak comprised seven of Northern Ireland's best known pub-restaurants and the Ross Park Hotel at Kells, Co Antrim.

He was also closely associated with several local football clubs, principally Glentoran as a vice-president in the 1980s and 1990s, and later as a financial supporter of North Down clubs Bangor and Ards. Tottenham Hotspur were his first football love and he adopted their 'Audere est Facere' motto as his own - 'To Dare Is To Do.'

As a youthful contemporary of another self-made Cookstown success story, bookmaker and former boxing promoter Barney Eastwood, Norman progressed from selling cut-price clothing 'on the knocker' to promoting dances in Cookstown Town Hall. Working through agents Lou Rodgers and the late Jim Aiken, he was soon booking Top 10 Sixties and Seventies acts, including The Tremeloes, Edison Lighthouse and Skid Row.

From there, he bought a Dungannon bar, renaming it Norman's, and then opened the White Heather Lounge, turning it into a top nightspot in the trouble-torn Seventies.

A brief ownership spell at the Glenavon House Hotel in Cookstown convinced him nightlife habits were changing from purely drinking establishments to family-orientated pub-restaurants and he began building up his empire with the acquisition of the Railway in Holywood.

From there he rebuilt the renowned Stables in Groomsport into Northern Ireland's first £1m bar-restaurant in the early 1990s, also adding the village pub - the Groomsport Inn - to his portfolio.

Ably supported by surviving wife Joan and sons Keith, Ian and Derek, the family business went on to include the Tidy Doffer at Ravernet, Hillside in Hillsborough, Bryansburn in Bangor, Morrison's in Belfast city centre and the Ross Park Hotel, his pride and joy.

Approaching retirement, he astutely sold six of the establishments as going concerns at the top of the market just ahead of the recession, keeping Morrison's ('Imagine a wee country boy owning a bar in the big smoke", he used to say) and the Ross Park, although the family later reacquired the Bryansburn.

Highly regarded by his staff, Norman was still visiting them in his "houses" right up until entering hospital just before Christmas.

Paying tribute, Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, said: "We are saddened to hear of the death of Norman Carmichael. He was responsible for creating some iconic pubs in Northern Ireland and his loss will be felt by many in the industry."

A funeral service will be held at Derryloran Parish Church, Cookstown, at 1pm on Friday.

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