Unsung heroes from Northern Ireland who have helped make a difference to other people’s lives have been honoured at a special festive carol service hosted by the Duchess of Cambridge.
Royal Carols: Together at Christmas, which was recorded earlier this month at Westminster Abbey, is due to air on ITV on Christmas Eve.
The festive service was attended by hundreds of people who have worked tirelessly within their communities, carrying out selfless acts of kindness during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nominations were drawn from Lieutenancies across the UK, alongside community networks, charitable organisations and patronages of the Queen, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Among the Northern Irish representatives invited to attend were a cross-community boxer coach, a Derry-based reconciliation worker, the founder of a Dromore charity and a qualified mental health nurse who overcame addiction and now helps addicts recover and integrate through fitness.
Paul Johnston is a well-known figure in Newtownabbey who was instrumental in building Monkstown Boxing Club, a cross-community club which helps young people. During Covid, he mobilised the local youths to help the community and provide meals.
Sharon Doherty is the inspirational leader of St Columb’s Park House Reconciliation Trust in Derry, which ensured that vulnerable older people and young people from divided or lower income areas continued to be supported throughout the pandemic.
Gail Redmond from Hillsborough set up Via Wings, a charity with a dedicated team of volunteers in Dromore. In June this year, they carried out the Miles4Minds challenge, which involved walking from Portrush to Dromore to raise funds to renovate the Via Wings Wellbeing Centre.
Gary Rutherford beat addiction to qualify as a mental health nurse, before setting up the award-winning ARC Addiction Recovering Coaching and Fitness Programme in Derry. He goes above and beyond to help addicts recover from their addiction and to integrate people back into the community. He kept the service going throughout the pandemic.
Gary, who travelled to London with his wife Sarah, said it was an honour to be invited to the carol service.
“For the wider audience, to see the work ARC is doing is really important,” said Gary. “It means we are reaching people.
“On a personal level, to be part of such a special occasion was lovely and a bit surreal to be there in the same room as William and Kate.
“Westminster Abbey was awesome and I found the service quite emotional. There were performances from Leona Lewis and Ellie Goulding and the carol singing was beautiful.
“There was a reading at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; an excerpt from a soldier’s letter to his sister during World War One which I found very moving.
“The whole event was so well organised and it was an honour to be invited.”
The congregation also included armed forces personnel who were involved in Operation Pitting, young carers, faith leaders, and guests who may be more vulnerable or isolated within society – including those with limited social connections, the recently bereaved, or those without their own homes.
ITV released a first look at Royal Carols: Together At Christmas on Friday. Voiced by James McAvoy, the short promotional teaser features a whole host of festive performances, readings and carols introduced by the Duchess of Cambridge.
Royal Carols: Together at Christmas will air on Christmas Eve at 7:30pm on ITV and ITV Hub.