Diana and me - Northern Ireland people recall meeting the 'beautiful, kind princess'
It will be 20 years on Thursday since the untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales at the age of just 36. She had many roles — as a royal, a mother, a charity patron and a fashion icon. But behind the headlines, what was it really like to meet one of the most adored women in history? Kerry McKittrick tracks down some of those people from Northern Ireland who were fortunate enough to talk to Diana.
'People wanted to see her and be seen by her'
Lynda Wilson (66) is the director of Barnardos Northern Ireland. She is married and has five grown-up children. She says:
Princess Diana came to visit a Barnardos family centre in Windsor Avenue in Belfast in 1991. I was director then, as I am now. Any royal visit requires a lot of meticulous planning which has to be done totally in secret and with a lot of security.
We worked with Clarence House, the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland security services for months beforehand. We had to lie to the staff and tell them that Cliff Richard was coming because we were painting rooms and had dogs searching the gardens - it was obvious that there was some sort of VIP on their way.
We also had to make sure we had a red carpet, flowers and gifts - we had two little knitted Aran jumpers for the princes. We also had to prepare for every eventuality - for example, what would we do if it rained? Of course, it doesn't matter how much preparation you do, things never go as planned. We had rehearsed and rehearsed and then on the morning of the visit there was a security alert - a suspicious car outside the centre. The Army was called in to do a controlled explosion and evacuated everyone in the street - except us. We were sitting on the floor not knowing what was going on and if the visit would be cancelled or not. This also meant that meant that families couldn't come in, nor could we take delivery of the flowers or the red carpet.
Still, there were some nice stories that came out of that incident. A lady was brought in to us because she had been walking her dog and couldn't get back to her apartment across the street because the Army were about to blow up the suspicious car. She mucked in with everyone else and actually met the princess, introducing herself as a volunteer. In fact, she actually stayed on as a volunteer with us for a couple of years after that.
Once the security alert was cleared it was all hands on deck and we had to change quite a few things. The flowers and the red carpet were never delivered. To open the centre Diana was going to cut a ribbon that was tied across two bay trees but they didn't arrive either. I remember standing on a chair, shouting over the heads of the Press: "Somebody get me two children!" Two four-year-olds were produced and they held the ribbon for Diana to cut instead. In the end it was a much nicer way for her to do it anyway.
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Diana came in the late morning and was there for a few hours. She met with all the staff and then went into private conversations with some of the young people. She went into the playroom and then we took her next door and she sat with some of the mums and babies there and had conversations with them. What shouldn't have surprised me but did was how pleased people were to see her. There was a real sense of wonder even from senior managers who you wouldn't have thought would have reacted like that.
It was my role to greet her and walk her around and manage her visit - I've done it with other royals too. I had to make sure Diana was comfortable and that no one was harassing her. She was very professional and her whole focus was ensuring that her attention was on service users - the mums, children and young people. If she spoke to someone in the crowd, that person would have felt like the only person in the room. I've only seen a couple of other people who had that ability.
She wasn't stage-managed at all, if she wanted to speak to someone she would stop and speak to them, have a chat and joke with people. People wanted to see her and be seen by her.
The centre she visited had a residential unit for mums and babies next door, which we were just about to knock down so that we could build new apartments for mums and babies. One of the things she did was to sign a brick on her visit which we then put in near the entrance of the new building. We left that building three or four years ago and took the brick with us. We have hopes of putting it back at some point because that building is now our welcome centre for Syrian refugees.
I actually did have another opportunity to meet her a few years after that. People kept inviting me to an event but because of the security they couldn't actually tell me what it was. I decided I had something else to do and couldn't go. It turned out that Diana was there and I missed out on seeing her again."
‘You could tell that she really felt for us’
Stephen Gault (47) suffered severe head injuries as a result of the IRA bomb on Remembrance Day in Enniskillen in 1987, which also killed his father Samuel. He lives with his wife Sharon near Enniskillen. He says:
It was a week to 10 days after the bombing and I was at home. My mother got a phone call from the police liaison officer to say there were VIPs coming to visit and we had to be at the local police station the next morning.
We were ferried to the Army camp nearby and it was on that journey we realised who was visiting because the cavalcade containing Charles and Diana came up the road.
I remember seeing Diana in the back of the car. They were on their way to Erne hospital to see those who were still being treated for the injuries they had sustained in the bomb.
The people who had been caught up in the bombing, including me, were introduced to both Diana and Charles in a private meeting.
You knew by the way she spoke that she really felt for us. She asked me how I was keeping and wanted to know what I had seen.
She was genuinely sympathetic towards us and she spent nearly an hour with us before moving out to people who had helped rescue others out of the rubble.
She was the most sincere person I have ever met.
I felt that she went above and beyond the call of duty — at that time there was a high security risk for the royal family over here. The fact that she gave up her time to come and visit us and those still in hospital is something that I will never forget. It was only 10 days after my father Samuel (below) was murdered, but it was a real morale boost. It was something we really needed.
I remember the day she died — my mum came into me early in the morning to tell me that there had been a car crash and she had lost her life. I just couldn’t believe it. It’s one of those things — you will always remember exactly where you were when it happened, like 9/11 or the Omagh bombing.
Millions of people mourned Diana and it showed how well-respected she was and how much affection they felt towards her. She was such a great woman — that’s why so many people grieved for her that she should have died at such a young age.”
‘I was one of five from NI taken over to her funeral’
Gerard McWilliams (45) lives in Belfast and is a community worker. He says:
I met Princess Diana in 1995 when she came to open a project for Barnardo’s and a group of us trainees were doing the catering for the event.
We were lined up ready to meet her when she came in, broke away from her bodyguards and walked straight over to me and shook my hand. She was very direct, asking what I did and what was on the menu for the day.
She began joking with me and just asking about my life. It really struck me how down-to-earth and friendly she was. She was tall too — I can remember looking up at her.
I was really chuffed to meet Diana as I had always admired her. She was a patron of Barnardo’s and always struck me as being interested in people.
Meeting her wasn’t a fast-track thing, a quick hello. We stood there and had a proper conversation for five to seven minutes. We even joked around a little.
I remember the day Diana died like it was yesterday. I was woken up in the middle of the night and watched ITN news. The presenter was saying that she had been in a car accident and it felt like I was dreaming. I couldn’t believe it had actually happened.
That week I got a phone call from Barnardo’s asking me if I wanted to go over to London for the funeral — Barnardo’s Northern Ireland had been given the opportunity to send two people over.
It all became a bit of a blur after that. I had to get something to wear and was interviewed by the BBC and UTV about it.
Companies kept coming forward to donate things so I was properly kitted out — a new suit and all that sort of thing.
Myself and a support worker from Barnardo’s flew over to London and spent the day before the funeral laying flowers and seeing the crowds around Buckingham Palace. On the day of the funeral I was on the Big Breakfast show on Channel 4, talking about my memories of Diana.
Then we went to the funeral at Westminster Abbey. We had our official invites and orders of service. Once we were seated we watched all the other guests coming in. I saw Elton John and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair — and found out that I was just 12 seats away from the royal family themselves.
Elton John’s song Candle in the Wind was amazing. And the speech by Earl Spencer was very powerful — at the time it made me shiver. The whole thing was really emotional and I did shed a tear. I was only one of five from Northern Ireland taken over to her funeral and it was great honour to be there.
It’s hard to describe how it felt when Diana died.
This was a lady who stuck her neck out to be the people’s voice and I don’t think that we will ever have anyone who was as passionate about helping those in need as Diana ever again.”
‘She was so pleasant and happy to be there’
Walter Macauley (72) is married to Maud and they have two grown up children. He worked for the Belfast Telegraph for 45 years before retiring as chief librarian. He says:
I met Diana on her first visit to Northern Ireland in 1982. She came to visit the Art College and it was just across the road from the Belfast Telegraph offices. I ran into one of our photographers in the lift who told me she was coming. I immediately told everyone in the library and we went across the road to see if we could see her.
In the end she came up to me in the crowd and shook my hand. She told me that she was delighted to be in Belfast and I told her that we were delighted to see her.
She was absolutely beautiful, so pleasant and happy to be with us all. It was long before all the difficulties in her marriage began.
On the day she died I got a call from colleagues at the Belfast Telegraph while I was still in bed. They asked if I would come in and open the library because Princess Diana had been killed. I couldn’t believe it.
I went straight to work to start assembling all the files of photographs and all the previous stories that had been written about her. There was so much material to collate.”
‘The princess arrived ... everyone was so excited’
Michael McCrory (72) is a designer silversmith. He lives in Hillsborough, is married to Deirdre and has two grown-up children. He says:
I was lecturing in silversmithing and jewellery at the Art College in Belfast when Princess Diana visited in 1982. There was a lot of fuss and preparation but we didn’t know who was coming. There was lots of security and everyone was searched.
All of a sudden the princess arrived and there was great excitement among the students, not least because we knew the visitor would be coming into the jewellery studio.
We had a great mix of students from all sorts of different backgrounds in Northern Ireland, but every one of them was so excited to see her when she came into the room.
I was the one who had to show her around and introduce her to the students. She was lovely even though she was surrounded by security people. There was a kind of shyness about her, but she really paid attention to whoever she was talking to. She looked you in the eye and asked questions about what we were showing her.
I remember hearing the news about what happened to her. It was a great shock, but life does go on. It’s astonishing that it’s been 20 years since she died.”