Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Travel

Why I decided to sell top Northern Ireland hotel that's hosted Bono, the Clintons and Ed Sheeran ... Patsy O'Kane on the emotionally charged decision to finally check out of the historic venue that helped put north west on tourist map

Not even an IRA bomb at her father's restaurant could deter her from giving up a career as an occupational therapist to go into the hospitality industry. Now the former owner of the Beech Hill House Hotel talks to Ivan Little about its fascinating history and the difficult decision to sell it

A friend of the friend of pop stars, presidents, poets and peacemakers did a double-take as she caught sight of the newly retired hotelier Patsy O'Kane in an easy chair.

"I'm not used to seeing you sitting down," she told the diminutive doyen of the hospitality trade in Londonderry. "You're always on your feet."

And it's no exaggeration to say that the effervescent former owner and manager of the Beech Hill House Hotel on the outskirts of the Maiden City rarely sat down on the job of running her upmarket retreat which has counted the likes of Bill Clinton, U2 and Ed Sheeran among its guests.

Now, however, Patsy's decided to put those well-travelled feet up - but don't bank on them resting in one place too long.

Even on a short visit to her home in Derry she proved that this hostess will always be a hostess, spoiling her visitors with a veritable feast of a lunch that was supposed to be nothing more than a tea and a sandwich.

And our conversation was repeatedly interrupted by Patsy's offers of top-ups of refreshments and snacks, a clear indication that this 70-year-old simply can't help herself helping other people. That's her mantra too as she now throws herself into the family role that her non-stop hotel management denied her.

Patsy, who's married to retired headmaster Joe O'Kane, has already clocked up hundreds of miles visiting Dublin to spend more time with her two daughters and four grandchildren who live there.

Not that she doesn't already miss her beloved Beech Hill which has been sold for an undisclosed sum to the Republic-based firm, the House Collection.

"Of course it was a difficult decision to go," says Patsy. "The hotel was in my blood for 27 years."

And throughout those decades the hotel became famous for those famous guests.

Bill Clinton just couldn't stay away. His first visit to Patsy's white house from his own White House in Washington was in 1995 when he switched on Belfast's Christmas tree lights. "The security was astonishing," recalls Patsy. "We were closed for a couple of days beforehand and Bill and Hillary Clinton's people virtually took the place apart."

In 1998, JFK's brother Ted Kennedy also arrived and his eight-day stay has stayed, so to speak, with Patsy, making him one of her favourite people along with John Hume. "John was a great mentor and coach," she says. "I spoke to John before we bought Beech Hill because I wanted to know what he thought of the idea. John had the contacts in big business and politics. After we opened John brought very many important people to the hotel. And he always called me 'girl'."

Patsy's friends in high places were able to help her indulge one of her passions - to develop a museum highlighting the Beech Hill's connections with America.

The Ardmore demesne was part of Base One Europe - the US Naval operating base during the Second World War - from 1942 to 1944.

Four hundred Quonset huts were built in the camp and serving and veteran Marines and their families regularly visit Beech Hill and carve their initials in what's known as the Marine tree in the grounds where a monument was erected in 1997.

Patsy says: "Mr Clinton and Ted Kennedy used their good offices to help me with the museum. They got clearance for me to use valuable material associated with the Marines. Mr Clinton's people arranged it for me to have 98 boxes of material declassified."

Another prominent visitor who helped create more recent history was Lord Saville who resided at the hotel with 18 members of his staff throughout the long running inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

Lord Saville was later to go public with his personal appreciation of how Patsy made him feel at home.

"They weren't hard to look after," says Patsy, who sidesteps any questions about the bill for the inquiry team.

"They didn't have any big demands. Some of the team have been back and Lord Saville has been in touch. He was a gentleman."

Musicians, actors and entertainers including Bono, Van Morrison, Billy Connolly, Sean Bean, Billy Connolly, Chuck Berry, James Galway, Michael Palin, Jude Law and Ed Sheeran also laid their heads in the hotel's suites.

American fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger also checked in.

Not all the visitors would get five-star reviews from Patsy but she's too much of a diplomat to name names.

The Beech Hill name spread like wildfire on social media after Ed Sheeran, turned up as a guest at the wedding of Brid McDaid, a sister of his friend and writing collaborator Johnny McDaid, of Snow Patrol.

Brid and Scotsman Sandy Statham were married in the grounds of the hotel and afterwards Sheeran and Snow Patrol became one of the most illustrious 'wedding bands' ever to play at the Beech Hill for guests who included McDaid's girlfriend Courtney Cox, the former Friends star.

Another American actor Will Ferrell has also been a guest at the Beech Hill with his brother and father - who played keyboards with the Righteous Brothers - during a sightseeing trip to Derry, but he went unrecognised for a long time before the penny dropped with Patsy's staff.

She says: "It was only when he came down for dinner on the third evening someone said that he looked like the film star and he said 'you're right'."

Like many of its visitors, Ferrell was fascinated with the 400-year history of the Beech Hill which has links to the Plantation of Ulster, the 1641 Rebellion, the Siege of Derry in 1689 as well as WW2.

Patsy's interest in the place was stirred in 1989. Her vision for it was, er, visionary. The mansion was put up for sale after barrister Michael Nicholson moved to Belfast to become a judge, but Patsy could see its potential as an exclusive hotel and she eventually talked her brother, Seamus Donnelly, and her late father, Leo, into giving serious consideration to her plans.

Patsy grew up in Magherafelt where her dad was a plasterer in the construction industry but he also had the Arches restaurant with rooms in the centre of the town.

"Daddy was an innovator," says Patsy, who helped her father in the family businesses though her full-time job was in the health service.

The Arches restaurant was badly damaged in an IRA bomb blast in April 1982 when two men were killed. Patsy's brother Seamus was injured and two elderly long-term residents of the Arches were blown off their feet and ended up in wardrobes in their rooms.

Patsy, whose family welcomed their first customers back just a few days later, had trained in Dublin as an occupational therapist before going to work in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry after spells in Belfast and Ballymena. "I felt I needed to do my own thing," she explains.

Patsy's speciality was helping stroke victims with their rehabilitation. She says: "I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing people who were slowly able to cope again for themselves. I always focused on positive things, not negative things, telling people what they would be able to do if they persevered."

But the pull of the hospitality business was becoming stronger all the time and Patsy, who describes herself as a 'people person', spent more time at the Arches which hosted weddings, christenings, funerals and farmers' functions.

"We were all things to all men," says Patsy, whose ambitions lay in other directions. "Trends were changing and I wanted to see what else we could do. Our restaurant in Magherafelt had no room for expansion and we were lacking parking spaces. There was nowhere to go."

The advertisement for the sale of the Beech Hill turned out to be serendipity on a plate for the ambitious Patsy who says: "I didn't know very much about the Beech Hill. It was unknown territory. I knew that the Skipton and Nicholson families had lived there down the centuries but that was about it.

"What appealed to me apart from the house was its history. I found out that the Beech Hill had been through the wars and the sieges," says Patsy, who saw the Georgian mansion as a destination for tourism.

"My father initially couldn't understand why we would want to give up an established business and take a risk. But I told him, 'trust me'."

The two-year programme to transform the Beech Hill was implemented by Patsy's father, Joe, and his three brothers who all backgrounds in the construction industry.

One of the main 'weapons' in the Beech Hill armoury in 1991 as the hotel opened with 12 bedrooms was an ambitious young Maghera man called Noel McMeel, who was the head man in the kitchen and is now one of Northern Ireland's most illustrious chefs. Michael Deane also worked for a time in the Beech Hill.

A number of expansions and improvements were carried out and the reputation of the Beech Hill, with its 32 acres of gardens and walks, soared especially after the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement paved the way for a new influx of tourists. It was the first hotel in Northern Ireland to host civil marriage ceremonies.

Patsy's decision to sell her beloved Beech Hill House was influenced by a number of factors, one of which was the illness of her late father who needed more and more of her attention.

Patsy, also had a life-threatening illness of her own in 2014, the same year that she was awarded an MBE for her services to hospitality but though she recovered she says that in recent times she found herself exhausted from devoting so much time to running the Beech Hill and when she got the offer to sell she took it.

Brexit was another reason for her exit. "There's such uncertainty in the air and there's also a skill shortage. A lot of my people from Europe have already gone home."

Local people, she says, are also wary of committing themselves to the hospitality industry but she insists: "This is the industry which is going to keep Derry alive with its history, its heritage and its culture."

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph