Belfast-born florist Shane Connolly on how his mother initially hated him entering the profession which would later see him designing the floral displays for a pair of royal marriages
Two days before my mum died I told her I was doing the flowers for Kate and William's wedding... she told the nurses but luckily they were very discreet'
Belfast man Shane Connolly's mother lay dying in Marie Curie Hospice as the most important call of his life came through - a meeting with Prince William's staff to discuss the biggest royal wedding in decades.
Due to the terrible snow that winter and to doctors' advice that his mother was too ill for him to leave, the London-based florist had to twice cancel appointments with the Royal household.
In what was one of the most bittersweet moments of his life, just two days before his mum passed away in January 2011, Shane secured the contract every florist in the world dreamed of - to design the flowers for Kate and William's wedding.
He did manage to fly back to Belfast in time to share the wonderful news with his mum who he had to swear to secrecy.
But on her final day on earth, Peggy Connolly got to enjoy a special proud mum moment when she shared the news with hospice nursing staff.
He recalls: "I got a call from Prince William's office asking if I could come and discuss something with them. Mum was dying and I was sitting with her in the Marie Curie Hospice.
"Mum was in the hospice for 10 weeks. It was that bad winter in 2010 when there was a lot of snow and I had to cancel the appointment because of the weather.
"I had to cancel again because the doctors told me they didn't think I should leave mum.
"I finally did get a meeting on a Thursday in January and mum died on the Saturday. She was very weak but I did get to tell her the news and of course I told her that she couldn't tell anyone. The nurses later told me they all knew, luckily they were very discreet."
Shane was already a celebrated florist having been commissioned to do the flowers for Prince Charles and Camilla's wedding in 2005.
Nevertheless, designing the floral arrangements for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge - watched by hundreds of millions worldwide - made Shane a globally recognised and respected artist in his field.
Shane (56) is famous for his royal clients, weddings and events; he is passionate about sustainability and about British flowers and foliage.
He has been known to turn brides away because he refuses to import flowers from far-flung places because of the impact on the environment.
Married to Candida (58), he first moved to London in the late Eighties after graduating from the University of Ulster with a degree in psychology.
His route into floristry was an unconventional one and when he "begged" for a job as a helper for a reputable florists in London it was very much against the wishes of his late dear mother.
In fact floristry was regarded as such a lowly profession at the time that it was some years before his mother would accept her son's chosen career. Shane grew up in Gransha in west Belfast, the only son of the late Gerry, a prosthetic dentist, and Peggy Connolly, a housewife and mum who trained in her 40s to be a social worker.
He grew up during the height of the Troubles but, thanks to an introduction to music, a young Shane was largely shielded from the worst of the violence erupting around him in the city.
He recalls: "In a lot of ways the Troubles passed me by and I had a very nice life and childhood.
"I was attending the Belfast School of Music from the age of 12 which was integrated and didn't have that sectarian face. It transformed my life and my social life and gave me music.
"I made friends, some of whom I still regard as great friends today.
"The power of music is extraordinary and the Belfast School of Music is one of the most superb institutions in the city of Belfast.
"I really wanted to progress my music, and singing was my thing, but at that time boys were encouraged to do sciences. Music and art were not considered subjects that would lead to a career. I enrolled in psychology as it seemed like a good stepping stone to different careers at the time and knew on the third day of the course it wasn't what I wanted to do."
Floristry was not something he had considered until he went to London during his degree course for a six-month placement with the Ministry of Defence.
He was invited to dine at a house where the couple, who ran their own floristry business, had a beautiful garden.
He recalls: "I had always liked gardening as my parents enjoyed it but I never ever thought I wanted to be a gardener.
"In the Seventies and Eighties, gardening and, equally, a career in floristry were not considered very fine careers.
"When I was on that six-month placement in London I was invited to the home of Michael Goulding, who had a beautiful garden.
"He was an events florist and I had never heard of such a thing.
"He was picking flowers from his own garden for the arrangements. What he was doing was incredible and that very day in 1984 I decided I would like to do this."
Shane kept in touch and volunteered to help them at events on his weekends and holidays.
When he finished his degree, he returned to London where he had been offered a placement with the MoD doing psychology research for a year, although he still wanted to pursue floristry.
Through sheer persistence he was fortunate to secure a job helping out at the florist Pulbrook and Gould, much to the horror of his parents.
He says: "It was before my year with the MoD was up and at the time it regarded as a lowly job. I remember when I started it was around this time of the year and was very cold.
"You were standing outside with your hat and scarf and coat on, cutting the flowers and putting them in water, and your fingers were freezing.
"My father was very good about it but my mother was horrified and didn't want people to know. She would tell people it was a job I was doing while studying my singing.
"It wasn't until I wrote my first book that she came round. We had this lovely book launch and she came over and told me she was so proud of me and that was the first time she had ever told me that."
Shane lost his dad in 1999 at the age of 72 and his mum was 81 when she passed away in 2011.
He has written five books. The first, Table Flowers, was published in 1996 followed by Shane Connolly Wedding Flowers in 1998.
He published The Language of Flowers in 2003, followed by A Year in Flowers in 2012. His fifth book, Rediscovering the Meaning of Flowers was published in 2017.
He says: "My first two books are no longer in print. The wedding flowers book was a great hit at the time as there weren't many books on wedding flowers and a lot of brides bought it. It was a very beautiful looking book and I got asked to do talks in America as a result of it.
"I think by the time I wrote my third book the market had reached saturation point on books about flowers."
Shane's books came as he was building his career, very much on word of mouth and recommendation.
After just two years helping out in the floristry shop he started to work as a freelance when approached by friends to do events and weddings.
Through friends he was invited to do the flowers for a magazine company which ran the high society magazines Harpers and Queen (now Harpers Bazaar) and Country Living.
Through this contact, he was invited to style the flowers at the home of famous rose breeder and writer David Austin for a photoshoot for Country Living magazine.
He says: "David Austin was so encouraging and told me I had done the flowers the way he liked and he really couldn't have been a nicer person.
"I've found that everything in life is about saying 'yes' and I think you should always say 'yes' if you are invited to do things unless of course it is illegal.
“Also being polite is the great thing my school and my mother and father gave me that. If you know how to be polite you can go into any setting.”
These days, as well as specialising in events and weddings, Shane Connolly & Company florists do the flowers at the homes of a number of wealthy clients in London.
He is also the go-to florist for events at the Royal Academy of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
His venture into the realms of the royal household came about when he was invited to design the flowers for a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award event in St James’s Palace.
He says: “That was my first link with the Prince of Wales and his team. They saw that my flowers were very British and very seasonal and sustainable long before sustainability even came into the equation.
“The Duchess of Cornwall asked to see me to talk about doing her son’s wedding and then I was invited to do her wedding.
“There have been a lot of pinch yourself moments and that was one of them. It just felt very strange to be there.
“They are such down to earth, warm, nice people. They were never difficult and the Duchess of Cornwall trusted me completely.
“I knew I couldn’t be wasteful and the flowers needed to be meaningful and not over the top. I used cut flowers from her garden and the Prince of Wales’ garden.”
If the wedding of the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, and his wife Camilla invited a lot of press attention, it paled in comparison to the excitement which surrounded news of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton in October 2010.
The build-up to their wedding in April 2011 was the focus of intense media attention and was compared to the 1981 marriage of William’s parents, Charles and Diana.
More than 5,000 street parties were held throughout the UK, and one million people lined the route between Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.
The ceremony was viewed live by millions around the world — including 72 million live streams on YouTube and in the UK television audiences peaked at 26.3 million viewers, with a total of 36.7 million watching part of the coverage.
And playing a huge part in that big day was Belfast man Shane.
If he felt pressure then, he doesn’t remember it as his enduring memory of the biggest job of his career was just how wonderful the royal bride was to deal with during preparations for her wedding.
He says: “Kate was the most perfect bride you could ever wish for. She was completely trusting of me and very clear about what she wanted.
“For everything you suggest to a bride, they can insist on having three pictures of it and two samples and they still might not be sure.
“Kate wasn’t like that. She was so easy to deal with and trusted everything I did. She wanted it to be totally seasonal which was right up my street — we were the perfect match.
“It was an extraordinary honour but I think greater than that was the extraordinary pleasure of working with such a lovely couple.”
Shane created the wow factor at the Royal wedding with a tree-lined aisle for Kate to walk down in Westminster Abbey with six 20-foot maples and two hornbeam trees.
In keeping with his sustainable approach, all the flowers, foliage and trees for the royal wedding came from the royal estates. The couple choose a neutral palette of white, cream and green and Kate opted for British blooms including azaleas, rhododendron, euphorbia, wisteria, lilac and lily of the valley.
Shane says: “I think it wasn’t quite what people expected. It wasn’t as flamboyant as people expected; everything was used with thoughtfulness and a message if people wanted to see it.”
Sustainability remains a priority for Shane in his business. He says: “As I have got older my whole focus has become about the need for sustainability in floristry.
“Brides today are bombarded with images on Instagram and social media and of 300 million images they see, they might like one million and of those only one per cent will be doable and that can be a bit of a challenge.
“You could get a bride who is getting married in November and says she hates autumn colours and wants beautiful peonies.
“You try to explain that they have to be flown from New Zealand or Australia and I won’t do that. To me it’s not a good model for my business and thankfully it doesn’t happen too often and I don’t have to turn too many brides away as I won’t sell my soul.
“As far as possible I will buy locally. For three-quarters of the year that is completely possible but for one quarter it is very difficult as there isn’t anything growing here in any quantity.
“I have to use imported flowers during the winter months but I will only use them from the Netherlands.”
Outside of his work, he still loves to sing and is a member of the Bach Choir in London. He enjoys gardening at his home in Worcestershire which his wife inherited from her parents and where he has an enviable flower collection.
He says: “Gardening keeps me grounded. If I have a stressful time I love to get my hands in the soil and get dirt in my fingernails. I think that goes back to my childhood growing up in Northern Ireland.”
He still visits Belfast when he can as he has friends and an extended family here.
He adds: “I’m very proud to be from Northern Ireland. A few weeks ago I was invited to give a talk at the Aspects Festival in Clandeboye which aims to bring children from across the divide together to mix outdoors in the forests and I was very keen to be part of that process.
“As a child I couldn’t have dreamt of where life would take me and if I have one lesson to pass on, it is to always say ‘yes’ to opportunity.”