'It was a total shock to get the invitation... I phoned my mum to tell her and told the kids, but I hadn't absorbed it until a few days later'
They're off to the royal wedding! Mother and daughter Catherine Cooke and Julie-Ann Coll were among a handful of people from Northern Ireland invited to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's big day next Saturday. Here, as they are treated to a regal afternoon tea at the Galgorm Resort, they tell Leona O'Neill how their journey to Windsor Castle began with a heartbreaking family tragedy.
On May 19, a Londonderry mother and daughter will stand proudly in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle and watch Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry.
Tullyally women Julie-Ann Coll (35) and Catherine Cooke (53) were picked to be among the 1,200 VIP guests to attend the royal wedding. For Julie-Ann, the day will have poignant symbolism for her.
The death of her baby son Mark sent her on a charitable journey that led to this special day.
Julie-Ann, mum to Kerri-Lynn (17), Mackenzie (12), Robbie (4) and Jayden (2), volunteers for Life After Loss, a pregnancy and infant loss charity in Northern Ireland.
At last year's royal garden party at Hillsborough Castle she met Prince Harry and told him of her journey. So taken was he with her inspirational story, an invitation was dispatched to her to attend his nuptials.
She says: "We help families who have been through miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death. Fourteen years ago I suffered the loss of a child myself.
"I lost my baby, Mark, at 22 weeks. I went into early labour on Remembrance Day 2004. We would usually have gone to the Cenotaph and to church, but I wasn't feeling well and had stayed behind. It didn't feel like I was in labour, I just didn't feel well. On Monday morning when I got up I was fine but that night I knew something was wrong. I was getting pains on and off, I was losing blood and felt awful. So we went to hospital and they told me I was in the early stages of labour.
"The hospital prepared me for the worst, but because there was a heartbeat, I thought there was hope."
Julie-Ann says that she thought she would be on strict bed rest until her baby arrived weeks later. However, tragically, that wasn't to be and at just 22 weeks gestation, her baby arrived.
"I was in hospital for exactly a week," she says. "On a Monday night I took really bad labour pains after visiting time was over. Everyone had gone home except my granny. I remember crying to her that I was in such pain.
"She got the doctor, who examined me and told me that the baby was coming. Seconds later I was in the labour ward and my partner was there shortly afterwards. Within 20 minutes Mark was born. I remember closing my eyes because I didn't know what to expect when I saw him. I didn't know what a 22-week old baby would look like. You are not prepared for something like that.
"They rushed the baby out of the room. When they brought him back in a little Moses basket he was absolutely perfect. He was a perfectly formed little baby from head to toe. He was just too weak to survive.
"I got to hold him and cuddle him for a couple of hours and then we got him christened. We named him Mark William Ian Cooke. We buried him two days later.
"It was a devastating loss. But my little girl was three years old so I had her at home to keep me grounded and keep me going.
"He was a very special little boy. He lived for just a short while, but his life had meaning. I like to think I've helped many people, many families in his name.
"Everything I do with regards the charity, I do it in memory of Mark. He is part of the family. My 12-year-old got confirmed a couple of Sundays ago and we had leftover balloons and my four-year-old asked if we could give baby Mark a balloon. So I gave the kids markers to draw on them and we let them go then up into Heaven.
"It was beautiful. He is always thought of, whether it is a big event or just sitting at home.
"Through the charity I have been able to help people who have been through a loss like mine. It's sad that it takes a tragedy to help someone else, but, if you do one good deed out of it, it is worthwhile. It keeps Mark's memory alive."
Julie-Ann says she was secretly hoping to get invited to the royal wedding after spending time talking with Prince Harry last year.
But she was astounded when her wildest dream came true - and she was knocked for six when her mum, a fellow charity worker, was also invited.
"It was a total shock to get the invitation," says Julie-Ann. "It was out of the blue. One day I opened a letter from our Lord Lieutenant. It said 'congratulations, you have been chosen to go to the royal wedding'. It gave us some details of the day and instructions as to how to let them know if we were going to accept or not.
"It didn't sink in at first. I was looking at the invitation, and I was phoning my mum and telling her and telling the kids 'I'm going to the royal wedding', but I still hadn't absorbed it until three or four days later. I just sat thinking, this is actually happening, we are going to the royal wedding!
"I had met Prince Harry at a royal garden party at Hillsborough Castle last September and he was really interested in the charity.
"Me and my husband Stephen made the trip up that day.
"I thought that we might get a look at royalty from afar. I knew I had to be at a certain place at a certain time but I thought that was just protocol because I had never been to anything like that before. I was told to go to a point and stay there.
"So when Prince Harry came, I saw him starting to make his way along all the people before me.
"And then it started to kick in, I thought I might get to see Prince Harry up close. Little did I know that he would come over and have a full scale conversation with me.
"He asked me about the charity and about what I do. I told him we were not counsellors, that we were more of a support group.
"He thought that was a great idea and said that sometimes people don't want to go to a counsellor, and at times he thought it was better to talk to someone who has actually been through it themselves. He seemed really interested.
"So I couldn't believe it when I got the invitation myself. Everyone who knows me knows what I'm like.
"When the official friends and family invites came out I was telling people that it wouldn't be long until my invite is here.
"So when I did actually get the invite I had to take the letter to work to prove that it was really happening."
Mum Catherine, who works at Foyle Women's Information Network and has been involved in community work for three decades, was equally as gobsmacked when she received her invitation.
"Our organisation offers bespoke training and information, advice and support, policy work and advocacy to women throughout the whole of the north-west," she says. "It's about signposting women to agencies who would have the expertise to offer whatever support mechanism they require.
"We do a lot of training around confidence and self esteem and giving women a voice. We encourage women to enter public life and political life and to reach their own potential.
"I couldn't believe it when I got the invitation. It was like winning the lottery.
"It's just a great accolade for everyone who works alongside of both me and Julie-Ann, because there are more than us who make up the organisations.
"There are a lot of women out there and it's as much for them as it is for us, and half the city is really excited for us."
Catherine says she had previously been delighted that her daughter had been invited and was secretly hoping she would take her as her plus-one.
"Little did she know that her own invitation was waiting in her letterbox.
The ladies spent a glorious day in the opulence of the Galgorm Resort, where they geared up for the big day with a styling session, a decadent, royal-themed afternoon tea and luxurious spa treatments in Galgorm’s award-winning spa and thermal village.
Catherine says she needed the pampering as the normal wedding pressures are being amplified with the eyes of the world are on them.
“We haven’t been given any guidance on etiquette yet,” she says. “But we have been practising in front of the mirror.
“We don’t know what we are wearing yet, but there is a group of young designers in Derry’s Design and Textile Hub on Shipquay Street who are really excited about us going too. They are going to make us a hat.
“There are a lot of people getting involved and it’s brilliant for our country.
“There is pressure going to a wedding at the best of times, but the royal wedding! The eyes of the world are going to be on us.
“We saw some beautiful outfits from the Winsome Lady boutique in Ballymoney while we were at Galgorm, which gave us real food for thought about what we should be wearing.”
The ladies have sent their ‘plus-ones’ back and are eagerly awaiting further instructions.
“We know that it’s going to be at Windsor Castle and the times that we have to be there in the morning,” says Julie-Ann. “We have to be there at 8am and the wedding is at 1pm. Other than that, it is all pretty hush hush. We don’t know where we go after the actual wedding. We’re not sure yet.
“It’s going to be a girls’ weekend,” she says. “My dad Ian is at a stag weekend in Krakof and my husband Stephen is staying here. Stephen’s dad died in January, so I am taking my mother-in-law Marcia, because she loves the royals.
“Mum is taking my sister Stephanie as her plus-one. Everyone is super excited.
“There are nerves at the minute. We were even nervous coming to the Galgorm. And to be met and greeted with champagne and be treated like royalty, it’s definitely given us a flavour of what we should expect when we go to Windsor Castle. We could easily get used to this kind of luxury.”
And Julie-Ann is going to make sure that a special little boy will be there with her in spirit on her big day.
“I have loads of different necklaces with all the kids’ names of them,” she says.
“But me and my daughter were out shopping the other day and I saw this little necklace sitting at the counter.
“It was a November birthstone. And I thought I’d take that and wear it on the day. Mark was born in November, so it’ll be like I’m taking him with me. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be going.”
Galgorm are hosting a Royal Afternoon Tea event next Saturday, May 19. Those lucky enough to get a ticket will be treated to fashion, bubbles and a royal wedding themed afternoon tea, all while watching the royal wedding take place on the big screen. Tickets for the event are available now at www.galgorm.com