Catherine O’Connor has never been a fan of sitting behind a desk. She’s not one for lofty titles either or relishing the glory of a photo opportunity.
Many in her position over the past 16 years would have soaked up every minute of the limelight. After all, when the responsibility for promoting the city to tourists ultimately rests with you it would be easy to let the status of the job go to your head.
This didn’t happen for the now former Chief Executive of the Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau who as she so eloquently put it this week has now hung up her clogs and embraced life in retirement.
Instead, she got on with the job and in the process, helped transform attitudes to tourism in the city.
Born and reared in Rosemount, the middle child in a family of three, Catherine and her peers grew up in a very different Derry. This community where Protestants and Catholics lived their lives side by side before The Troubles, she says, was to influence her view of the city’s potential for many years to come both personally and professionally.
“As someone who knew what life was like before, and the kind of Derry we had then, I always knew how great a city we had that with the focus of the local people we’d always be able to pick ourselves off and show people how great a place we live in,” she said.
Despite ending up as one of the most experienced voices on tourism and visitor figures in Derry and the North West, Catherine began her career in the classroom.
After putting in her school years at St Eugene’s Primary School and then Thornhill, Catherine studied at Sion Hill College in Dublin where she qualified as a Physical Education Teacher.
The offer of a job brought her back to Derry in 1968 and she began her teaching career in St Cecilia’s College before moving on to St Mary’s Secondary School.
“I’d always been heavily in sport and particularly netball. I’d played for the County Derry Team and with the Northern Ireland Schoolgirls as well so it was something I really enjoyed which was what steered me towards PE teaching at that time,” she recalls.
In 1969 Catherine married her husband Ciaran, who died suddenly in 1996. The pair went on to have five sons which, as she explains, in the late sixties and early seventies meant her career was put on hold.
“By the time I was 29 I had five sons so I wasn’t teaching full time at that point and it was more subbing so that I could concentrate on life at home. Then, in 1975, Templemore Sports Complex opened and they were advertising for a manager and four supervisors. I applied for a job as supervisor and got it, which was great because it meant I could work around home.”
Catherine stayed in Templemore until 1980 when she went to work for Derry City Council’s Amenities and Leisure department.
“I remember the one thing I asked them at the time was not to put me behind a desk,” she laughs.
“I was given the job as Administrative Assistant with responsibility for tourism. I was out there marketing Derry.”
The role wasn’t an enviable one in the early eighties as The Troubles raged and the images of the North being beamed across the world were usually of death and destruction. In the middle of this, Catherine had been tasked with convincing tourists that Derry was a good place to come for a visit.
“I remember going out at the beginning and pretending I was a tourist,” she says.
“I thought ‘what do I want to see?, what do I want to do? People might not realise it but there were tourists coming and we had a variety of international visitors at the time. For me it was about removing that negativity and working together with people who were enthusiastic about the city.”
Catherine maintains she has always tried to keep politics out of her work when it came to promoting Derry.
“I knew the city before The Troubles when it was a beautiful place and I watched the destruction and the city being flattened. I even saw my father’s chemist in William Street burned to the ground but I think there was something about knowing how good life had been before which kept me going.”
When the Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau was set up with the combined forces of the public and private sectors in 1996, Catherine applied for the job as Manager and got it.
In the early days, she credits the local business people determined to drive the city forward, with keeping her focused.
“It was definitely their determination to pick themselves up and keep going in the depths of not very pleasant times which spurred me on in my job. From a personal point of view I wanted to improve the city and the environment for my family. One of the regrets I have is that my own family didn’t get that experience of living in a mixed community,” she says.
Since 1996 Catherine has experienced highs and lows in terms of her job and her personal life. In a cruel twist of fate she lost her husband Ciaran in 1996, the same year during which she’d secured her job at the Visitor and Convention Bureau.
In 2008, she suffered a stroke which forced her to take nine months away from work to recuperate.
While she’s since made an almost complete recovery, in retrospect she says her health scare gave her a new perspective on what’s important in life.
“I was very fortunate to have survived and I count myself extremely lucky that I’m well and healthy today. There is an element of tiredness after a stroke which has probably influenced my decision to retire now. Unless I can give 100 per cent at something I’m not happy, so for me, it’s a good time to pass the role on to someone else,” she says.
Catherine says many people have questioned her decision to leave her role ahead of what looks set to be the biggest year yet for tourism in Derry. As 2013 brings in the UK City of Culture Title and sees the city host the All Ireland Fleadh, the 63-year-old says she has no regrets about the timing of her retirement. She also believes most people in the city, including those in the tourism industry will be flabbergasted at the influx of visitors.
“It is going to be a big year and I’m looking forward to enjoying it as a spectator. I’ll probably enjoy it even more because I’ll be able to relax!
“If we take the Fleadh, which is an event on an absolutely massive scale and then think about what Derry is like at Hallowe’en and how busy that is, the place will be swamped with visitors. Staff at the Visitor and Convention Bureau are already taking calls from people wanting to book hotel rooms. It will be a great year for everyone in the city.”
Despite the recent planting of a bomb at the tourist office, Catherine believes that with the combined efforts of everyone in the city, the people behind such attacks will not succeed.
“In the hours and days after the explosion people rallied together so quickly. A temporary tourist information point was set up at the Tower Museum and staff were there to help visitors to the city.
“Some staff were given the day off and I wondered how they would feel returning to the office after the bomb but they just came back and got on with their work. That’s the way it’s always been. Those attacks are water off a duck’s back.”
This time, as the city moves forward into what many see as a more positive direction and a time of huge potential for tourism development, Catherine won’t be a part of it. While she’s remaining tightlipped about retirement plans she’s looking forward to spending more time with her sons Gareth, Ronan, Daryl, Rory and Kevin and her eight grandchildren.
As for leaving a legacy in terms of tourism in the city, she has one piece of advice for people locally.
“We’re very good at knocking ourselves locally but we’re coming to a point where we really have to push ourselves and I think we all have to pretend to be tourists and we’ll look at what’s around us in a whole new light. Because there really is so much more to this city than we see.”