Celebrated hotelier known for love of Antrim and horse racing
Moira O’Neill obituary: Born December 23rd, 1923 – died August 15th, 2017
Moira O’Neill, who has died aged 94, was possibly the oldest hotelier in Ireland and certainly one of the most celebrated. For more than seven decades she was synonymous with the ivy-clad Londonderry Arms in the village of Carnlough on the Antrim coast.
Known as “The Derry”’, it was previously owned by Winston Churchill and O’Neill exhibited much of the determination, charisma and resilience that characterised the former British prime minister.
She and her husband Frank first arrived at their new home during the great blizzard of February 1947 when the British army had to be called out to blast the ice to open the road from Ballymena. Early guests had to bring their ration cards but the hotel quickly built up a reputation for good food and warm hospitality.
During the difficult years of the Troubles, O’Neill also worked hard to project an image of the North different from the bombs and civil strife being broadcast on television screens.
Right up until her death she could be found in the hotel, checking place settings and light bulbs and welcoming her beloved customers.
A constant flow of people from all walks of life passed through the doors, from the Tomelty acting family, John Hewitt and Seamus Heaney, to the Dixie Chicks, Willie John McBride, US Air Force crews and more recently Liam Neeson and Stephen Roche.
Throughout the years the hotel retained its original elegant Georgian architecture and has featured in books, films and now the tour routes for Game of Thrones enthusiasts.
But it is for its links to horse racing through its Arkle Club that it is perhaps most widely known. Formed in 1964 to follow the exploits of the legendary steeplechaser, the 50 members hosted dinners attended by jockey Pat Taafe and trainer Tom Dreaper and followed their champion to all his races, met his owner, the Duchess of Westminster, and regularly visited the stables in Co Meath.
One of the shoes worn during the second of his three consecutive Gold Cup wins is displayed in the Arkle Bar, and cuttings from his tail were also locked away in the hotel safe.
Arkle’s name, taken from a Scottish mountain, recalled Moira O’Neill’s own heritage in Glasgow where she was born to Irish parents in 1923. Her mother died when she was eight and the family often visited relations in Killeeshil, Co Tyrone, before moving to the village of Moy where her father purchased a bar business.
It was in Moy that she met Frank O’Neill, an apple grower and talented footballer for Tyrone, and after marrying they saw an opportunity to enter the hotel trade. The Londonderry Arms was already a century old, built in 1848 by the Marchioness of Londonderry as part of a major famine relief project in the Carnlough area.
On her death it passed down to her son, her great-grandson and then to his cousin Winston Churchill. He sold it to the Lyons family in 1934 and, after being used for the recuperation of soldiers during the second World War, it was bought by the O’Neills in 1947.
In the early days, Moira O’Neill travelled extensively throughout Ireland and Scotland to secure furniture and supplies of food, linen, locks and beverages and, as the business developed, it provided much-needed employment and investment to a forgotten corner of Co Antrim.
The Glens with its sheep farming; the Braid valley with its rich pastures for beef, pork and potato production; and the sea with its plentiful supply of wild salmon supplied the basic ingredients for a simple, tasty menu and regular customers included the farming community and the bishops, clergy, teachers and pupils of the nearby St MacNissi’s College, among them future broadcaster Derek Davis.
A gifted businesswoman, as well as a talented chef, interior designer and flower arranger, Mrs O’Neill – she was always “Mrs O’Neill” – trained hundreds of staff in all the operations of a hotel and was considered a fair and considerate employer.
Throughout the Troubles she and her husband worked tirelessly to build the wider tourism and hospitality industry and were founding members of the Antrim Coast Road Hotels and Caterers’ Association.
As a member of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Catering Industry Training Board she also helped bring an international level of professionalism to the sector. In 1998 she was awarded the MBE for her contribution to the social and economic life of Northern Ireland.
Moira O’Neill loved art, antiques and local history and was an impeccable classic dresser. Above all, she enjoyed horse racing, particularly at Punchestown, and good company. She was always gracious and dignified and will be remembered as a warm hearted, generous, fiercely determined and wise woman.
Predeceased by her husband Frank and sons Frankie and Con, she is survived by her children Marnie, Francine, Liam, Siobhán, Patricia and Celine and five grandchildren.