Saturday 23 September 2017

'Never let a man get the better of you' - Norma

Sharp, witty and not one to take herself too seriously, Norma Smurfit shows another side to Niamh Horan

LESSONS IN THE ART OF GIVING: Norma Smurfit, above, at the Radisson St Helen’s
LESSONS IN THE ART OF GIVING: Norma Smurfit, above, at the Radisson St Helen’s
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Michael and Norma Smurfit were Ireland's golden couple. Theirs was the first high-profile divorce among the super rich. Michael subsequently had the much-publicised relationship and child with Swedish beauty Brigitte and they married. It didn't last.

So when I meet Norma, the matriarch of the business dynasty, on a sunny morning it seems only right to ask about her ex-husband's memoir.

Did he ask your permission to write about you?

"No," she closes her eyes, as if the question alone is an affront. She has never read the book. And after hearing second-hand accounts, she has no desire.

In charity circles, friends say that Michael's account is at variance with the 'lady' they know. Elsewhere in the book, and many interviews, the businessman is gushing in his admiration for her.

When I met him in Monaco two years ago, his tale of love at first sight - how he saw "the best legs in the room" and asked her to dance - would make young lovers blush.

So how was it from the other side of the courtship? Did he make a big impression?

"Not particularly," she says. I recall how Dr Smurfit had told me he tried to impress her with Château d'Yquem, the world's most expensive dessert wine, over their first candlelit dinner together in Dublin's Gresham Hotel. "No that was a different night," she corrects, adding, "It wasn't him that did it either."

She surmises: "All of these things get mixed up in history." For his part, Dr Smurfit says Norma was, and still is, his "favourite person in the world".

She looks away unimpressed before laughing "he can call me whatever he wants as long as he leaves me a million in his will."

Her sense of humour is wonderfully wicked and contrasts sharply with her effortless elegance and perfect deportment. Wearing a chic lilac scarf and hair perfectly coiffed, she hasn't let a lifetime among the upper-crust extinguish her wit.

Later, when I ask if she longs for anything in her 70s, she tells me: "I'm sure if a second George Clooney came out of the woodwork, I wouldn't be [adverse]."

So how did one of Ireland's leading philanthropists, from a socialist Jewish family in London who was "lucky" to get a 6p hairdressing tip to afford a bun, fit in with the world of white-gloved waiters in Catholic Ireland?

She looks back at their early years of marriage and the "much simpler times" with fondness. "We didn't have money in those days. People didn't have objects. I'm looking at my own grandchildren and the amount of clothes they have and I say 'when my kids were growing up they had one trousers or one skirt maybe one other thing for the weekend'; you didn't have all this excess."

The lifestyle never changed her desires: "I think with my background, I would never dream of going out and spending thousands on a handbag or couture clothes. It's just the way you're brought up. It's nice to have money but I wouldn't be a big spender."

She adds: "I think people want different things in life. When you're in that big business you want your own jets and planes and yachts and things. That was never my sort of scene at all.

"It's nice to experience those things. It's nice to go to a lovely hotel but I would be quite happy with a BnB down the road."

Her former husband on the other hand was fond of the odd indulgence. A €53m super yacht, an art collection worth over €50m, private boxes and a private jet were among the trappings of his wealth.

Norma made the most of this glitzy world and decided that her focus would be fixed on redirecting some of the monied circle's extra cash into Ireland's charitable causes.

At first, it was a "very Mickey Mouse" operation, charging €5 for a bottle of wine at lunch. But as time went on, and the Celtic Tiger roared into town, she decided to make the most of it.

"You milked it as much as you could. People were very generous. Obviously in hindsight it wasn't their money that they were being generous with," she laughs.

On her famous black tie balls she says: "The more glamorous they were, the more people liked to be seen at them." At the height of the madness: "If there was a car or necklace up for sale someone would buy it and then they would throw it back in to the auction. They didn't even want to bring it home with them. And someone else would buy it. They were fun."

Her own personal life though had its own sense of turmoil. Her marriage broke down. She moved on with determination, throwing herself into her charitable work.

Keeping busy and good friends are her two remedies for coming through a separation: "You can't sit around and mope in the corner. You should never let a man get the better of you anyway."

She believes - in the long run - women are more self-reliant than men, and are more content to live a life on their own. "Men will always want a woman around them."

She never had an urge to get into politics, unless she had the chance to be "a dictator" so she could get things done and these days she is busy on her 'Change for Charity' project. The initiative is asking people to donate their spare 1c and 2c coins to help support a number of Irish charities.

"I picked up two 1c coins on the ground this week. I would never leave it lying there. People don't want them. We have €35m worth of them in our homes, in boxes or down the backs of couches."

She has never lost her respect for money. She regales how she has spent the week turning her bedroom upside down because she can't remember where she has placed a €50 note.

And, although she can work up to seven days-a-week, she never takes a financial reward from any of her charity work. "Not a plane trip, not a cup of coffee. Never, ever. I wouldn't dream of doing it".

So after more than four decades raising millions for charity [she can't even tell me how much] and with no signs of a retirement on the cards, what's it all for? For a start, she doesn't believe in God, or paradise in the next world.

"To me it's just not logical. When we are gone, we are gone. Believing in God doesn't make you a good person."

Why then?

"To be remembered by my family and in the hope that you are making a difference in the lives of others in some way."

The principle she wants to ingrain in her children is this: "Appreciate the world around them, make them aware that we have to look after it. We are not even a speck in the universe, we are only here for a second in time and we have to make the most out of life and to enjoy it."

In the meantime she might take some time out for another project. "Wait until I write my book," she laughs.

As the country is gripped by the madness of E.L. James, she confides that she has just finished reading 50 Shades of Grey. "It would be a sort of Jackie Collins expose. I would have to change the names to protect the guilty," she smiles. "A hot sexy novel."

But as always she has her priorities straight: "I'd give the money to charity - of course."

To support the Cause for Charity campaign bring your coins to a bank or you can find collection boxes in Penneys, Supermac's, Supervalu, O'Brien's Cafe and The Bagel Factory. For more information log onto changeforcharity.ie .

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News