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Thursday 2 October 2014

Ali's still the sweetest thing 30 years on . . .

Published 09/09/2012 | 06:00

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Bono & Ali celebrat 30 year of wedded bliss.

'She was the hottest chick in the class -- everyone fancied her. He was already a rock star to us -- everyone envied him. Even then, they made such a sweet couple."

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Neil McCormick is reminiscing about his school days in Mount Temple Comprehensive in Dublin in the late 1970s, and specifically about the early courtship of two of his closest friends, Ali Hewson and her husband of 30 years, Bono.

McCormick -- author of the book, I Was Bono's Doppelganger, which was adapted as the movie, Killing Bono -- says he is not surprised the pair's enduring marriage is regarded as one of the strongest in the business.

"Take away the rock star thing, and you've simply got two people who are devoted to each other and hugely respectful of each other.

"Ali is a very strong person -- you'd have to be if you're going to be with someone as forceful and passionate as Bono. He's an intense, wild character at heart, and will be the first to admit to having an ego when he's on stage. But on a one-to-one level, he's got such humility and he cares deeply about other people. Ali has that too, in spades."

The pair celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary at the weekend in a field in Laois. They flew to the Electric Picnic festival by helicopter and were standing at the side of the stage while another old school friend, Gavin Friday, dedicated to them his most celebrated song, 'Angel'.

That their marriage has survived in the notorious world of rock, with its myriad temptations has long been commented on.

Adi Roche, the founder of Chernobyl Children's International, is also a close friend of the couple. She has known them for the best part of 20 years, after Ali agreed to front a documentary she was making on the fall-out of the horrific nuclear explosion in Belarus. Ali is now on the board of the charity.

"They're both incredibly compassionate people," she says.

"Just look at the campaigning work they have done over the years. Ali has been there to support Bono with his debt reduction and Aids campaigns and he's been fully supportive of her Chernobyl work. But knowing his own fame, he has been careful not to hog the spotlight when it comes to her work.

"Ali doesn't seek publicity and prefers to work without fanfare. And, let me tell you, she hasn't been afraid to get her hands dirty -- she drove an ambulance to Chernobyl and has put her own health in danger by visiting parts of the country that were most badly affected by radiation. She's earned her stripes."

A loose relation of the colourful Dublin discount retailer, Hector Grey, Ali -- born Alison Stewart in Raheny, Dublin, in 1961 -- grew up wanting to be a nurse. Like several other children of northside Protestant families, she attended the progressive Mount Temple school on the Malahide Road.

She and Bono, who hailed from a working-class Church of Ireland family in Ballymun, started seeing each other in late 1975, when she was just 14. Bono, a year older than Ali, suffered the trauma of his mother's death the previous year and he subsequently cited the fledgling relationship with the soft-spoken, brown-eyed girl as a pivotal part of his recovery.

The two were inseparable and their bond was strengthened by a deep-rooted Christianity. "That faith is still very strong today," Neil McCormick says. "They still go to church of a Sunday. It still informs Bono's songwriting."

The couple married on August 31, 1982 in the All Saints Church of Ireland church in Raheny. It was a comparatively big showbiz story at the time -- U2 had released two albums and were considered one of the Irish bands most likely to make it internationally. Much of the material on their 1983 breakthrough album, War, had already been written.

As the 1980s wore on and U2 became the world's biggest band, Ali's support for her husband never wavered, although she deliberately kept a low profile during this period. She studied sociology and political science at UCD and finished her degree in 1989, just two weeks after giving birth to Jordan, the first of their four children.

The following decade saw her embrace charity work alongside Adi Roche, but her main focus was motherhood. In an interview with Weekend Review earlier this year, her second daughter Memphis Eve spoke about her grounded upbringing and insisted that her parents tried to raise her as normally as possible.

"Ali and Bono did not spoil the children," Roche says.

"They were brought up with strong values. They're lovely, and very grounded and they have their parents' capacity for kindness in spades."

Roche would see such kindness for herself during the 1997 presidential election, in which she stood as a candidate.

"My husband and I couldn't afford to travel from Cork to Dublin every day. It was Ali who invited us to come and live with her and Bono and the children in their house in Killiney and we were there for over two months."

It is a sign of Ali's level-headedness, as is the couple's intriguing long- running custom of spending time apart in the days immediately after a tour concludes so Bono can come down to earth after the highs of life on the road. He usually stays in a hotel.

Outside of U2, Bono has long had an entrepreneurial streak -- from co-ownership of Dublin's Clarence Hotel to investment in Facebook -- but it's only in the past decade that Ali has revealed herself to be a business risk-taker in her own right.

She is the founder of two companies: the ethically minded, Africa-made designer label, Edun, and Nude Skincare, whose key selling point is its environmentally friendly ingredients.

"Both these companies are very good fits for Ali because she has long been both fashion-conscious and an advocate of fair trade and environmental matters," says an associate.

Yet, beautiful wives of world-famous rock stars aren't immune from financial hits, and this week Edun reported loses of €6.8m.

"Having a conscience and paying extra for clothes that are made ethically is all well and good when times are good," says a Dublin-based fashion writer who admires Ali's sense of style. "But, frankly, that goes out the window in a recession.

"And, although their hearts are in the right place, I thought it was very distasteful of Bono and Ali to appear in that Louis Vuitton shoot from Africa a couple of years ago. They've been raising awareness about poverty and injustice in that continent for years, and there they were, photographed with high-end LV luggage beside a private plane."

It's a conundrum the pair have to confront daily. Although passionate about several worthy causes, they live lives of untold luxury -- with palatial homes in Dublin, the south of France and New York.

And the decision in 2006 for U2 to move their tax affairs to Holland to maximise the band's income hasn't sat well with those who feel that such outspoken campaigners should be above such -- perfectly legal -- manoeuvres.

Still, such thoughts are unlikely to have troubled Bono and Ali as they listened to Gavin Friday serenade them last weekend. Their thoughts may well have gone back to a very different Ireland when they first set eyes on each other across a busy secondary school classroom.

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