Wednesday 26 June 2019

Barry Egan: 'Alli, a mother and model and so much fun... but gone at 37'

Mum-of-four and model Alli MacDonnell died last week, a personal tragedy for her family and friends, writes Barry Egan

Barry Egan with Alli MacDonnell, Vogue Williams and Tara Leniston during their crazy,
fun-filled break in the Italian capital in 2008. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Barry Egan with Alli MacDonnell, Vogue Williams and Tara Leniston during their crazy, fun-filled break in the Italian capital in 2008. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

It seems like another lifetime now. February, 2008 - Rome. Young Dubliner Alli MacDonnell - flanked by fellow models Vogue Williams and Tara Leniston - is holding a very surreal court in the Italian capital late one evening, explaining to the locals the meaning of certain Dublin words, while drinking a glass of red wine.

It starts earlier with Alli in a taxi stopped at a red light, as a man selling fake designer handbags walks past the car.

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Alli rolls down the window and points at a bag that has caught her eagle fashion eye. He says €40. Alli shouts back €20. He makes a gesture to indicate she must be out of her mind. She makes a similar gesture at his price, and pretends to tell the driver to go on. The deal is done before the traffic light changes to green.

"I love drive-by shopping!" she laughs, as we speed off across the Tiber with her new purchase in hand. It was astonishing how she did it.

Later, in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Spanish Steps, the lithe Ms MacDonnell astounds fellow dinners by eating her bodyweight in pasta. "Have you ever seen a girl consume so much in one sitting?" she cackles. Alli has the whole restaurant in the palm of her hand. Then Tara announces: "I don't like cats."

To which Vogue asks: "What's wrong with cats?"

Tara replies: "They make me itch", and Alli - with precision comic timing - says: "That's not cats. That's crabs." The laughter could be heard all the way to the Vatican.

Later, in a nearby bar, Alli belts out Madonna's Like a Virgin, followed by Amy Winehouse's Valerie on the karaoke machine. She says she used to be in a girl band, Blaze - alongside Eamon Dunphy's daughter Colette - when she was 15.

Back at the Hotel Eden, Alli proves herself to have a vocabulary all her own.

She explains to the locals that, in Dublinese, "scaldy" is not quite the same as "minging"; being drunk is being "a bit Mary and Joseph" and someone who would "rob the eye out of your head and come back for the eyelashes" is not to be trusted.

"I have the weirdest ears," she says, apropos of nothing, before pulling back her dark hair to reveal, well, the weirdest ears. Rome had seen nothing like Alli MacDonnell.

The following morning, in homage to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, she, Vogue and Tara raced like the clappers around the Colosseum on their scooters.

Tara nearly killed Alli when she came close to rear-ending her. The carefree Alli was so full of life, she could only laugh and say: "I'm going to live to become an old spinster."

Sadly, that wasn't the case. She died last Monday at her home in Dublin. She was just 37 years of age.

Alli was a loving and devoted mother to Alex (16), Sara (14), Harry (nine) and Siena, almost three.

Her last Instagram post was a photo of her youngest daughter with the words: "Magic happens every day with this little one."

An ambassador for Irish Autism Action after her son Harry was diagnosed with the condition in 2016, Alli revealed last October that Siena had also been diagnosed. She said: "My son Harry was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder two years ago, and just last month my two-year-old little girl was also diagnosed with ASD.

"I take each day as it comes and try my best. I work hard and I love my kids with every inch of me.

"They may have ASD but they are healthy and happy and very much loved."

Her friend Tara Leniston said: "Alli always seemed to cope. She loved her kids and she just got on with it. They were her driving force behind everything she did."

Tara, whose son Dylan was also diagnosed with autism when he was two, said: "When Alli started to notice [things with] Harry, she phoned me up. It's through helping her that I realised there was a need for an easy, practical book on how to help children with ASD.

"Alli encouraged me to write Coming Home To Autism [published last year] and told me how she had to wait months and years to get the help she needed."

Tara spoke to Alli just last weekend. "She was talking about coming over to London as she wanted to bring Harry over to see Dylan again.

"I just can't get my head around it all. She adored her four children and was a warrior mama bear.

"We only spoke last week about autism and the kids and how we were going to change the way Ireland dealt with autism. She was so determined to make Ireland more understanding of autism.

"The world is a little less shiny and a little less fun now Alli is gone. I'm going to miss her so much."

Another friend recalled: "In times of need she'd always take me in and look after me, like a broken bird.

"I lived with her for about a month in 2015 [when a relationship broke down]. It was my first Christmas alone, and of course Alli insisted I come to hers. She did so much for me. I loved her so much."

Another friend, John Compton, said: "Alli had a wicked sense of humour and always tried to see the funny side of every situation, no matter what.

"I remember one time I was feeling down, nearly at the end of Compton Model Agency [six years ago] and I was in Belfast judging a competition.

"On my way back, I rang her and gave out to her about something, I don't remember what, and she said to me, 'John, f**k off. You are not the only one in Ireland who has the right to have a nervous breakdown' and I just laughed.

"She was my best friend, a very loyal friend. She was also a wonderful mother who adored her children."

Lisa Burgess said: "She was always laughing and smiling, no matter what life threw at her. Alli would always be up to naughtiness in TV3 behind the scenes," remembers Lisa, who did fashion on TV3 from 2011 to 2016. "We were always being told off for laughing too much with the models, Kerri Nicole and Sinead Noonan. Alli was so bold and always up to shenanigans.

"We once judged a fashion show at Trinity together. When Alli was asked what she thought, she said they needed better catwalk skills. So I said to her, 'Get up there and show them' and she did - to much applause."

Tara said: "Everyone who met her fell in love with her witty, dry sense of humour.

"We were pregnant at the same time and spent almost every day together. I would lie on the sofa feeling sick and sorry for myself and Alli would be up cooking a feast.

"Even the day Harry arrived, early and after quite a traumatic birth, I arrived in hospital expecting to see Alli in bits, but there she was, cracking up at the socks they had given her to wear. She was always laughing."

Cut back to Rome in 2008. "My love for my children is indescribable. It is the most unbelievable feeling in the world to be a mother," Alli said, adding how much she loved her own mother, Imelda.

I remember asking Alli did she believe in God.

"Yes, I do," she said before being overcome by her mischievous side. "It's comforting to think there's a higher power apart from myself. That's a joke! You use that and I'll bash you!"

Ciao, bella.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans helpline 116 123 or Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247.

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