Tuesday 23 July 2019

'I was the freak, the nuns thought there was something wrong with me' - Irish sporting legend Rosemary Smith

Irish sporting legend Rosemary Smith tells Barry Egan about her mother who tried to live and control her life, her bad choices in men, her four miscarriages and, why at 81, she still feels young

Racing driver Rosemary Smith in the Intercontinental Hotel, Ballsbridge.
Photo: Tony Gavin
Racing driver Rosemary Smith in the Intercontinental Hotel, Ballsbridge. Photo: Tony Gavin

You could smell Sister Aquinas before you heard her. And then, when she spoke, it was rarely particularly pleasant, invariably something chilling, terrifying, hysterical, uttered seemingly from deep within her dark black veil. One day in the early 1940s in Rathfarnham, the Loreto nun - "who smelt of carbolic soap" - looked at the young child disapprovingly in Catechism class. She was aware that seven-year-old Rosemary Smith's father, John, was a Protestant who was married to a Catholic, Jane. She told Rosemary that anyone who is not a Catholic goes straight to hell when they die.

Rosemary bottled up inside her what the nun said, frightened that she might be going to hell, too, when she died. When she eventually told her parents what the nun had told her, a distressed Rosemary was taken to see a doctor. The nuns in school also used to ask Rosemary, who was 5ft 10in tall, "Is it cold up there?" And, "Oh, look, she's got snow in her hair," in reference to her beautiful blonde hair, even at seven years of age.

"I was the freak," Rosemary says now, over 70 years later. "I was tall and blonde. My sister Pamela was not tall. The nuns thought there was something wrong with me." When another nun told Rosemary that she was stupid, Rosemary's father took her out of the school - and put her into the Grafton Academy - to get her away from the brides of Christ in Loreto.

At home, however, young Rosemary, who was the youngest of three children, had a mother who rivalled Sister Aquinas for making her feel bad about herself and controlling her. "Everyone thought we got on like that," Rosemary says now, meaning a healthy relationship with her mother Jane, "and I said, 'no - she lived through me, lived her life through me'. If you asked me a question, she would answer it. I couldn't do anything. 'Don't do this. Do that. Don't wear that. Wear this'. Daddy didn't say anything [Rosemary appears to say later that her father knew at some level that his wife was having an affair, not quite behind his back as in front of it]. My mother and I were having a lot of rows. I moved out quite a lot of times. I went to live with my aunt. Then I went to live with another aunt."

I ask why?

"To get away from my mother, basically," says Rosemary who is with me to chat about her incredible autobiography Driven, which is out next month. Rosemary admits that her mother once told her that she could have left her father for another man, but she stayed because of the children. "I wish she had left," Rosemary, now 81, says.

"All I remember growing up was rows within the house. Not my father. My father was very quiet. He was a lovely man. At times, how my father didn't take a hatchet to her I will never know. She should never have got married. She married the wrong person. She had issues. She wanted to project herself."

Did Rosemary have a conversation with her mother before she died? Did Rosemary tell her she loved her?

"No. I didn't say anything."

Did Rosemary hate her mother for all she did to her?

"No. I didn't."

Did she love her?

"She was just a person... what is over is over."

Because of her parents' different religions, they had to get married in a church outside Dublin in Dunboyne. "It was the same church that I got married in. Again [like my mother], I should never have got married. I cancelled the wedding twice, before I finally went ahead with it. I was literally crying."

How long did the marriage last?

"The marriage lasted quite a while."

What's quite a while?

"Seventeen years."

That's quite a 'while', I say.

"I was away more than I was at home. Rallying. He didn't like it."

"When it comes to men, my choice is rubbish," she says.

Does Rosemary feel her extremely controlling and angry mother instilled in her an essentially bad impression of men?

Rosemary nods her head and says: "Basically."

Rosemary Smith was pregnant four times. She sadly miscarried each time. One of the miscarriages was an ectopic pregnancy, which saw her taken to Blanchardstown Hospital, where she was so unwell that before the operation she remembers that she was given the last rites.

"This was the nearest to death I have ever been, despite all my racing and rallying over the years," she says.

Rosemary had a certain resilience, a certain strength of character, that helped her through life, and kept her going no matter what. She remains the only woman to win the Tulip Rally in Holland when she out-raced men and women drivers in her Hillman Imp in 1965. The win made her world famous as a female driver. Staying in the same hotel as the Irish legend, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton sent Rosemary a bouquet of flowers with a congratulatory note.

The following year she won the Coupe des Dames in the Monte Carlo Rally. She was later disqualified - disgracefully, she believes, on very shaky grounds - on the basis that her headlights were not regulation. She was five-times winner in the Coupe de dames and the Circuit of Ireland Rally. She was crowned Women's Go-Kart champion in 1965. The young Dubliner was a pioneer, a true trailblazer in a male-dominated sport. In the days until the men realised she could drive faster and much better than them, Rosemary was often dismissed as a "dumb blonde". She never gave up, even when it all seemed lost.

There was a bad incident during a rally in Ireland when, having taken the wrong road, she hit a stone wall at enormous speed. Her navigator's head was badly injured. Ever the quick thinker, Rosemary immediately pulled the flap of skin over her wound and tied it tight with her scarf, before taking her to hospital in Carlow in a cattle truck. Rosemary and her navigator were soon on the road again.

On another occasion, during the 1968 London-Sydney rally, Rosemary's Lotus-Cortina encountered some problems with its cylinders going up the Khyber Pass in first gear. Refusing to be beaten, Rosemary turned the car around and reversed up the famous Khyber Pass instead.

On the 1973 East Africa Safari, Rosemary and her navigator Pauline Gullick drove their little Datsun Bluebird non-stop for over 2,500 miles through frighteningly inhospitable terrain. Rosemary saw many things that should have frightened the life out of a young woman educated by the nuns in Dublin: a hut in the middle of the Serengeti with a noose hanging from a tree .

Sights like that in the dead of night didn't cause Rosemary to fear for her life, or think about a change in career, though the noose made Rosemary "go a bit faster". So much faster, it proved that Rosemary was the first woman past the finishing line that year on the arduous 1973 East Africa Safari.

Her racing career all started in 1959; she was working as a dress designer. and amateur rally driver Delphine Bigger pitched up in her shop in Dublin and invited young Rosemary along on a rally. She has never looked back since. In February of this year, Rosemary was her brilliant self as a guest on The Tommy Tiernan Show on RTE. Asked about her relationship with danger, she admitted: "We don't get on very well. I tumbled down a few mountains," adding that she once crashed at a Monte Carlo Rally, under poor weather conditions, into a tree.

"I was hanging upside down. But I was alright!"

This, sometimes, seemed to sum up Rosemary Smith's personal life. She had tough times, but she survived and moved on a better person in the end. She was never rich, sometimes broke.

She inherited her lack of brilliance with money from her father John, who ran a garage in Rathmines. One time a customer by the name of Jefferson Smurfit offered John a share of his business to clear a bill he owed to John at the garage. John turned him down. Smurfit's business went on to be worth billions.

Rosemary lived the life of 20 women. She met everyone, from Bob Hope to Ginger Rogers to Richard Burton and Liz Taylor to Bishop Casey and beyond, even Salvador Dali. Charlie and Maureen Haughey came to her wedding in the early 1970s. Given the circles she moved in, and the career she chose, and indeed the unavoidable fact that she was blonde, beautiful, with legs up to her ears, I wonder, did she ever meet that Formula 1 playboy deity of the 1970s, James Hunt?

"Oh, yeah. James came here at one stage."

Did she have a fling with him? "No. No. You don't understand. I wouldn't even talk to these people, I was so shy. I wouldn't have interested him. I wasn't glamorous enough or wasn't pretty enough or anything else for him. He wanted a real - no pun intended - racy type of girl, dresses up to here. He was very attractive."

Did she have flings with men? Did she enjoy her life in that way, given she was travelling around the world racing fast cars?

"Ah yeah. I used to go out and about. I got engaged to a few of them, but it was only to show that I could get people interested. And then I didn't want them."

Was that because of her low self-esteem?

"Yes. Of course it was.

"But I really didn't want them. Look - the main thing is: when people often say, 'All these men that you met going to London to Sydney, Mexico...'; but what goes on on a rally stays on a rally. I might have had a fling here and there but that's all it would be. When you come home, you get back to earth."

Rosemary didn't have a sailor in every port?

"Oh, no. God, no. It was a different sort of life for a woman. When I started [in motor-racing], they would say 'Dumb blonde. Very disparaging. It was difficult. And again, this is why the name of my book Driven is good because there was no way I was going to let them get me down."

And how did Rosemary ensure that that wasn't going to happen to her? "Because," she answers, "when I got into the car and slammed the door and put on the seat belt, I just went for it. I had no hang ups. I wanted to win, to prove a point to these people who had been so disparaging about me, initially. I felt good. I loved every minute of it. I won a lot of races around the world."

Rosemary was, she says, engaged to be married several times, but when she had to choose between the man and the motor, the car always won. "They all wrongly assumed that I would give up motor sports when I married and I had to tell them that this was not the case. A lot of the time I said 'yes' to a proposal to prove to myself, and my mother, that I could get a man, but really I had no intention of settling down". One day, a long, long time ago, a man told her he had broken up with his fiancee and asked her out. "Not long after he got it into his head that we should get married".

Rosemary was "non-committal and humoured" him, until one day, she arrived home to see a woman, who she didn't know, sitting in her front room with her mother. The woman had flown in from Mexico. She had a wedding veil with her. The precious family heirloom, she told Rosemary, was for the wedding of Rosemary to her nephew. Rosemary told the woman that she must be mistaken and that she had no plans to marry her son and walked out. According to Rosemary, the woman from Mexico stayed for "ages" in an attempt to persuade Rosemary's mother. "She was going to leave him a lot of money and she would love it if he married me."

Rosemary didn't see him again until years later, when she competed at the RAC Rally in England. "He was in the hotel at Heathrow standing behind a huge potted plant in the foyer with a crash helmet on and driving gloves, just staring at me. People told me he had been there looking at me for a long time before I noticed him. I told him I had to go to a team meeting and that was the last I ever saw of him."

Her life is nothing less than extraordinary. At times it borders on melodrama where relationships are disastrous or catastrophic. She says that, until the early 1980s, she continued to drive in rallies as much as possible, despite her husband, she claims, referring to her many endeavours as "ego trips".

"It was inevitable that his jealousy of me and my career would lead to the relationship ending. Despite all I had been through, I am sorry to say that my need to have a man in my life led me to yet another catastrophic relationship."

Rosemary wasn't exactly shocked in 1988 when she received a letter from Haiti telling her that "I was divorced from my husband. It was a relief to be free, although Irish law didn't recognise that until much later." Rosemary was living on her own at that time. Her self-esteem was at "an all-time low. I had little confidence in my ability to make a go of it with any man."

"Some people learn from experience," but Rosemary Smith, by her own admission, "wasn't one of them". The night Rosemary met her second partner, she was "feeling sorry" for herself in the Manor Park Inn in Naas. A man came over and offered to buy her a drink and soon told her his marriage had broken up. "In my insecure state of mind I fell for him, and it wasn't long before he moved into my house and our life together began. The relationship didn't end well".

She also writes about having a facelift in 1996 at a time when all the things that had "gone wrong in my life seemed to be reflected in my face: the failed marriage, the miscarriages, the debts, my mother and father gone, my brother Roger [who died of a heart attack aged 42] and sister, Pamela, dead prematurely [she died of cancer at the age of 63] and the trouble over the failed relationship [financial troubles too complex to go into] and Four Winds [her home]."

In the end, one cannot avoid the conclusion that Rosemary Smith is one of the most fascinating women you could hope to meet. It is impossible not to warm to her, and her story. However sad it is in parts about her dysfunctional-relationship with her mother and her failed relationships with men as a result. At one point in our long talk, Rosemary alleges that an ex once said to her that she was ugly.

Does Rosemary - who was one of Ireland's most beautiful women - know now she is not ugly?

"I am old now, old in body but not in mind. I am younger than half the people I meet these days. I enjoy every day," says the role model for Irish women, the racing demi-goddess, who at 81 years of age, might be running out of road, but shows little sign of it.

And despite Sister Aquinas's best efforts to convince her otherwise, Rosemary is going to racing heaven when she dies.

In the meantime she's busy running her driving school in Kildare.

Driven by Rosemary Smith, published by Harper Collins, price £14.99, is out October 4.

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