Wednesday 22 January 2020

'Putting Mum in a home because of her Alzheimer's was the toughest decision'- Sister of F1 hero Eddie Irvine

Exclusive Monaco-based businesswoman Sonia Irivine, the sister of F1 hero Eddie, tells of family's heartbreak over mother's dementia

Sonia Irvine (R) attends the Amber Lounge Charity Fashion event at Le Meridien Beach Plaza Hotel on May 24, 2013 in Monaco, Monaco. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Sonia Irvine (R) attends the Amber Lounge Charity Fashion event at Le Meridien Beach Plaza Hotel on May 24, 2013 in Monaco, Monaco. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Claire McNeilly

Sonia Irvine is a hugely successful businesswoman because, invariably, she gets the big calls right.

Strong, focused, determined, decisive; there’s no doubt about who’s boss when the 52-year-old is chairing a crucial meeting.

But there is one decision — albeit in hindsight the right one — that remains a source of profound regret for the older sister of ex-Formula One star Eddie Irvine.

Kathleen Irvine (77), mother of Sonia and Eddie and stricken with Alzheimer’s, now resides in a North Down nursing home.

And the decision to put her there was the most difficult her two grown-up children, and husband Edmund snr (76), have ever flown home to make.

Monaco-based Sonia was back in Northern Ireland last weekend along with property tycoon Eddie (50) visiting their parents.

Eddie Irvine, Liam Cunningham and Sonia Irvine
Eddie Irvine, Liam Cunningham and Sonia Irvine

It was a deeply emotional time, and Sonia fought back tears as she admitted that Kathleen no longer recognised her.

“I have good days and bad days trying to cope with that,” said the mother of two daughters.

“Mum is staying close to the family home. Last week I went down to give her her afternoon drink. My dad would go in and do lunch, and then I’d go in and do supper. When Edmund was there she was asleep, so he was giving her a massage.”

She added: “It was really hard for us, making the decision to put Mum into a nursing home, although the staff there are fantastic.

“My dad copes with it by travelling, which is good because it means he has still got a bit of a life.

“Then he comes back to be with Mum for a bit, and heads off again.

“We encourage him to do that because he’s young at heart. And he did an amazing job of keeping Mum out of the home for a lot longer than she probably should have been.”

It’s clearly very difficult for Sonia, the founder and boss of Formula One entertainment business Amber Lounge, to accept what has happened to Kathleen — a woman who, like her only daughter, was no stranger to making big, life-changing decisions. Mrs Irvine and her husband — affectionately known as ‘Big Ed’ — remortgaged their home to help fund little Ed’s fledgling motorsports career.

Eddie Irvine. Photo: Getty Images
Eddie Irvine. Photo: Getty Images

“Mum was a home help and my dad used to run a garage business,” she said.

“He used to race cars himself but stopped because we needed money to carpet the house.

“Edmund had been doing different things to get money for racing — selling potatoes, flogging second-hand cars. He often slept in the back of vans, it was tough at times.

“Then Mum and Dad decided to remortgage the house to send Edmund racing, and he was very lucky with the people he knew.”

She added: “Mum enrolled us in different things — bike races, fancy dress competitions. We were very athletic, we swam competitively, I did Irish dancing competitively. We were brought up to be very independent, focused, determined, and to never give in.”

The advice clearly paid off with Eddie becoming fabulously wealthy on the back of his worldwide property portfolio and Sonia turning the nomadic Amber Lounge, founded 13 years ago, into the ultimate in high-class entertainment during Formula One weekends.

“You’ve got to work for what you want, and I think that’s what both my brother and I have done. If you want it, you go out and work for it,” she said.

But although both Irvine siblings are consumed by their respective businesses, their ailing mother is never far from their thoughts.

“We found out about her illness after we got a brain scan done,” Sonia recalled.

“Things she was doing... you realised that they weren’t appropriate.

“With my mum we always laughed about it because she was always a little bit eccentric in her ways, so we’d laugh and say she was doing eccentric things. For a while we didn’t really register the illness, because she was always like that.

“She probably had it a lot longer than the diagnosis but, diagnosis-wise, five or six years.”

The heavy-hearted decision to move Kathleen was made nearly two years ago, and her mother’s experience has prompted Sonia to consider setting up a fundraising effort to help research Alzheimer’s and help would-be victims — but not just now.

“One day, but it’s just a bit raw at the minute,” she said.

Apart from organising exclusive parties for multi-millionaires in some of the world’s most exotic locations, Sonia is a busy mother to Megan (14) and six-year-old Katie — the beautiful result of the IVF treatment her mother, who was then single, underwent.

Motherhood wasn’t high on her agenda when she got pregnant with Megan, whose father is Myles Mordaunt, a former candidate on The Apprentice TV programme who lives in the high-rollers’ principality.

“I hadn’t planned to be a mum; it just happened and it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.

But when Sonia discovered she loved being a mother she decided to overcome the impediment of not having a partner in order to give birth to a second child.

“In the end I decided to try IVF. I took the attitude that, if it was successful, it was meant to be. I guess I was lucky,” she said.

“Being a mum is amazing; it’s just the smiles that you bring to their wee faces.

“Before motherhood I’d moved a lot — about 30 times — since leaving Northern Ireland, and Monaco is where I’ve ended up.

“Once Megan was born I settled down, and it happened to be that my work was in Monaco (where Amber Lounge was founded in 2003).

“I was brought up in Conlig, in a little village environment, and Monaco is much the same. It’s very small and very safe, and I like that.

“You go to the shops and you meet people you know. I have an apartment there. I go everywhere on my scooter and I take the girls to school in either the car or the scooter. You can be as posh as you want — or as normal as you want — out there.”

Despite her globetrotting during the F1 season, Sonia admits she’s not truly bilingual, but language is no problem to her daughters. “Megan is fluent in Italian — our nanny is from Italy — French, and, obviously, English, and Katie will hopefully follow; they’re making up for my shortfalls,” she said.

Sonia began her professional career as a physiotherapist — she trained in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne — ultimately running her own private practice.

She entered the glitzy world of Formula One in 1996 when Eddie signed for Ferrari and recruited her as his personal physio.

Her workload, however, quickly expanded to included the whole Ferrari team, led by seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, who is still recovering from severe head injuries sustained during a skiing accident nearly four years ago.

When Eddie quit driving, Sonia stayed on to establish Amber Lounge, a corporate entertainment behemoth that has been patronised by the likes of Prince Harry, Bono, Kylie Minogue, Naomi Campbell, Jennifer Lawrence and Prince Albert II, the reigning monarch of Monaco, with whom Sonia is on first-name terms.

A supplementary fashion show for charity has attracted designers such as Herve Leger, Hugo Boss and Jimmy Choo, with collections modelled by the likes of Eva Herzigova, Petra Nemcova and Lauren Gold.

Coming up between now and November are Amber Lounges corporate packages at the Belguim, Italy, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, US, Mexico, Brazil and United Arab Emirates Grands Prix.

“They’re all very different,” she said.

“Monaco is obviously extremely glamorous, Singapore’s a night race, Mexico has an amazing atmosphere, and then we’ve got Abu Dhabi, the final race, so we have a lot of drivers just celebrating the end of the season.”

Multi-millionaire sports people and celebrities, luxurious pop-up nightclubs, royalty, super-yachts — it sounds like the ultimate glamour job.

“Nothing in life is that easy,” Sonia said. “We have a very small team (of 14) who do big things. And this year we’ve taken on Amber Summer, our new lounge bar and restaurant at Le Méridien Beach Plaza.

“We signed a contract six weeks before this year’s Monaco Grand Prix; it was the first franchise that we’ve done and it has been a very steep learning curve.

“Everyone says it must get easier every year, but it doesn’t because you’re always pushing the boundaries, changing things around.”

She added: “We’re never satisfied — or maybe I’m never satisfied.”

Sonia insists that it isn’t that difficult for a woman to succeed in the macho, male-dominated world of motor racing.

“You’ve got to be really good at what you do, man or woman,” she said.

“If you’re good at your job then there are absolutely no issues whatsoever. That’s how I see it.

“And I can use being female to my advantage.”

That competitive streak, forged between her and ‘Edmund’ in the North Down countryside all those years ago, is clearly still there.

“We were certainly competitive with each other as kids, but we were also supportive of each other, and still are,” she said.

“I was Edmund’s physio for years and ran his various businesses. He in turn supports me with the Amber Lounge and we do businesses together. We’re very close.

“At Christmas we always get together, and when the Monaco Grand Prix comes around he’s down here for Amber Lounge.

“My dad comes along as well. My mum used to go, but unfortunately she can’t travel now.”

And what about finding ‘Mr Right’?

“There is somebody,” she admitted. “He’s amazing. We’ve been together a year. He’s Australian, a professional cyclist. Very laidback. He’s younger.”

Belfast Telegraph

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