MURDERED former model Celine Cawley was still mourning the death of her mother when she was beaten to death at her home in Howth last Monday.
The 46-year-old millionaire’s daughter was only coming to terms with her mother Brenda’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2006 – and told a fellow passenger on a recent Aer Lingus flight to France that she was very concerned about her 79-year-old father, James, a former Barings Bank funds boss.
According to the passenger, Celine never mentioned her 51-year-old husband, Eamonn Lillis – with whom she ran one of the biggest commercial film-production companies in Ireland – but she spoke of her devotion to her 16-year-old daughter, Georgia.
She also spoke of how ‘overworked’ and tired she was on the French getaway that she had booked at the last minute.
The model-turned-film producer opened her heart to Rose Craig, who sat beside her on the September 14 flight to Bordeaux.
Mrs Craig, from Dublin, said last night: ‘She didn’t really talk about work but mentioned she was MD of her own company, called Toytown, and that it was her life’s work.
‘I remember thinking how marvellous she was to be the mother of a 16-year-old daughter she was clearly very devoted to, and to be a successful businesswoman at the same time.
‘As she never once mentioned a partner of any kind, and I didn’t think it polite to enquire, I just assumed she was a single mother.
‘When, for example, I asked who was looking after her daughter while she was away, she just said, “She’s fine. She is being very well looked after”.
‘There was no mention whatsoever of the girl’s father. She mentioned she lived in Howth but didn’t say who with. It never came up.’
Celine named the school her daughter was attending, one of Ireland’s most exclusive and expensive, with fees as high as €22,000 a year for boarders.
The two women met when Celine arrived, dressed in a black evening dress and breathless, aboard the Dublin to Bordeaux flight.
Celine was on her way to stay at a villa her father, James, owned. Mrs Craig said: ‘She was breathless and a little edgy because I think she’d had to run to the gate before it closed.
‘The flight was a last-minute decision, she told me later, and I got the impression she just needed to get away and have a break.
‘At one point she said, “I am overworked, and I’m going for a rest”. And when the plane jolted very sharply at some stage in the flight, she turned to me and said quite sternly, “this is the last thing I need”.
She added: ‘During the conversation, which lasted for most of the 90-minute flight, she told me her mother had been fit and healthy one minute and then fighting for her life after being diagnosed with cancer.
‘She said she died suddenly and the family was devastated. It had hit her father hard.
‘She said she was worried about him. Something had happened to him a short while before I met her but she didn’t go into details.’
Celine also talked lovingly, and at length, about her daughter. ‘She clearly doted on her,’ Mrs Craig said. ‘At one point, I think she referred to her as the “light of my life” and that she had brought her much joy.’
Indeed, the teenager – who is in her transition year – was due to get a horse for Christmas, to add to the Swedish warmblood gelding she keeps at a stable in Ashbourne, Co. Meath.
According to a neighbour living near her holiday villa, Celine was planning to enrol Georgia at a school at the small town of Hossegor, 180km south of Bordeaux.
Celine told Mrs Craig that father had purchased a holiday there in the 1970s that had turned to be a ‘great investment’.
This appears to have been sold his name is now listed as joint with Mr Lillis of a home elsewhere the town, which only has about residents. The property was about three years ago.
The €800,000 French villa, sleeps eight and is due to be rented for next summer at around E3,000-week, was shuttered up and deserted this weekend.
Complete with swimming pool, it is just five minutes from the in an affluent district of the popular surfing resort.
Staff at the estate agency dealing the villa’s rental were shocked told about Celine’s death.
One employee, who asked not to be named, said night: ‘We cannot believe this has happened and we are all in shock. She a lovely person and we all got on well with her. She was great – upbeat, open and lively.
‘We saw her and her husband occasionally. When they were in town they pop in and say hello. She was discreet and kept a low profile.’
Both Celine and Mr Lillis were due attend a meeting at the agency on October 20 but failed to turn up.
The staff member added: ‘We would have nothing but good to say about her and her husband. Lovely people.’
Neighbour Christian Vergez, who lives on the same secluded tree-lined avenue as Cawley and Mr Lillis, remembers Celine with fondness.
He said last night: ‘When they first moved in, we had a drink at our house with her and her husband, and they invited us back.
‘They were not there very often and nor are we. We did not see each other very much but we know them to say hello and chat over the hedge. We saw them this summer.
‘When they first arrived, they needed things like numbers for doctors and restaurants and we gave them, of course. That was two or three years ago.
He added: ‘She was full of vitality and energy. A strong woman. We talked a bit about the film industry. She told us she had been here [to Hossegor] when she was younger, about 30 years ago. But they only bought this house three years ago.
‘They seemed very nice, she and her husband, and we saw two very nice young girls. We thought they were daughters but maybe it was the daughter and a friend.
‘We liked each other but we were not close. It is very sad to hear such news. Very sad.’
A spokeswoman for the local Police Municipale told the Irish Mail on Sunday last night: ‘We would be more than happy to co-operate with anything the Irish police asked us to do.’
Celine’s Toytown Films Ltd was incorporated in February 1992 as a motion picture and video production firm. It was set up with help from one of her multimillionaire father’s companies, Earl Trust Ltd.
James’s directorships have included Barings International Fund Managers (Ireland) Ltd, Warner Brothers Video (Ireland) Ltd, the Butcher Boy Film Production Company – which backed the Neil Jordan film, The Butcher Boy – and the Dublin Chamber of Commerce.
Mrs Craig said last night: ‘It is awful when this sort of thing happens to anybody. But I was particularly touched because Celine was so lovely, decent, lively and genuine.
‘I got the impression she was very bright and quite authoritative, but more charismatic than bossy.
‘My heart goes out to her family.’
(Additional reporting by Sophie Kevany)