Mirette Corboy is one of the Irish construction industry’s pioneers. Forty one years ago, she was elected the first ever and only female president to date of the Construction Industry Federation. Now 92, the Limerick woman remains a passionate supporter of the sector and her suberb legacy as a woman in construction continues.
“I was very proud,” she says recalling that significant moment of being elected to one of the CIF’s highest honours. “I couldn’t believe it. They wanted to choose an incoming president and all of sudden my name went forward. All the hands went up.”
However, she adds, there were some who doubted her abilities to take on the prestigious role. “I remember one of the trade unionists at the time said ‘give her three months and she’ll be gone’ but that wasn’t the case,” she says.
“We met at a meeting sometime later and he asked me if I’d accept his apology and I did,” she laughs. “Though maybe not very graciously.”
So successful was she in that role, that second and third presidential terms followed in 1992 and 1993 – ‘‘I forced them to let me go years later!” Corboy jokes.
Originally interested in a writing and journalism career, Mirette attended the University of the Sorbonne in Paris where she became fluent in French. She went on to marry Civil Engineer Sean Hanley and the pair co-founded the construction company Portland Estates Limerick Limited, specialising in housing, general contracting and development.
Now a mother to two sons and a daughter, Mirette tragically faced a devastating heartbreak when Sean died in 1973. She carried on as Managing Director of the business, a now-solo role that wasn’t without its challenges.
“When my husband died so suddenly, everybody was ready to move in. They thought I’d be up to my neck in debt but I had no choice but to get on with it,” she says.
“We were building houses and at that time you would have to buy land very far in advance so you were always borrowing money. That was a big challenge as a women, when you went to the bank to ask for money. No bank manager would believe in you but I rose above that.”
Mirette quickly gained a reputation as a tour de force in the industry and found happiness again with Limerick business man Tony Corboy, whom she married in 1977. With a successful leadership role in Portland Estates, she went on to become involved in the CIF, representing Limerick on the National Council.
“I always believed that if I was doing something, I would do it the best I could,” she says.
And it’s that positive attitude that she has applied throughout her working life. Over the years, while continuing to be an advocate for the construction industry at the highest levels, Corboy has also given her time to countless community endeavours.
At the University of Limerick she helped create a student residence package, which has since been replicated in other universities and continues today as Plassey Campus Centre Limited.
She has represented the CIF on the Central Review Committee, which advises the Taoiseach’s Office, and was also Government appointed to the Building Regulations Advisory Board, the Boards of the Enterprise Trust, the National Economic and Social Forum and the National Roads Authority. She is a former Chair of the Board of Limerick Youth Service.
During her time as CIF President, she led delegations across Europe and also travelled to the World Housing Convention in Dallas – becoming the first women to attend as a president of a member organisation. “I travelled all over the world representing the industry and women in construction,” she says.
“Without a doubt there were challenges back then. I was blonde and blue-eyed and sometimes there was a sneering attitude. But I proved it didn’t matter what colour your hair was. I never got bitter. I could always see the problem was with the other person. You learn from the experience.
“Back then, women were always thought of as secretaries and the like,” she adds. “I would give talks trying to encourage the industry to branch out, to have female representation. And it worked, I think. A woman’s profile is very important, not just to be seen as the woman in the office.”
What big change would benefit women in the industry?
It’s very important to see women in leadership roles, doing and achieving. I’ve never liked the phrase ‘you’re only a woman’. There are so many women who have made such a great contribution. I would love to see that being continued.