“Tonight is a celebration, but tonight is very hard,” declared the renowned broadcaster shortly before he appeared on stage at the Everyman Theatre.
Norton presented the sold-out Graham Norton & Friends; A Concert for Helen featuring singers John Spillane and Linda Kenny and The Glaslinn Choir, before an audience of hundreds of family members, relatives, and friends of teenager Helen Fennell from Bandon.
Helen died in 2014, several months after receiving a heart transplant.
Norton had attended Bandon Grammar School with Helen’s mother, Cork solicitor Elaine O’Driscoll.
“I have known Elaine since I was a child. We met when we were about 12 and have known each other ever since,” he said, adding that he met Helen a few months before her death, when she and Elaine flew to London in October 2014 to attend his hugely popular show and have dinner with him.
Following the concert, the star-struck teenager tweeted a photo captioned “best night of my life”.
“Helen had that wonderful balance of being confident without being precocious,” said Norton.
“She was a lovely young woman, and what a credit she was to both her parents.
“She was engaged and engaging,” said Norton, who recalled that Helen had been immensely proud of her transplant scar, and, he said, “wore it with pride”.
Helen died in December 2014 just eight months after receiving a heart transplant at the Mater Hospital.
“We thought the story would have a happy ending because of the transplant,” Norton recalled, adding that when he had heard she had passed away, “I could not believe it; it was such a shock”.
“It is a wonderful thing that Helen was so loved that all of these people came together to do this show,” he said, adding that when Elaine asked him to be involved in last night’s concert, he was immediately on board.
“You just say yes,” said Norton who arrived in Cork on Saturday and returned to the UK on an early-morning flight today.
“Tonight is very hard — it’s a celebration but equally, I can see that Elaine and [her husband] Justin are finding it very hard,” he said last night. “It’s a heartbreaking thing to do but it is brilliant because they are raising lots of money.
“Tonight is all about Helen and Elaine and Justin but it is also about fundraising for the Mater Hospital, which is such a critical facility.”
Elaine said: “Helen was enormously in awe of Graham; she knew him and admired him and it’s wonderful that he is presenting the concert.
“The concert is about a magical feeling; it will be this one magical night with all the warmest elements of Helen’s life coming together in a wonderful moment of celebration,” she said adding that without the organisers even having to ask, donations and raffle prizes have been pouring in.
Ticket sales for the concert are expected to raise over €20,000 for three nominated charities, The Mater Foundation, The Cork University Hospital Charity, and St Angela’s College.