Ireland’s exotic Hollywood icon is fondly remembered by MARY SHEERIN
Last night I watched The Quiet Man. I hadn’t seen it for over sixty years but I watched it as my own little tribute to the late Maureen O’Hara who recently died at the age of ninety-five.
Some might, quite rightly, describe the film as ‘stage Irish’. It is, but it has some delicious moments, great scenery and paints a very romantic image of Ireland in that depressed era of the early 1950’s.
Apart from our beloved Maureen O’Hara it has the cream of some of Ireland’s best actors of the period, Barry Fitzgerald and Jack McGowran to name but a couple. Directed by John Ford, it stars John Wayne as O’Hara’s leading man – the powerful American whom O’Hara secretly wants to tame her.
The red haired, green eyed, fiery and beautiful looking Maureen O’Hara as Mary Kate Danaher became a sort of national symbol for Ireland at that time. The Irish-Americans adored it and it helped set Ireland on the map; tourists flocked to see where it was made – mind you they were called ‘visitors’ then; a much more gentle and less commercial term in keeping with the ethos and simplicity of our country way back then.
I grew up knowing that Ireland had a real life Hollywood film star. It was exotic, glamorous and almost incredible in that era of the nineteen forties and fifties to think that Ireland, this little island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, was responsible for this real life film star.
I mean we knew about Hollywood. It was where the films were made. It provided possibly our only outlet for escapism in those depressed years. At that time Hollywood never gave its viewers any cold realism; rather did they produce quite fantastical and heightened versions of the real world. And that’s what we wanted.
Indeed, it could be said that that is exactly what we needed back then.
“Is Maureen O’Hara really from Dublin?” I’d ask my mother over and over.
“Yes. She’s from Ranelagh and she trained in the Abbey Theatre,” my mother would patiently answer each time.
“Imagine that,” I’d say, still a bit suspect that Ireland was responsible for this glamorous, Hollywood symbol that was Maureen O’Hara.
In 1939, Maureen O’Hara had her first big film role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame playing opposite Charles Laughton who it is said ‘discovered’ her. The same year saw herstar in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn of which she said: “Well, after I saw myself on the screen in Jamaica Inn, I realised that the girl up there was beautiful. I didn’t want to box the fox any more”.
Yes, indeed. And well said Maureen. As we can see O’Hara didn’t suffer from that Irish lack of self-confidence which could be said to be a hallmark of those years.
From then until the late 1950’s she was in constant demand. She was synonymous with what was known as Hollywood’s golden era.
Some say that O’Hara’s fiery Celtic temperament was just as foreign to cinema goers as Greta Garbo’s Swedish reclusiveness or Marlene Dietrich’s Germanic insouciance.
She was, in a sense, our universal Irish Ambassador and she always remained fiercely protective and proud of her Irish roots and, for that matter, her Irish accent.
In one particular scene in The Quiet Man, Mary Kate Danaher even speaks in Irish to the local priest. I’d like to think this was Maureen’s own idea rather than Ford’s.
Interestingly enough, two of Maureen’s brothers in real life have roles in The Quiet Man. O’Hara always maintained that The Quiet Man was her favourite film:
“It is the one I am most proud of and I tend to be very protective of it. I loved Mary Kate Danaher. I loved the hell and fire in her,” she said.
This shouldn’t surprise us at all. There was a great deal of ‘fire’ and ‘hell’ in Maureen herself in real life we are told. There was a courage and honesty about her that came to the fore in her autobiography ’Tis Herself’ published in 2004 and she certainly was less than reticent regarding the cynicism that formed part and parcel of the film industry that she knew so well.
Maureen O’Hara, whose real name was Maureen FitzSimons, was born on 20 August, 1920, in Ranelagh, Dublin. One of six children, she was the daughter of Marguerita and Charles Stewart Parnell FitzSimons. From an early age she showed talent in drama and singing. In the scene in The Quiet Man where Mary Kate sings it is Maureen herself who sings and does so very beautifully too.
As a child, Maureen also excelled at sports and in many of her films that demanded acrobatic scenes, O’Hara usually played them herself – an activity that few of her contemporary actors engaged in.
Maureen lived for some time in her later years in Glengarriff, Co. Cork, which she loved, but when her health deteriorated somewhat, she returned to America to be nearer her family.
Ireland honoured their flame-haired beauty with many awards including an honorary degree by the National University of Ireland.
And Maureen, who never forgot her Irish roots or her Ranelagh childhood, opened the Ranelagh Arts Festival in 2010. I had a glimpse of her and she still looked glamorous and elegant, sporting her trademark red hair.
Like many great actors, Maureen was never awarded an Oscar, however as recently as last year the Film Academy awarded her an honorary Oscar.
She may have been frail by then indeed but she was still glamorous and feisty:
“What’s this?” she asked viewing the award. “I only hope it’s silver or gold and not like a spoon out of the kitchen.”
Maureen O’Hara was one of our great actors who shone like the bright star that she was. She is survived by her daughter, Bronwyn, grandchildren and great children.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.
ﬂ EDITOR’S NOTE: Ireland’s Own will be taking a closer look at, and paying tribute to, the life and career of Maureen O’Hara in a future issue.