Saturday 26 May 2018

Flashback 1968: Movie star Charlie Chaplin's visit to Kerry

This weekend 48 years ago the world's most famous silent movie star made his annual visit to his beloved Kerry

Charlie Chaplin and his wife Oona enjoy the Kerry coastline in 1968. Photo: NPA/Independent Collection.
Charlie Chaplin and his wife Oona enjoy the Kerry coastline in 1968. Photo: NPA/Independent Collection.

Ger Siggins

Out for a stroll along the wild Atlantic coast, they look a typical wealthy American couple holidaying in Kerry in the 1960s. But replace the gentleman's trilby with a derby, and give him a moustache and a walking cane, and he suddenly springs to life as the first global movie star, Charlie Chaplin.

The comedian brought his family to Waterville every year for more than a decade, each time bringing a dash of Hollywood colour to the resort hotel of the Butler Arms. They first came in 1959 because Chaplin's wife Oona O'Neill, daughter of Nobel laureate Eugene, was keen to spend time in Ireland.

Walt Disney recommended Waterville and they flew to Shannon and drove to the south Kerry town. "It took almost five hours through the windy roads," remembered daughter Geraldine.

Being high summer, the Butler Arms was full, and the receptionist didn't recognise the star. Without making a fuss, he left and drove off towards Kenmare to find alternative lodgings. One of the owners, Noel Huggard, realised what had happened and set off in pursuit. He caught up with the visitors and persuaded them to return, billeting the Chaplins in his family quarters. His quick thinking paid off for the hotel, as the star's annual return was wonderful publicity.

"They came for a month and instantly fell in love with the place," recalled Chaplin's grandson, Arthur Gardin, in a 2012 RTÉ documentary. "It became a constant holiday location for them. Every year, usually at Easter time, they would return for their fix of wild unspoilt countryside fresh air and fishing. He used to say he loved the feeling of the bracing Atlantic breezes and that the air was worth £1,000 a breath."

Chaplin was born in London in 1889, and moved to the US as a teenager. He developed the tramp character which made his fame and fortune and later made classics such as The Gold Rush, Modern Times and The Great Dictator, which satirised Adolf Hitler. He was accused of communist sympathies and his involvement with much younger women and paternity suits damaged his popularity. In 1943, aged 54 and with three failed marriages, he married O'Neill, who was just 18. Her father disowned her and never saw her again.

Charlie and Oona had eight children together, and when he was refused re-entry to the US in 1952 they moved to Switzerland. There was more controversy swirling around when this photo was taken in 1968. While he was in Ireland he instigated a defamation suit against a Miami magazine which published an interview with his mother-in-law headlined "My son-in-law leaves me to starve to death".

And romance was about too, with much newspaper speculation about the presence of millionaire Greek furrier Nicholas Sistovaris (30) who had been wooing Josephine Chaplin (19). "He is very charming, nice and kindly, and she might go a long way to do better," Charlie told the Irish Independent. "However, I think that Josephine is keen to go on to Oxford and Harvard Universities."

Josephine put academia to one side, however, and married Mr Sistovaris the following June in Switzerland. The owners of the Butler Arms, Billy and Mary Huggard, were guests at the wedding in Corsier.

The last visit to Waterville came in 1971, when the Troubles were near their height. "As a famous Englishman he didn't feel safe here anymore," explained Mr Gardin.

Chaplin died on Christmas day 1977 while Oona passed away in 1991, aged 66. Waterville hasn't forgotten the Little Clown, and a statue was erected in his memory in the village, where the annual Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival has been held since 2011.

Josephine and Geraldine still have holiday homes in the area.

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