Friday 17 January 2020

Kathleen Ryan - the Irish actress who became forgotten star of Hollywood

Beautiful Kathleen Ryan looked set for a glittering career, but it never materialised, writes Liam Collins

Kathleen Ryan and James Mason in ‘Odd Man Out’
Kathleen Ryan and James Mason in ‘Odd Man Out’
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

She was feted at film premieres, mixed with Hollywood's leading men, was the subject of a celebrated Louis le Brocquy portrait and appeared set for the gilded life of a film superstar.

But when Kathleen Ryan died in December 1985 at the age of 63 she was a forgotten woman.

Her career behind her, she was a familiar figure around Grafton Street where her younger brother John owned The Bailey pub and she was living with a raffish newspaper columnist when she died of a lung infection at Baggot Street hospital.

The once celebrated beauty seems to have been haunted by 'what might have been' - what one of her sisters called the "tragedy" of her promising Hollywood career, a 'hit-and-run' accident in which a man lost his leg and the break-up of her marriage to a leading Limerick doctor.

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Yet Kathleen Ryan lives on, not as a glamorous Hollywood star but as Kathleen Sullivan in the gritty thriller Odd Man Out, a film that influenced famous directors and actors and is regarded by aficionados as a cinema classic.

It was where it all started with such promise when she was cast as the heroine in Carol Reed's 1947 film noir, opposite James Mason.

His hard-edged part as the wounded IRA man fighting for survival in a dark world of intrigue and betrayal transformed him from a very English 'character' actor to a major Hollywood star.

It was a role that defined his career, but sadly for Kathleen Ryan, although she went on to play opposite Rock Hudson, Dirk Bogarde and Stewart Granger, all leading Hollywood men of the time, she would never garner such fame again.

"The tragedy of her career was that she was forever given mournful 'Dark Rosaleen' parts that did not suit her," said Ide Ni Riain, about her high-spirited sister.

Kathleen Ryan was born on September 8, 1922, above her mother's shop in Camden Street, Dublin.

It seemed like humble beginnings, but her parents were a formidable partnership. Her mother, Agnes V Ryan, the founder of the Monument Creamery chain of shops and her father Seamus, a friend of Eamon de Valera, who would later become a founder of Fianna Fail and a senator.

In the decade that followed Kathleen's birth her mother would build a retail empire of 28 shops, cafes and a bakery in central Dublin and the suburbs, making her probably one of the wealthiest women in the city and one of the few females to found and run a major enterprise in that era.

Her day started when her uniformed chauffeur Eddie Keogh picked her up in her blue Daimler to begin a tour of the shops. It was interrupted by attendance at 10 o'clock mass in Whitefriar Street Church, after which the inspection would resume.

She talked to her 'girls', found out what was selling and what wasn't, and was constantly on the hunt for new premises to sell her own brand of luxury, fresh produce sourced from suppliers in the Golden Vale.

With busy careers and a growing family the eldest, Kathleen, was sent to boarding school in Bruff, Co Limerick, at the age of six. She stayed there until the sudden death of her father at home in Rathgar in 1933. For his services to Fianna Fail he was honoured with a State funeral and thousands of people lined the streets of Dublin to pay tribute as his cortege made its way up O'Connell Street.

But even as they did so, rumours circulated in business circles that his wife's chain of grocery stores was bankrolled by de Valera and would collapse within weeks.

Defiantly she bought herself a new car and moved her brood of eight children to the stately Burton Hall estate near Leopardstown racecourse in south Co Dublin, which she filled with antique furniture and her collection of Jack B Yeats paintings.

The girls were enrolled in Mount Anville. After a stint in 'finishing' school in Paris, Kathleen went to UCD to study for a BComm.

At the Royal Hibernian Academy exhibition of 1941 the Louis le Brocquy portrait of the 19-year-old beauty Girl in White was the sensation of the show and is now in the Ulster Museum in Belfast. Dressed in a beautiful white gown and painted in profile she looks the picture of elegance and wealth.

On July 19, 1944, dressed in a "cloth of gold", she married Dermod J Devane, a dashing young doctor from Limerick who she met in UCD. After their wedding in Foxrock Church her mother spared no expense throwing a lavish reception in the grounds of Burton Hall. Tanaiste Sean T O'Kelly and ministers Eoin Ryan, Frank Aiken, Sean McEntee, PJ Rutledge and their wives mixed with writers, artists, business people and society figures.

Kathleen had "dropped out" of university and with her new husband moved to Limerick. They lived in a red-bricked house in Ballincurra and he operated a private practice in Pery Square in the city. She was nursing their first child when she got a call from the Rank Organisation to play opposite James Mason in Odd Man Out - a classic noir film set in an unnamed city in which an IRA raid goes wrong and during an exchange of gunfire a policeman is killed and Johnny McQueen, Mason's character, is wounded.

Filmed on the gritty streets of Belfast it didn't take much for city and story to become entwined. The cast was littered with high-profile Irish actors, many of them from the Abbey Theatre - Cyril Cusack, FJ McCormick, Denis O'Dea, WG Fay, Maureen Delaney and Dan O'Herlihy among them. It was released in London February, 1947 to sensational reviews.

'Odd Man Out Challenges Hollywood', read the Irish Independent headline. "Kathleen Ryan, the heroine, is a real person who plays her part with sincerity and never vulgarises it by self-conscious glamour," added the reviewer.

Because of weeks of snow and ice that brought Ireland to a standstill the film didn't open in the Royal Theatre in Dublin until early March, 1947.

For six days beforehand the Irish Press ran stills from the film and its reviewer wrote: "Kathleen Ryan has justified the English rave about her possibilities." An American reviewer described her as "beautiful as the girl, cool, statuesque and stoical, but it is difficult to fathom her thoughts".

After starring roles in Captain Boycott and Esther Waters she left her family for Hollywood in 1952, accompanied by her sister Cora. She was clearly following in the footsteps of Maureen O'Hara and Mia Farrow's mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, who were both older than her but had the same fresh Irish good looks. But a seven-film contract produced only two roles and she returned to Ireland to film Captain Lightfoot, starring Rock Hudson as a highwayman, although she had slipped down the billing with Barbara Rush playing the leading lady.

As she was preparing for the role, Kathleen made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On May 7, 1953, Peter Kelliher, a shopkeeper of Moyderwell, Tralee, Co Kerry, was on his way home from a business trip to Dublin. He stopped his 1951 Bedford van at McNamara's petrol station outside Limerick at about 8.30pm to put water into the radiator from a red Esso can. As he was doing so a green Hillman car, registration ZU 1158, drove into the petrol station, skidded in a circle, striking him in the process, before righting itself and proceeding back towards Ballincurra.

"They've killed my boy," wailed Kelliher's mother Norah who was sitting with her sister in the stationary van. 'They' hadn't, but he did suffer traumatic injuries to his leg which had to be amputated.

When Inspector T Griffin, alerted by witnesses, called to the Devane household at No 2 Querrin Villas, Ballinacurra, at 9.35pm the Hillman was parked outside and there was red paint from Mr Kelliher's can streaked along the side. The garda spoke to Kathleen Ryan and said she told him she "couldn't account for the damage to her car". She declined to give a statement but later sent one via her solicitor.

She said she had been collecting parcels from the Dublin bus in Limerick, it had been raining and on her way home the car had gone into a skid at Pounds Cross "but she didn't believe she had hit anything". She said she got a terrible shock and drove home because of it, making no attempt to hide the car.

She was charged with dangerous driving at Limerick City Court. But the case was adjourned for three months to allow the mother-of-three to take her role in the film Captain Lightfoot, a period drama shot in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, and Clogherhead, Co Louth.

When the dangerous driving case was eventually heard, on September 4, 1954, Kathleen (Ryan) Devane (31) sat at the back of the court wearing a long dark coat and what one reporter called "a tidy hat".

Because of her status as a film star the courtroom in Limerick city was packed with reporters who spilled off the press benches on to the tables reserved for legal representatives.

In a spirited defence, during which she was not called to give evidence, her barrister told Judge Gleeson "there was nothing sinister" about her leaving the scene.

After hearing the evidence the judge agreed. "The skid and unfortunate accident was not caused by anything in the driver's view," he concluded. "It was clear she made no attempt to avoid detection or run away," he also ruled, dismissing the charges of dangerous and careless driving.

Rather confusingly he then fined her £5 for not remaining at the scene.

The following October after a brief hearing in the High Court in Dublin during which Ryan's insurers admitted liability, Mr Kelliher, who attended on crutches, was awarded £7,000 in damages.

The court was told that he had his leg amputated below the knee as a result of the accident and he might have to have a further operation.

Now over 30, and her days as a 'leading lady' over, Kathleen Ryan appeared in a series of unremarkable films in the years that followed, including Jacqueline in 1956, another gritty Belfast-based drama. But nothing was to replicate the success of Odd Man Out, and her career petered out. She didn't have the Abbey Theatre training of many of her contemporaries and gradually faded from the scene.

Her marriage was annulled in 1958, not something that was talked about at the time.

She moved back to live with her mother in The Priory in Monkstown, Co Dublin, before taking a flat in Ashley, a large Victorian house on Clyde Road. With her brother John she was appointed a director of the Monument Creamery, but by then the family business was struggling and would go into voluntary liquidation in 1961.

In the early 1960s she moved to Killiney with Niall Desmond Lawlor, an Old Belvedere boy, teacher, army man and latterly a journalist with the Irish Independent and author of a column in the paper signed Tatler 11. The couple were well known in the pubs off Grafton Street, mixing with artists and writers.

Her death notice of December 11, 1985, was simple and unadorned: "Kathleen Devane (nee Ryan) of No 10 Cluny Grove, Killiney, Dublin, mourned by her son, daughters, relatives and friends." Her removal and funeral took place at Our Lady of Victories in Sallynoggin, Co Dublin.

There was no indication, except to those 'in the know' of her famous mother, her glamorous early life or her glittering film career.

By then Ireland had changed utterly and people were more interested in looking forward than back and all that remains to her memory is a black and white film and a bronze plaque in Gaelic on the family plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Sunday Independent

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