Wednesday 22 November 2017

Feisty and funny, Maureen lit up the screen

Maureen O’Hara at the height of her fame in the 1950s
Maureen O’Hara at the height of her fame in the 1950s
Maureen O'Hara in the 1940s. Photo: Getty
The screen legend receiving an honorary Oscar from actors Clint Eastwood and Liam Neeson (right) last year
Maureen and John Wayne in the Quiet Man in 1952. Photo: Rex Features
Maureen O’Hara and Gay Byrne after he presented her with her lifetime achievement award at the Irish Film and Television Awards in 2004. Photo: PA
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Not long before she died at the weekend, Maureen O'Hara said her greatest achievement was being "the first person recognised as an Irishwoman all over the world".

With flaming red hair and hazel eyes, she was crowned as the "Queen of Technicolour", a label she disliked, and she was probably the most celebrated Irish star in Hollywood history.

She was renowned for her fiery streak, an essential part of her appeal, and she never turned her back on her home country. And as she went about the place in Ireland, the woman who once had ambitions to be an opera singer never adopted the airs of a prima donna.

Yesterday, she was remembered with fondness in Cong, Co Mayo, where she shot the John Ford film 'The Quiet Man' with John Wayne in 1951. The pair stayed in a tower in Ashford Castle while the film was being made.

Gerry Collins, who runs 'Quiet Man' tours in Cong, met her when she visited on the 60th anniversary of the film.

"She was fiery and funny, and she loved cracking a joke," he said. "We were all a bit afraid of her. She would keep you in your place in a nice kind of way."

While filming 'The Quiet Man' she was driven around by a local man from Cong, Thomas Ryan.

"My father had the greatest regard for her," said the chauffeur's son, Tom, yesterday. "She met up with my parents years afterwards, and asked them to stay with her in her home in Glengarriff."

On one occasion during the filming of 'The Quiet Man', Thomas Ryan was pulling the make-up van with Maureen on board, when the trailer overturned, and she hurt her arm. But she was unfazed and determined that the show would go on.

Tom Ryan said: "My father was relieved when John Wayne took the blame for the accident, saying that he had not attached the trailer properly."

There were similar fond memories yesterday in Glengarriff, Co Cork, where Maureen lived for many years.

In 1970 she and her third husband Charles Blair bought Lugdine Park, a property once owned by the founder of the Irish Independent, William Martin Murphy.

Set in woodland overlooking Glengarriff Bay, the house had a private island and beach. Maureen's husband died in a plane crash in 1978, and she spent more time in Ireland after that. While living in Glengarriff on and off, Maureen hardly led the life of a reclusive film star, and was a popular figure at the local golf club, where she was honorary president.

"We will miss her deeply," said golf club manager Des Keaveney yesterday. "She was a great ambassador for Glengarriff. She socialised in the golf club and went out to eat in the village."

The woman from Ranelagh in Dublin, radiant on the silver screen, was asked five years ago how she would like to be remembered: "As a Dub and a fan of Shamrock Rovers, and a good performer and actress."

Her love of the "Hoops" came from her father, Charles Stewart Parnell Fitzsimons, who had played GAA, but was caught at a soccer match and banned. He then became heavily involved with Rovers.

Maureen once said she had even harboured ambitions to play for Rovers, and couldn't understand why they didn't have a ladies' team.

Back on screen, her most successful partnership was with John Wayne. She appeared in five of his films, forging a strong bond of mutual admiration and respect.

"I prefer the company of men," Wayne declared, "except for Maureen O'Hara. She's the greatest guy I ever met."

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, O'Hara was known as the 'Queen of the Swashbucklers' for her roles in pirate films.

Passive roles were not for her; she was an active, high-spirited and often athletic participant. When Paul Henreid stole a screen kiss in 'The Spanish Main', she had him summarily flogged.

When Tyrone Power did likewise in 'The Black Swan' she knocked him out.

In real life, Maureen O'Hara scolded a drunkenly amorous Errol Flynn.

However, her own career did not pass without scandal. In 1957, a gossip magazine called 'Confidential' reported that she was spotted indulging in a steamy "necking session" with a mystery South American man in the back row of a Hollywood cinema.

She produced her stamped passport to prove that she was abroad at the time, and she was awarded $5,000 in damages.

The veteran actress was born Maureen Fitzsimons on August 17, 1920. Her father was a Dublin clothier, her mother a one-time actress and contralto singer.

When she was 14 she enrolled at the Abbey's theatre school and within a year was playing Shakespearean roles.

When she was 17, she sailed with her mother on a steam packet for England, where she was invited for a screen test at Elstree studios.

She was signed up to play the lead female part in Alfred Hitchcock's film 'Jamaica Inn'. It was this role that brought her to the attention of Hollywood, and led to a successful career that has hardly been matched by any Irish female star.

Despite this success, she was never nominated for an Academy Award, but received an honorary Oscar just a year ago.

As the sad news of her passing broke on Saturday, tributes came flooding into the Irish Independent, not just from dignitaries, but from individuals who had happened to come across her, such as Sean McElgunn: "God rest you, Maureen O'Hara. I had the privilege of seeing you and John Wayne at the making of 'The Quiet Man'. We were out on the sea in a boat, watching the horses racing on the sandy beach but, even from afar and without glasses, who could mistake your flaming hair or Wayne's constipated strut? Go dteighidh tu slan."

Maureen O'Hara, born August 17, 1920, died October 24, 2015

Irish Independent

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