A life less ordinary

Margaret Dwyer - a woman synonymous with the Rose of Tralee and tourism in Kerry - would have been 100 this week. Here, her son Ryle Dwyer tells her story

Saturday marks the centenary of the birth of Margaret Dwyer, who died a couple of years ago. Born and reared in New York, she immigrated to Ireland in the late 1940s when the tide of emigration was going very much in the other direction.

After her husband was killed in Germany while serving in the US Army during the Second World War, she found it necessary to go back to work. She got a job with Trans World Airlines (TWA), but much of her earnings went on child-minding services. On visiting Tralee on a family holiday in 1948, she found that her American war-widow's pension was three times the average industrial wage in Ireland. Hence she decided that she could devote herself full-time to raising her two sons in Tralee.

Many will remember her as one of the founders of the Rose of Tralee Festival and its first woman President. She was my mother, so I knew her throughout my life, but I only learned of facets of her career on writing 'Across the Waves', a book about my parents.

In high school, Margaret shared a desk for three years with Judy Tuvim, who later became famous under the stage name of Judy Holliday. In 1951 Judy won the Oscar for the Best Actress for her role as Billie Dawn in the movie 'Born Yesterday'.

Margaret remembered Judy as a brilliant student, with a photographic memory, the very antithesis of the characters she made famous as an actress.

Before marrying in 1942, Margaret was a radio-telephone operator with a top security clearance in New York. She put up calls between Roosevelt and Churchill and had to listen to them as part of her job. As it was radio telephone, the Germans might be listening too, so the two leaders talked in a circuitous way that only they were likely to understand.

She put calls through from London to Ottawa in August 1942 on the night of the Dieppe Raid in which nearly 3,000 Canadians were killed or captured. She was convinced for more than 50 years that it had been a major invasion of Europe, but she could tell no one because it had been an unmitigated disaster.

I got my mother to talk about some of the sensational phone calls involving famous film people.

She had to listen in order to provide time credit for anything they had to repeat. One night Al Jolson was sobbing as he pleaded with his wife, Ruby Keeler, not to divorce him. But she wanted nothing further to do with him because he had given her syphilis. She even got her name removed from the film of his life, The Al Jolson Story.

Many operators liked to listen into calls between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, the star of Gone with the Wind. They were having a torrid affair and were very sexually explicit on the phone, much to the amusement of the operators.

My parents got married in Seattle, Washington, in September 1942. They spent their first night at the Olympic Hotel, where the film star and comedian Bob Hope was staying before setting out on a tour of military bases. Hope and the singer Frances Langford, were actually on the same elevator as the newly-weds as they were going up to their room.

Langford had popularised the song "I'm in the Mood for Love" in a 1935 movie. In his memoirs, Hope recalled that the greatest laugh at any of his military shows was once, after Langford sang the first line of the song, a soldier jumped up and shouted, "You've come to the right place, honey!"

One can imagine Bob Hope's banter with the newly-weds. When I asked, my mother would only say that Hope was very funny on the elevator.

While at the front in France in 1944, my father wrote to my mother on the back of her letters. "I am writing this on your letters so that we can save them for Ryle to know what we were doing and thinking during these unusual days," he wrote. "I think some of them will give him something to think about - don't you?" They did indeed, and led to my writing Across the Waves.

In 1961 Tralee businessman Billy Clifford approached Margaret to be catering manager on the set of The Playboy of the Western World, being filmed at Inch. She had no catering experience, but he was confident she would have no problems. She took the job and enjoyed it immensely.

When Florence O'Connor stepped down as President of the Festival of Kerry in 1970, Margaret was elected to replace him. It was a momentous time as a result of the Northern troubles.

Promoting an Irish festival, with her distinctive New York accent, Margaret got ready access to the media in North America. The festival's influence was thereby enhanced at Bord Fáilte and Aer Lingus, as their directors were anxious to assuage the damage being done to Irish tourism by the Northern troubles.

After the Bloody Sunday outrage in Derry and the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin in early 1972, prospects for the tourist season seemed particularly bleak. Éamonn Ceannt, Director General of Bord Fáilte, offered Margaret a full-time promotional job with the board. She would have relished the challenge but declined because it would have necessitated moving from Tralee, where her elderly mother needed her. But she did represent Tralee UDC on the board of Cork/Kerry Tourism for a number of years.

Following the death of her mother, Billy and Tommy Clifford invited Margaret to be Sales Manager of the Mount Brandon Hotel. She enjoyed the challenge and worked well into her late 70s.

David Hanley - who later made his name as a television interviewer and presenter of RTÉ's Morning Ireland - parodied the Rose of Tralee in his novel, 'In Guilt and In Glory', which was based largely on his experiences working for Bord Fáilte. He wrote about a fictional Cahirsiveen Carrot Queen Festival.

Over the years in Tralee, Margaret was known - largely behind her back - as "the merry widow." She was aware of this, and it never bothered her. In Hanley's book, the president of the Carrot Festival was a woman with a Brooklyn accent, described as "a third generation returned Yank named Mrs Amelia Line, known to locals as the Widdah Line." This parodying of her and festival was really a measure of their impact.

Shortly after settling in Ireland, Margaret was introduced to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, who said something to her in Irish. When she said she did not understand Irish, he just kept on jabbering in Irish, so she was not impressed with him. As a result of her involvement with the festival, Margaret interacted with successive Taoisigh - Jack Lynch, Liam Cosgrave, Charlie Haughey, Garret FitzGerald, and Albert Reynolds.

She seemed undaunted at meeting anybody, Florence O'Connor told me. On one occasion he recalled that as they were leaving the cemetery in Skibbereen, after the funeral of a fellow director of Cork/Kerry Tourism, Margaret stopped to talk to a man. O'Connor and Arthur J O'Leary walked on a bit, wondering if she really knew to whom she was talking.

"Oh, thank God, you walked on," she said on re-joining them. "I couldn't introduce you. I know him well but can't remember his name." They laughed. "Jack Lynch, Taoiseach!" they replied.

I got more personal satisfaction from Across the Waves than from any of my books, because I learned so much about my family.

Moreover, I often found my mother reading the book at night when she was in her 90s. She had forgotten so much that she enjoyed being reminded.

She certainly enjoyed a full life.