Sunday 21 January 2018

Betty Whelan

'The lady who launched a thousand hats' made a lasting impression on all who knew her, writes Kieran Fagan

Despite the economic stasis, Dublin was an exciting and colourful place in the Fifties, and there was no one more glamorous or vibrant than Betty Whelan, fashion model and businesswoman.

The city's department stores, Arnotts, Switzers and Brown Thomas, hosted fashion shows competing for the custom of the middle-class woman who wanted the new fabrics and styles she saw in Tatler and Sketch and later in Creation and other fashion magazines. Even staid Clerys moved on from supplying suits to priests and stout winter coats to their housekeepers to take in the newly smart middle classes.

Betty's introduction to the world of modelling began in Arnotts department store in Henry Street. Aged about 19, there she was either buying a hat in one version or serving behind a counter in another. One day, the store was holding a lunchtime fashion show, but the model failed to show up. A manager spotted Betty and said "You'll do". She demurred, she know nothing about modelling. The manager -- probably Reginald Howard -- said "watch me", and began mincing up and down in an exaggerated way behind the counter. From then on she was Arnotts' regular hat model and was known as "the lady who launched a thousand hats".

Even the physical layout of the city was affected by the indigenous rag trade. Between major shopping thoroughfares like Grafton Street and South Great George's Street, and with department stores like Kellets and Pims long gone, a network of manufacturers, cutters and finishers flourished around Drury Street and South William Street. North of the Liffey, the Henry Street hinterland extended beyond Capel Street into Green Street and Mary's Lane. And the beautiful young mannequins who modelled the latest creations from Sybil Connolly, Neili Mulcahy, Raymond Kenna and later Ib Jorgensen, were role models for a new generation of Irish women.

Betty was born in Newry, Co Down. When she was eight, the family moved to Dublin and settled in Ranelagh. She attended the Dominican Convent School in Eccles Street.

In December 1946, Christian Dior founded his fashion house in Paris. His first collection was described as the New Look. The following year, he hired the young model from Dublin. She was with him for just six months when her mother became ill and she had to go home. For Betty, it was a life-changing experience, and she probably knew then that she could do what she wanted. She was a beautiful young woman with the confidence that would open many doors to her.

Back in Ireland, her modelling career prospered. She was known for taking on hazardous photo assignments involving hiring a private plane. In 1952, she set up the Betty Whelan Mannequin Agency, working from premises in Grafton Street, and models on her books included Olive White, Miss Ireland 1961, a finalist in the Miss World competition; and Helen Joyce, now better known as Lady Wogan. Ros Hubbard, who later made her name in film casting, worked for her on the admin side. Many top models were trained at the Betty Whelan mannequin agency before moving over to work for the modelling agency.

As the Fifties wore on, Betty began managing her model agency full time. She had many suitors. One was Bobby Pyke, the brilliant and handsome newspaper cartoonist, who had a catastrophic taste for alcohol. She disliked Eddie Browne (Edward Ashe-Browne) on first sight. But he was in the clothing business and he hired her modelling services for a week, and used their time together to win her over. In fact, she became the third woman to be engaged to Eddie. His formidable mother had seen off the first two. Betty and Eddie married and had three sons, Peter, Paul and Eddie junior, between 1955 and 1958.

As a young mother, Betty, in her lavish fur coats, cut quite a dash in the expanding south Dublin suburb of Churchtown, where neighbours included entrepreneurs Rory Barnes of Glen Abbey textiles; PV Doyle, the hotelier; Fr Jack Hanlon, an unconventional curate and Cubist-influenced painter; and Taoiseach Sean Lemass, whose wife Kathleen wobbled precariously around the neighbourhood on an "upstairs model" pushbike, with her groceries in a basket on the handlebars.

The opening of Telefis Eireann (RTE television) in 1961 provided another platform. Betty was a frequent guest on the new Late Late Show, and appeared regularly on a programme called Pick of the Post. She opened a chain of four beauty salons around the city -- one in Landscape Road, close to her home.

In retirement in 1988, she and Eddie lived at La Marina outside Alicante in Spain. There she was Elizabeth Ashe-Browne, with a devoted circle of friends, organising lunches, charity works and outings. Eddie died in 1999, but she continued her busy life there until her health began to fade in the last year of her life.

She died in Dublin on June 18, 2011, having made a lasting impression on all who knew her and many who didn't.

Sunday Independent

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