In the wake of her death, Glenn Dunlea recalls the life and career of the acclaimed Irish actress Maureen O’Hara.
The death of Irish screen legend Maureen O’Hara was announced yesterday.
O’Hara’s beauty and fiery screen persona made her one of the most celebrated actresses of the 20th century. Born Maureen FitzSimons on August 17th 1920 in Ranelagh, Dublin, O’Hara was one of the last remaining actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her career, spanning over seven decades, included many memorable roles in films such as How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, The Parent Trap, and of course, The Quiet Man.
Coming from a family of six children, O’Hara began her acting career aged six at the Abbey Theatre and the Ena Mary Burke School of Drama and Elocution in Dublin. From a very young age it was O’Hara’s ambition to become an actress, however her father, Charles Stewart Parnell FitzSimons, felt it was necessary for his daughter to learn a skill in case her career as an actress should fail. As a result O’Hara enrolled in a business school and became a proficient bookkeeper and typist, skills that would stand to her later on in her career.
After what could be described as a disastrous initial screen test, the celebrated British actor Charles Laughton, who was captivated by her large and expressive eyes, discovered O’Hara. She was signed to an initial seven-year contract with Laughton’s production company, Mayflower Pictures, and secured her first major leading role on screen in an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and was the last he made in England before moving to Hollywood.
As her career began to take off, the advent of World War II spelt near disaster for the aspiring young O’Hara. Her contract was transferred to RKO in Hollywood, and as a result she was cast in a string of B-Movies, doing nothing to advance her reputation. A saviour came in the form of film director John Ford, who recognised O’Hara’s talent and cast her as Angharad in How Green Was My Valley, which won the 1941 Academy Award for Best Picture. Thus began a fruitful relationship that resulted in some of O’Hara’s best known and most-beloved films.
O’Hara’s trademark flame coloured hair earned her the nickname ‘The Queen of Technicolour.’ She starred alongside a young Natalie Wood in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, which has since become a perennial favourite, and played alongside Hayley Mills in Disney’s 1961 film The Parent Trap. She is perhaps best known for her partnership with John Wayne in five of her pictures, including The Quiet Man. Filmed on location in Cong, Co. Mayo, the film presents John Ford’s depiction of an idealised Irish society, with no social divisions based on class or religion. O’Hara frequently cited the film as a personal favourite, saying, ‘’It is the one I am most proud of, and I tend to be very protective of it.’’
O’Hara was married three times. Her first took place in 1939 and was annulled in 1941. Later that same year, O’Hara married film director William Houston Price. The marriage produced O’Hara’s only child, a daughter, Bronwyn. Sadly, the marriage was dissolved in 1953, allegedly as a result of Price’s alcohol abuse. In 1968 O’Hara married the aviator Charles F. Blair, Jr. It was a few years after this union that O’Hara mostly retired from acting. The marriage lasted for ten years until Blair was killed in an aviation accident. As a result of his death, O’Hara became the first female president of a scheduled US airline, Antilles Airboats.
1991 saw a comeback from the then 71-year-old actress. O’Hara performed in a role written specifically for her in Only The Lonely, a film about a 38-year-old Chicago Policeman trying to break away from his overbearing Irish mother. Her last film was released in 2000.
As well as being a gifted actress, O’Hara was also a notable singer. Her mother was a contra-alto, and O’Hara herself was a soprano. She said that her biggest regret was not doing more work that involved her singing. That said she released two successful recordings, Love Letters from Maureen O’Hara and Maureen O’Hara Sings her Favourite Irish Songs during the 50’s and 60’s, and was also the star of an ill-fated Broadway show, Christine, in which she played a role written specifically for her, that bore a remarkable resemblance in many ways to O’Hara’s own story.
Always proud of her Irish heritage and nationality, O’Hara said in a recent interview for Vanity Fair that her greatest achievement was being ‘’the first person recognized as an Irishwoman all over the world.” As a young girl she was a camogie player, and she was a lifelong supporter of Shamrock Rovers Football Club. In 2004, she was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish Film and Television Academy. O’Hara released her autobiography ‘Tis Herself, co-authored with Johnny Nicoletti that same year. O’Hara lived mainly in Glengarriff, Co. Cork, after suffering a stroke in 2005. Plans were in place for the construction of an elaborate legacy centre, museum and film school in Glengarriff in her honour, but these have since been put on hold. In 2011, O’Hara was formally inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame at an event in New Ross, Co. Wexford.
Some controversy arose In May 2012, when O’Hara’s family contacted social workers regarding claims that O’Hara, who had developed memory loss, was a victim of elder abuse. In September 2012 her family moved O’Hara permanently to the US, where she lived out the remainder of her life with her grandson, Conor Beau FitzSimons, in Idaho.
The decision from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to include O’Hara in their 2014 honours list was one that was met with great positivity. She was honoured alongside French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki at the Governors Awards, ‘’to honour extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, [and] for outstanding service to the Academy’’. Upon receiving her award, O’Hara became only the second person in history to receive an honorary Oscar without having been previously nominated, the other being Myrna Loy. It had always been one of O’Hara’s biggest ambitions to win an Academy Award, and, at age 94, it represented the culmination of a life dedicated to cinema.
Her death was announced yesterday, and provoked emotive responses from several notable members of the public.
Maureen O’Hara will be remembered for years to come as an icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and true star of the silver screen.
May she rest in peace.