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Hollywood saw her as a typical Irish colleen but Maureen O'Hara could hold her own against the world

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Maureen O’Hara, the screen siren who lit up Hollywood with numerous iconic performances and who shunned the advances of producers and directors many decades before the #MeToo movement, as Rose Mary Roche reveals

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Maureen O'Hara, circa 1950

Maureen O'Hara, circa 1950

Maureen O'Hara, circa 1950

Long before Saoirse Ronan was a glimmer in anyone's eye, there was Maureen O'Hara - a talented, tough and ambitious actress whose combination of grit and glamour makes her a relevant role model for young women today.

She was Ireland's first Hollywood A-lister, making more than 50 films during her career while also surviving emigration, the notorious Tinseltown studio system and a turbulent personal life. An inspiration to women fighting sexual stereotypes, Maureen, in her own words, "could hold her own against the world".

As well as being strikingly beautiful, she had tremendous strength of character. She was certainly ahead of her time; resisting pressure from the Hollywood studios to have a nose job and calling out the casting couch as early as the 1940s. And through all the ups and downs of her professional and personal life, O'Hara endured. The famous redhead was well aware of her inner strength, once declaring: "Above all else, deep in my soul, I'm a tough Irishwoman."

Yet in 2020, the centenary of her birth, there is a generation who hardly knows her name. Maureen had an eye for style and a willpower of iron. Her roles tended towards rebellious tomboys, but she had a taste for luxury, too, as demonstrated by the wardrobe items auctioned off in 2017. They included an 8.3-carat diamond ring, a 10-carat diamond necklace, and a designer fur from Christian Dior, no less. These items reflected the financial success O'Hara enjoyed in her career, but in her personal life she endured many challenges.

The actor had two failed marriages, to George Brown and William Houston Price, and later her happiest relationship was cut tragically short by the death of her last husband, Charles Blair, in a plane crash. She was the victim of fraud when her second husband (Price, the father of her only child, Bronwyn), and later a financial adviser, made off with hundreds of thousands of her savings. In resilient style, there were no confessional public tears; O'Hara just picked herself up and got on with life.

The studios portrayed her as the quintessential, flame-haired Irish colleen and christened her the Queen of Technicolour, but Maureen was much more. On her death in 2015, she was one of the last surviving leading ladies of the Golden Age of Hollywood, while her memoir, 'Tis Herself (2004), was a New York Times bestseller. She was also refreshingly forthright - she spoke as she saw and didn't tolerate fools. Always a tomboy, O'Hara almost knocked out director John Farrow (Mia's dad) on set after he made a pass at her, went head-to-head with John Wayne as his favourite leading lady and performed most of her own stunts. She was also innately intelligent; her whip-smart, confident delivery of her lines carved out a strong on-screen persona that audiences loved.

For a 17-year-old girl to brave first London, and then Hollywood, to pursue her ambition of becoming a great actress, was remarkable in 1930s Ireland. With her pale, alabaster skin, striking curly red hair, dark eyes and aura of glamour, O'Hara was an exotic creature in her homeland. Acting was considered a very dubious career choice, yet she was determined. That she was able to translate this ambition into an enduring career which culminated in an Oscar is testament to that formidable strength of character.

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Maureen O'Hara

Maureen O'Hara

Maureen O'Hara

Raised by her mother Marguerita Lilburn (an amateur actress and opera singer who had a millinery and fashion business) and father Charles Stewart Parnell FitzSimons (a businessman), O'Hara was captivated by performing from early childhood. The FitzSimons were a creative, eccentric and good-looking family who cut a dash in south Dublin. Like an Irish Von Trapp family, they were encouraged to explore the arts, which inspired the offspring to become talented singers, ballet dancers and actors.

Christened 'Baby Elephant' due to her dramatic height as a child, O'Hara had a strict upbringing that prioritised a strong work ethic. From her first public performance, aged six, she felt comfortable and very natural in front of an audience. From six to 17, she trained rigorously and took six classes a week in drama, music and dance, while also gaining stage and radio experience.

A chance meeting at 17 with the US entertainer Harry Richman led to a screen test with Elstree Studios in the London in 1937. The resulting test, which she deemed disappointing, was seen by Charles Laughton, the legendary actor, who was struck by O'Hara's expressive eyes and ability to communicate with the camera. O'Hara became Laughton's protégé (he later asked her parents if he could adopt her) and she was put under contract with his production company, Mayflower Pictures. A quick learner, Maureen instinctively realised how film differed from the stage and tailored her approach accordingly.

In 'Tis Herself, she describes how she modified her performance to accommodate the camera, noting that "the flick of an eye can say a lot".

Her breakthrough came with her second film, Jamaica Inn, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, when she assumed her stage-name O'Hara and was christened "a star of the future" by critics. Next she travelled to Hollywood for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, playing Esmerelda opposite Laughton's Quasimodo. Then circumstances combined to alter the course of O'Hara's life: first, Laughton sold O'Hara's contract to the studio RKO to stave off the bankruptcy of Mayflower Pictures, and, second, she was forced to remain in America due to the start of World War II. Although, as she recollected in her memoir, these events "broke her heart" and she "felt completely abandoned in a strange and faraway place", she applied herself to her career.

O'Hara became a contract player, part of the film-making machine who had to obey the studio bosses regarding her roles. She later believed that if she had returned to Europe and gotten more serious parts, she would have had a very different career.

In Hollywood, where she was labelled "luscious", O'Hara became increasingly irritated at being limited to decorative roles. She got stereotyped in swashbucklers but had a natural instinct for dramatic timing and interpretation, when she got intelligent scripts. Always fiercely honest, O'Hara openly admitted that many of her films were duds. She repeatedly refused to succumb to advances from producers and directors.

In 2004, she told the Telegraph: "I wouldn't throw myself on the casting couch and I know that cost me parts. I wasn't going to play the whore. That wasn't me." She had to remain in the studio system, despite her frustrations, as she was the sole family breadwinner. Her marriage to Price, a chronic alcoholic, ended after a tumultuous decade from 1941 to 1951.

The director who nurtured her talents most skilfully was the mercurial Irish-American director John Ford. Ford's parents were from Co Galway, and he bonded with O'Hara over their shared Irish ancestry. He also recognised her talent despite her by then poor record at RKO, where she had made three flops after the sale of her contract.

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Honoree Maureen O'Hara receiving an Honorary Award Oscar statuette from actors Clint Eastwood and Liam Neeson

Honoree Maureen O'Hara receiving an Honorary Award Oscar statuette from actors Clint Eastwood and Liam Neeson

Honoree Maureen O'Hara receiving an Honorary Award Oscar statuette from actors Clint Eastwood and Liam Neeson

The brilliant and controversial Ford cast her in How Green Was My Valley in 1941, his classic film about a poor Welsh mining family. O'Hara played Angharad, their daughter who endures a loveless marriage with the scion of the wealthy mine-owners. She gave a radiant and sensitive portrayal. It was the start of a collaboration with Ford that would endure for 25 years and produce five feature films. However, their relationship was often fraught; Ford could be tyrannical on set and while he had a great visual sensibility and gave O'Hara the tender nickname Rosebud, he often made her life a misery.

The film was a meteoric success, receiving 10 Oscar nominations and five Academy Awards, but, alas, none for the leading lady. Despite the length and scope of her career, she never received an Academy nomination, not even for The Quiet Man, but was finally given an honorary Oscar aged 94 in 2014. In an interview at the time, she explained: "The Oscar (is like) having a hug, having somebody put their arms around you and say 'congratulations' and say 'you are wonderful'."

O'Hara's most famous film with Ford remains The Quiet Man, his sentimental tribute to the land of his ancestry which was shot in Cong, Co Mayo. It is 68 years old this year, and has remained a popular classic that has influenced contemporary film-makers including the great director Stephen Spielberg, who paid homage to the kissing scene between Sean and Mary Kate in ET, and Martin Scorsese, who called it "one of the greatest movies of all time".

Playing opposite Wayne, O'Hara's favourite leading man, the duo's on-screen chemistry was palpable.

Such was this chemistry between the two that many assumed they were in a relationship. In reality, they were best friends who remained close until Wayne's death in 1979. O'Hara cites Wayne's tribute in 'Tis Herself: "She's a great guy. I've had many friends and I prefer the company of men. Except for Maureen O'Hara."

It remained O'Hara's favourite film. In Aubrey Malone's Maureen O'Hara The Biography, the star revealed: "It is the one I am most proud of, and I tend to be very protective of it. I loved Mary Kate Danaher. I loved the hell and the fire in her."

O'Hara got to showcase her beautiful singing voice on screen when she sang The Isle of Innisfree; both her performance and the story resonated deeply with Irish-Americans and emigrants. Its success kick-started the modern tourism industry in the West of Ireland, while the myth of what exactly Sean whispers to Mary Kate at the end of the film added intrigue to the film's enduring legacy.

O'Hara went on to make many more films; in the 1950s she starred with Wayne in The Wings of Eagles, McLintock and Big Jake, followed by more mature roles in the 1960s until eventually retiring in 1971. She was wooed back 20 years later to appear with John Candy as his bossy Irish mother in the 1991 film Only the Lonely, to very positive reviews.

O'Hara's link with the West of Ireland was revived in later life when in 1970 she bought a home in Glengarriff, west Cork, with her husband Charles Blair. She had married Blair, an aviator with a distinguished military and commercial career, in 1968, and the couple lived between the Virgin Islands and Glengarriff, until Blair died in a plane crash in 1978. Through her husband's connections with Foynes (he had piloted the first boat planes that had landed there in the late 1930s), O'Hara became the patron of the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum, now managed by Margaret O'Shaughnessy. Such was the depth of Maureen's affection for the museum that her grandson donated many of her personal possessions to it on her death in 2015.

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Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne in The Quiet Man

Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne in The Quiet Man

Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne in The Quiet Man

Currently, O'Shaughnessy is busy fundraising to complete the Maureen O'Hara extension to the museum (proposed budget €3.5m) which will house a wide selection of O'Hara's possessions and feature new aviation exhibition rooms, a new 110-seat cinema and a multi-purpose space for the arts. The display honouring O'Hara will have many different aspects; a small walk-in cinema on her life in music, fashion and film, the original trap from The Quiet Man and Maureen's tweed jacket, as well as over 100 "fabulous" clothing items from her personal collection, including Hollywood film costumes and accessories, her honorary Oscar and her Givenchy dress worn to receive it. Brown Thomas displayed some of these stunning costumes in their Christmas window last year.

The museum also hopes to display personal papers and letters to and from O'Hara, her film-set diaries, movie contracts, awards, and professional and family photos. There is a series of events planned to mark this the centenary year, including a gala dinner in August, which Maureen's grandson, Conor Beau FitzSimons, will attend. O'Shaughnessy has worked ceaselessly to see that Maureen is remembered and honoured in her home country. She describes O'Hara affectionately: "She was a wonderful woman - no airs and graces. She had a wonderful heart. She was a loyal, loyal friend."

Writing in her 2004 biography, O'Hara recollected how she had envisaged her old age: "I dreamed as a little girl in Dublin of growing into a wonderfully eccentric, tough, cantankerous and sometimes mean old lady." She didn't achieve her ambition to live to 102 - as once confessed to US talk-show host Larry King - but it is apt that her centenary be celebrated in tribute to her talent, beauty and spirit. The brightest star finally faded on October 24, 2015, when O'Hara died of natural causes at home in Boise, Idaho, listening to the soundtrack of The Quiet Man. She was buried beside her late husband, Charles Blair, in Arlington Cemetery, Virginia.

The inscription on O'Hara's 2004 honorary Oscar reads: "To Maureen O'Hara, one of Hollywood's brightest stars, whose inspiring performances glowed with passion, warmth and strength." That is a fitting tribute for a woman who was a genuine icon, a feminist before the word existed, and a gutsy heroine whose motto was, as so passionately expressed by Mary Kate in The Quiet Man: "I can, I will and I do!"

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