MANY tributes have been paid to the late Maureen O’Hara since her death was announced at the weekend – and rightly so.
Maureen O’Hara wasn’t just an actress but a fiercely proud Irish woman who, through her actions and prominence, achieved so much for Ireland on the world stage and in particular the Irish community in America.
In July 2011, I had the great fortune of spending time in Maureen O’Hara’s company during her visit to New Ross when she was honoured at the Dunbrody Emigration Centre.
Making an entrance befitting a Hollywood icon, she arrived at the centre in a vintage open top car to the delight of onlookers.
Approaching 91 years of age the time, the flame haired star still possessed the elegance which first endeared her to audiences worldwide all those years ago.
In New Ross, she reflected on her life and achievements in conversation with George Hook as she was inducted into the prestigious Irish America Hall of Fame which celebrates the achievements of the Irish in America.
Born Maureen FitzSimons in Ranelagh, the star always remained proud of her roots and retained her Dublin wit – something very evident during her visit to New Ross.
When signing the visitor’s book upon entering the Dunbrody Centre, she remarked that she wasn’t impressed with her signature.
“If the nuns saw that, I’d be murdered!’ she laughed.
She enthralled the audience with details of her Hollywood adventures.
Of course she will always be associated with ‘The Quiet Man’ and I asked her why the film left such a lasting legacy.
“Because there are so many proud Irish people,” she said.
“It wouldn’t be as popular if Irish people weren’t as proud of who they are and what it says about the Irish”.
She also fondly recalled her friendship with co-star John Wayne.
“I had a great friendship with his entire family. We were all friends and supported each other,” she said.
The release of ‘The Quiet Man’ in 1952 and her portrayal of Mary Kate Danaher cemented her status as a screen icon, but Maureen O’Hara had to work hard in order to make it to the very top.
After leaving Ireland for England to pursue her dream, it wasn’t long before she began to impress those in the movie industry.
Her big break came when she starred opposite Charles Laughton (who gave her the name O’Hara) in ‘Jamaica Inn’.
This opened many doors and brought her to America where she landed the role of Esmerelda in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.
As they say, the rest is history, and Maureen O’Hara went on to captivate audiences in many successful films including the hugely popular ‘Miracle on 34th Street’.
Despite her fame, she always retained her Irish pride – something which was clearly evident during her visit to New Ross.
Paying tribute to Maureen, Publisher Patricia Harty of Irish America Magazine said: “There probably wouldn’t be an Irish-American community without Maureen O’Hara.”
Explaining this, she said: “When Maureen became a citizen in the US, she was asked to list British as her former allegiance as that’s the way it was up until then. She was the first to take issue with that and refused. She said ‘I’m putting down Irish’. They took her before a judge and she created such a stink he said ‘Oh alright, alright!’”.
This was the first time that an Irish person seeking US citizenship was officially pronounced to be Irish.
Commenting on this achievement, Maureen O’Hara said: “What I wanted was recognition that the Irish people were Irish and that was the first time they were recognised in the United States and I’m very proud of that.”
Patricia Harty emphasised the importance of having a famous Irish person such as Maureen O’Hara in America for all the emigrants who travelled there.
“No matter how tough times were we could look up at the screen and see how beautiful she was and we could hold our heads high,” she said.
Letters of congratulations were read from then President of Ireland Mary McAleese and former US President Bill Clinton, with the latter describing Maureen O’Hara as “Hollywood’s unofficial ambassador for the Emerald Isle.”
A very special moment during Maureen’s visit to New Ross came about when audience member Mary Cleary was reunited with the film star, having previously met her in 1951.
Mrs Cleary had been on honeymoon in Mayo while ‘The Quiet Man’ was being filmed.
Maureen O’Hara had bought breakfast for the honeymooners and Mrs Cleary showed the star some souvenirs which she had kept from that time, including the autographs of cast members.
Her personality and pride in her heritage contributed to Maureen O’Hara’s popularity and her legacy will undoubtedly live on.
One wonders how many film stars of the current era will still be spoken about with such fondness in seventy years’ time.