WHEN I think of Maureen O’Hara I see her fiery red hair, her feisty performances, and those beautiful eyes that had the power to beguile.
She was one of the greatest stars of the Hollywood Golden Age, she helped put Ireland on the film-making map and she was one of our own.
Her contribution to the world of acting was immense, but so too was her role as a history maker, as a business mogul, and a feminist.
O’Hara was many things, all of which she credited to being born an Irish woman. Monday marked 100 years since her birth, so it seemed only right to look back over the career of a legend who called Cork her sanctuary.
She once said: “An Irishwoman is strong and feisty. She has guts and stands up for what she believes in. She can face any hazard that life throws her way and stay with it until she wins. She is loyal to her kinsmen and accepting of others. Yes, I am most definitely an Irishwoman.”
It was that attitude that helped her get her first acting role.
O’Hara spent much of her life in Lugdine House, Glengarriff, but was born in Dublin and began acting at a young age. She was born Maureen FitzSimons but had to change her name when she made her first big break. FitzSimons was too hard to spell, she was told.
She spent her teenage years on the Abbey stage and travelled to London at 17 for her first big audition for actor Charles Laughton’s new production company. Despite it being a disaster, Laughton gave her a contract. He said he could see the talent beyond the mistakes, but it was her honesty that clinched the deal. She told him she wasn’t ready when most would oversell themselves to get a career in Hollywood. It was her truthfulness that gained his respect.
After a small budget production, she was catapulted into the big league in 1939 when she starred in Jamaica Inn directed by Alfred Hitchcock. She made the move to Hollywood and starred in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. As Esmeralda, O’Hara had a lot of stunts to do. In an almost unprecedented move, she insisted on doing her own — something she continued throughout her career, learning to fight and to fence.
She once described herself as a tomboy, and relished stunt work, while her skill with her fists had an effect on and off-screen. Inappropriately pursued by the director John Farrow, O’Hara famously punched him in the face.
It was the role of Esmeralda that secured her position as a star, but while the powers that-be-knew she had the talent, the stars had yet to align. The road to Hollywood is a rocky one, and after some small films, she finally hit the big time when John Ford cast her in How Green Was My Valley in 1941. A star was born.
Despite some personal issues with the man, O’Hara admired Ford’s skill as a director and would go on to work with him on several occasions.
The 1940s were a mixed time for O’Hara. She was making brilliant films like the gorgeous Miracle on 34th Street. She was top of the box office, a fan favourite, the woman every leading man was lining up to work with, but there was a problem: Hollywood was ruled by the casting couch. Actresses were a dime a dozen, or so they were told if they didn’t sleep with Hollywood moguls. In a time when these things were not spoken about, O’Hara stood up and said: “I don’t let the producer and director kiss me every morning or let them paw me. They have spread word around town that I am not a woman — that I am a cold piece of marble statuary... if that’s Hollywood’s idea of being a woman I’m ready to quit now.”
That was 1945, long before the #MeToo movement.
When she wasn’t lighting fires under the Hollywood regime, she was lighting them in court. In 1946 she applied for U.S citizenship. At the time, Irish immigrants had to fill out paperwork declaring they were English. O’Hara refused. Before a judge, she said: “Your Honor, do you realise what you are trying to do to my children and grandchildren? You’re trying to take away their right to boast about their wonderful Irish mother and grandmother.”
She exasperated the judge until he agreed to recognise her as Irish and set a legal precedent for all Irish immigrants after her.
My first memory of O’Hara was watching her in Rio Grande, directed by John Ford. It was her first partnership with John Wayne. She would star opposite him five times, going toe to toe with the monolith of old school masculinity. She never kowtowed to the Duke but played his equal, always challenging him.
Their chemistry was explosive, their performances together sheer Hollywood magic. Nothing quite equals the beauty of The Quiet Man. Filmed here and shot in colour, O’Hara’s first scene is like something from Irish legend as she appears windswept and defiant under the Duke’s gaze. The film earned her the title ‘The Queen of Technicolor’.
When her husband Charles Blair died in 1978 she took over as owner of an airline business, the first woman to be the president of an airline company in the U.S. History made once again.
I always hoped to meet her, but alas that never happened. I once performed a monologue in a spot where she once performed. There was a photo on the wall of her performing and for a brief moment, I felt like I was acting with her.
In 1971, on the red carpet for their latest film, Big Jake, a reporter referred to O’Hara being Wayne’s on-screen wife and before he could say anything she jumped in. “You mean his fighting partner.” A fitting claim for Ireland’s trailblazer.