What Are You Like?
By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
Maureen O’Hara lit up the silver screen in 60 movies over a lifetime. We all have our favorites, How Green Was My Valley, which won five Academy Awards including Best Picture; The Long Gray Line, as Mary O’Donnell to Tyrone Power’s Marty Maher; Miracle on 34th Street; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, on and on, and of course, The Quiet Man, John Ford’s “irresistible valentine to the ‘Auld Sod,’ as one reviewer called it. John Wayne, Maureen’s co-star on that movie and many others, became a lifelong friend.
Maureen wasn’t just a movie star and the Queen of Hollywood, she was also our Emigrant Queen; our Irish Coleen.
She was always proud to say that she was Irish, even when it wasn’t so popular to be Irish, even if it meant taking on the U.S. Government. When she applied for an American citizenship in 1946 the Irish were still listed as British on naturalization forms, Maureen took the issue to the Supreme Court and won the right to be listed as Irish. (The Republic of Ireland Act didn’t come in until 1948).
As was said about Mary Kate Danaher, in The Quiet Man, Maureen is feisty in real life too. When her beloved husband Charles Blair passed away in 1978 she took over as CEO of Antilles Airboats, the first woman president of a scheduled airline.
Following the release of her memoir ’Tis Herself in 2004, Maureen told Irish America, “You have to stay with what you believe in and what you feel. You cannot sway and swing with the opinion of the few who have big mouths. You have to stick with your own values.”
On a memorable day in August 2011, Maureen, now 94, was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame in New Ross, County Wexford. She arrived in a yellow convertible, and hundreds of fans thronged the quayside to greet her. Following the announcement on August 28, that she was to receive an Honorary Academy Award, she said, “I am very honored to receive this recognition from the Academy. What makes me so proud is that it comes from my peers who work in every element of in the motion-picture business. I could hardly believe the news when I first heard. I’ll know it’s really true when I’m finally holding Oscar in my hands. I owe so much to the fans who have supported me over the years because they helped make this award possible. ”
After a long sojourn in West Cork, Maureen returned stateside this past year to be closer to her grandson. But she still has a soft spot in her heart for Ireland. One of the questions I put to her in the following What Are You Like? piece, which happened over the course of several emails in October, was if selling her house in Glengarrif, was, as reported in the media, a final break in her connection to Ireland.
What is your current state of mind?
Right this minute? I wouldn’t dare tell you.
What do you consider your greatest extravagance?
Oh God, I’ve got so many extravagances. I really do. I try to cut some of the nonsense out from time to time but I can’t stop buying new clothes with beautiful bold colors.
Who are your heroes?
As a kid it was my father and all the top soccer players in Dublin. Later it was my husband Charlie. John Wayne also became a hero of mine both onscreen and off.
Who is your favorite saint?
St. Patrick – I pray to him every night because he’s the patron saint of the Irish and will protect and watch over us all.
What’s on your bedside table?
Pictures of my loved ones and some of the saints.
Your first part on stage?
My very first dramatic performance on stage took place when I was six years old. My school gave a concert for family and friends and I was chosen to read a religious poem between scenes while the curtain was down and the scenery was being changed.
Did the experience put you on the road to becoming an actress?
It sure did. I discovered that I loved being in front of an audience. I loved their reaction and how it felt to receive applause! I also liked all the excitement backstage, dressing up in a costume, and how everything came together for a show. I was bitten by the acting bug that night and knew after the performance was over that I wanted to be an actress.
Your earliest memory?
That’s a hard one because my memory isn’t the best anymore. My memories come now in showers of laughter, good fun, happiness, sadness, and all the things I’m feeling in the moment, which then remind me of events from my past.
Best advice you ever received?
Charles Laughton told me early in my career, “They are going to say a lot of untrue things about you so never forget today’s headlines are tomorrow’s toilet paper. ”
Do you have a hidden talent?
I’m one helluva housekeeper but a lousy cook.
Quality you seek in friends?
I like people who are kind and non-judgmental.
Qualities you deplore in others?
Rudeness and cruelty. I deplore people who casually hurt other people’s feelings and gossip.
Name a movie that you think was particularly lousy?
The one I made right after The Quiet Man – a western called The Redhead from Wyoming. It was disappointing to be working on such a lousy picture while I was being praised for having just made a highly-regarded movie like The Quiet Man. I was also injured on set when an actor fired a prop gun too close to me in a gunfight scene. I got powder burns all over and it was just awful. The picture was a real stinkeroo.
One is that I didn’t fight harder for better scripts than the ones that the studio made me do that weren’t very good. I wish I had fought to have them rewritten and improved rather than just playing them out when I knew they were lousy.
Your idea of a perfect day?
Waking up at the crack of dawn to a good breakfast and then getting all the things you have to do for the day done early.
Your favorite place in Ireland?
West Cork because it’s so beautiful to look at and every street and corner you turn you’re caught by the glory of the place. It makes you stop in your tracks and get lost in time. It’s one of the greatest pleasures you can have to just stand still and enjoy it.
It’s been in the news that you have broken your ties with Ireland and sold your property there.
I’m selling the larger property in Glengarrif but I still own another lovely home there. I hope whoever buys Lugdine Park enjoys the property and grounds as much as I have over the years.
Your favorite place outside Ireland?
Mexico. I made a lot of friends there over the years who showed me the whole country and I fell in love with it. And they love the Irish.
Favorite opening piece of music?
Most anything from Faust. It was one of the earliest pieces of music that I adored.
Your most prized possession?
My rosary [beads]. I say the rosary every night before I go to sleep and it’s very precious to me.
Favorite character you’ve played?
Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man, who else?
What was your grand passion?
Singing. My real dream was to become an opera star.
Who was your favorite on screen lover and why?
Who could ask for a better on-screen lover than John Wayne? Our chemistry was so magical because Duke never had to defer to me as a woman. I was strong enough to stand up to him and be his equal. He used to say that I was the greatest guy he ever knew.
Of the current leading men and women who do you like?
I’ve always been a sucker for tough leading men with a square jaw so take your pick. I love everything Meryl Streep does.
First play or film that you saw?
The first movies I ever saw were Laurel and Hardy pictures and I loved them.
A movie you will watch again?
Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
This article was originally published in the December / January 2015 issue of Irish America. ♦