21 August 2020
Foynes Museum marks
the career and a century
of Maureen O’Hara
In recent weeks, I have stopped twice or three times on my way between Tarbert and Askeaton for lunch or a cup of coffee at the Foynes Flying Boat Museum.
While I was there last Sunday, I realised that the following day was the 100th birthday of Maureen O’Hara, one of the great Irish actors and movie stars. She was one of the biggest stars from the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood, and worked closely with both John Ford and John Wayne.
But a new exhibition in the museum also highlights her close links with Foynes.
Maureen O’Hara was born Maureen FitzSimons on 17 August 1920 in Churchtown, Co Dublin, and was baptised in the Church of the Holy Name on Upper Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh. She was the second of six children who grew up at 32 Upper Beechwood Avenue.
Other well-known residents of Beechwood Avenue in the early decades of the 20th century include Douglas Gageby (1918-2004), later the best-known editor of The Irish Times, who was born at No 54; the trade union leader Jim Larkin, founder of the ITGWU, now Siptu, who lived briefly at No 54 in 1924; Robert Briscoe (1894-1969), Lord Mayor of Dublin and Fianna Fail TD, who was born at 2 Lower Beechwood Avenue on 25 September 1894; Kathleen Mary Josephine Hughes (1898-1985) of 34 Upper Beechwood Avenue, who was the mother of Sean Lemass; and – as far as I am concerned – my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford (1867-1921), and my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), who both lived at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue.
Maureen O’Hara later said she was ‘born into the most remarkable and eccentric family I could have possibly hoped for.’ Her father, Charles Stewart Parnell FitzSimons was in the clothing business and bought a major share in Shamrock Rovers. Her mother was Marguerite (née Lilburn) FitzSimons.
Charles Laughton arranged for her to co-star with him in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and then moved to Hollywood to appear with him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
She was 19 and signed a personal contract with Charles Laughton instead of a studio. Laughton thought the unusual spelling of her surname would be a problem for her career, so gave her the choice of O’Hara or O’Mara. As Maureen O’Hara she went on to a long and highly successful career and became known as ‘The Queen of Technicolor.’
She appeared in films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941) The Black Swan (1942), The Spanish Main (1945), Sinbad the Sailor (1947), the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and Comanche Territory (1950).
Her first film with John Wayne was Rio Grande (1950), followed by The Quiet Man (1952), The Wings of Eagles (1957), McLintock! (1963) and Big Jake (1971). Other films included The Deadly Companions (1961), The Parent Trap (1961), The Rare Breed (1966) and Only the Lonely (1991).
She also worked with Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn.
Her first marriage in 1939 to George H Brown, an English film producer she met on the set of Jamaica Inn, was annulled in 1941. She married her second husband, Will Price, later that year; they were divorced in 1953.
She married her third husband, Charles F Blair, Jr, in 1968. Blair, a popular figure and a pioneer of transatlantic aviation who is closely associated with the development of Foynes as a terminal for the ‘flying boats’ in 1942-1945.
She joined Blair in his flying business in Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands in the late 1970s. Blair died in 1978 while flying a Grumman Goose for his airline from Saint Croix to Saint Thomas, crashing after an engine failure.
Maureen O’Hara officially opened the Foynes Flying Boat Museum on 8 July 1989, and for the rest of her life she was the patron of the museum.
Later, in her retirement, she spent time back in Ireland in Glengarriff in west Cork, and moved there permanently in 2005. She returned to live in the US in 2012 and died on 24 October 2015. She was 95.
Her autobiography ’Tis Herself was published in 2004. Earlier this year, she was ranked number 1 on The Irish Times list of Ireland’s greatest film actors.
A vast collection of personal memorabilia was donated to the museum in Foynes by her grandson, Conor Beau Fitzsimons, and some of these collection is in the new display in the museum.