HER most famous film may be The Quiet Man, but actress Maureen O’Hara is – thankfully – no quiet woman. The vibrant actress had plenty to say about life, the wisdom of older age and her celebrated Shamrock Rovers while she was in Kilkenny last week to launch the local Age-Friendly County Strategy.
She was the star of the show at the event held in the Ormonde Hotel on Wednesday afternoon, as around 400 invited guests enjoyed afternoon tea and dancing with music by the Garda band.
As could be expected from the actress who made over 60 films in her career, Ms O’Hara read energetically from her prepared script welcoming the initiative that aims to make Kilkenny a better place for older people and therefore everyone else too.
“In ancient societies the aged were known as elders and important leaders within their communities, and somewhere along the way we lost this principle,” she said. “We have a life’s experience behind us and can contribute so much to making our environment a better place to live in, and this will benefit not just the aged but the whole community young and old.”
Breaking from the script, she added: “It might interest you to know that I am 90 years of age” – prompting a large round of applause.
“I am very proud of it, and the only problem is that when you’re 90 years of age you can’t play soccer!” she enthused, leading to one of several mentions for her favourite soccer team, of which her father was a patron. “I never missed a match. I sometimes went to two matches a week when I was in school,” she recalled.
Going back to the subject of Kilkenny’s bid to become an Age-Friendly County to a World Health Organisation standard, she concluded: “This will be an important test for the community and a learning curve for the rest of the country. What you will do here in Kilkenny will change Ireland’s understanding, recognition and commitment to its senior citizens.”
And then came the most colourful bit.
“It says here in the notes that I can now say what I like,” she said, to laughter and applause.
She reflected for a moment on her childhood in Dublin and the many Feis prizes that she and her school mates managed to win. “You have no idea what kids are missing by not having that today, going to recite or dance at a Feis,” she said. “And we didn’t fight each other, we helped each other.
Ms O’Hara must have inherited some of her performance genes from her mother, a contralto who sang at local Masses, despite having been born a Protestant.
Her mother had “voice like velvet”, Ms O’Hara recalled. “The priest used to say that when she sang he had to put the prayer book down, because he couldn’t pay attention to God when she was singing.”
There were benefits as well to her father being a sponsor of Shamrock Rovers, as the local boys would follow her to the matches in the hope of getting past the turnstile for free. “So I had lots of boyfriends,” she laughed.
And then, encouraging questions from the audience, Ms O’Hara said: “Stand up and ask!”
This being Kilkenny, the first question put to the soccer fan was whether she’d ever been to watch a hurling match. “Yes, I have,” she said, “and I played camogie.” (Cue another round of applause.)
Asked what actor John Wayne was like to work with, she replied: “He was a wonderful, wonderful person to work with and for. He had a little dash of Irish blood in him and he had a wonderful family. ... You couldn’t meet a nicer man than John Wayne, and I was lucky to have been his favourite leading lady.”
The next to put a question to the actress – Harry, a painter and resident at Drakelands House – prefaced his remarks by saying, “I found her very attractive as I was growing up.” Not one to be outdone, the actress quipped: “You mean now you don’t anymore?!” (And she could rest assured that plenty of onlookers would say she still looks glamourous and certainly hasn’t lost her quick wit.)
And when he offered to paint her portrait, she tantalisingly didn’t turn him down. “I’ve got an awful lot to do this year that I need to finish, but maybe next year,” she suggested. “If we could work out what would happen to the portrait when you paint it – maybe it should be sold to benefit the hospital.”
On a more poignant note, Ms O’Hara was asked whether she had any regrets in her life.
“We have regrets every day, but we can’t moan and groan about them,” she replied, before adding: “I wish that I was stronger. I had cancer three times and I had major surgery three times. I am very grateful to God that I’m still alive. I wish that I could do something magical to help find a cure for cancer, to stop it before it starts.”
“I belong to a wonderful family, and I would love to to do something fabulous for Ireland,” she said, although it could be argued that she has indeed done many fabulous things for her native country.
Counted among them could be her extensive catalogue of films in which she acted. “I made 63 or 64 films and I don’t remember ever making a really bad one. Films are measured in the studios by how much they take in, and I am happy to say that I never made a flop. That’s not thanks to me; that’s thanks to the studio that believed in me and put me in their top films.”
Ms O’Hara was under contract with 20th Century Fox until about a year ago, “but then you’re too old so nobody wants you anymore. You live and survive on your reputation and the fact that people enjoy you – but studios don’t want you anymore; they think you’re not capable of pulling in the same income for them.”
She’s still capable of captivating a crowd, though, and one member of the audience wanted to know: “You still look beautiful. Can you give us your secret?”
Her recipe for success: “The secret is having the right mother and father!”
Asked whether she still sings, Ms O’Hara replied: “Yes, I do, but not as much as I would like to. That was one thing I really missed. I really wanted to be an operatic soprano but I was too busy making movies.”
Then again, even if you’ve accomplished many things over nine decades, you just can’t do everything, she said. “You have to settle on one thing and do it to the best of your ability.”
Many would agree that this is exactly what she has done.
And so, before the afternoon of dancing kicked off, Ms O’Hara was asked if she wanted to say anything before leaving the stage. She laughed: “I haven’t a hope in hell of dancing!”