“Well, then. Now, I’ll begin at the beginnin’. A fine soft day in the spring, it was, when the train pulled into Castletown, three hours late as usual, and himself got off. He didn't have the look of an American tourist a t’all about him. Not a camera on him; what was worse, not even a fishin’ rod.” If you are of Irish-American extraction and if you are (or were) a kid of a certain age that grew up in the Bronx (or anywhere in Irish America), you would immediately know right off the bat from what movie this opening monologue comes.
And you would also know the scene where the two principals, who, through miscommunication and misunderstanding, had a spat that nearly drove their relationship into the ground (just when it was starting), resulting in the ultimate retort by the man who was so obviously in love with the woman who had stolen his heart: “There’ll be no locks or bolts between us, Mary Kate, except those in your own mercenary little heart!” And with the conclusion of that statement came one of the most ferocious kisses ever to make cinematic history.
And obviously, you would know that this movie was one that was as much as part of March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—as the obligatory attendance at Mass or the proud marching “up the avenue” for the great parade. It was all part and parcel of an unapologetic excuse to revel in nostalgia for the “Old Country,” to pine for an Ireland that never really was but we all dearly wish it could be, even in our dreams, whether it was cinematic or not. And that movie was the director John Ford’s masterpiece (among others) called “The Quiet Man.”
It had among its stars “The Duke” himself—John Wayne—playing the character of an Irish-American prizefighter, Sean Thornton, come back “home” to Ireland, seeking peace of mind and peace of heart after the accidental knock-out that killed his opponent and as well as his career; Barry Fitzgerald as the town busybody and matchmaker, Michaeleen Og Flynn; Joseph Shields, who was Barry Fitzgerald’s brother in real life and the everybody’s favorite Protestant vicar, the Rev. Mr. Playfair; Victor McLaglen, the lumbering and lurking “Squire Red Will Danaher,” who matched wits as well as fists with John Wayne’s Thornton and both kept up the memorable pint-to-pint endurance contest in the village pub, known as Cohan’s; and Ward Bond who played the ever-pragmatic Fr. Lonergan, the film’s narrator and goad to his flock as well as other memorable characters.
But it was the woman who was at the heart of it, with her flaming red hair, emerald green eyes, fine alabaster skin—and more importantly—equipped with a fiery and determined sense of self to match, that epitomized what it meant to be Irish. In the movie, she was Mary Kate Danaher. But in reality, she was the incomparable Maureen O’Hara. This proud Irishwoman has now closed her eyes on this life, dying at the age of 95 on Oct. 24, in her sleep, at her home in Boise, Idaho, with her family about her, with her favorite Irish melodies from that 1952 movie playing in the background.
With all that was going on in the news these days, with foreign wars, political wars and internal religious wars (as some may interpret the Catholic Church’s recent Synod on the Family), the news of Maureen O’Hara’s passing was nearly passed over. In a quieter time, the news of the death of one of the last of Hollywood’s greats would have been at the top of the nightly newscasts and the headlines of the dailies and the covers of the celebrity magazines. It seemed as if the world had other things to be preoccupied with, and not without reason. But still, it was saddening to hear about this, that a screen legend such as Maureen O’Hara no longer walks among us. True, she lived a long and very eventful life, but her passing is a reminder of a time gone by and of the kind of cinema (not to mention the men and women who made such films) we will most likely never see again.
Maureen O’Hara was one of those people who never seemed to age, even as she got older, along with the years. There aren’t many people who are fortunate to be like that; some people, when they age, age horribly, and not just in the physical sense. No more than any other person, whether famous or “ordinary,” she had her trials and tribulations and yet, somehow, she continued to thrive despite them (a not untypical Irish trait). She played gritty women in those movies of hers: whether in pirate movies, “Wild West” movies or those women she portrayed as toughing it out in unforgiving environments that only living at the mercy of the land can do. In her way, she was a feminist before the word came into vogue, yet she never let anyone forget she was a lady first. And as her “Quiet Man” co-star, Barry Fitzgerald, once admiringly said: “That red head of hers is no lie.” And as the obituary in The New York Times quoted her, as to how she lasted so long: “I was Irish. And I remain Irish. And Irish women don’t let themselves go.”
And yet, she was the personification of contradictions, especially in those films of hers and no less than in "The Quiet Man." When I first watched this film as a boy, I only realized the surface parts of the plot: the landscape and the gorgeous scenery, the music of the spoken brogue, the drink taken (often), and the obvious political and religious undertones that underlay everything as well as the ferocious fisticuffs that would have put Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to shame. It took me a lot longer to understand the interpersonal dynamics of those two main characters so ably played by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, their Sean Thornton and Mary Kate Danaher.
John Wayne, after all, was the Duke, all-American, all-around tough guy, whether he was patrolling the big city, surveying the vast sea, soldiering through the outposts of the “Wild West,” or horse-galloping through the fields of the west that was Ireland. All the while there was a heart there, a feeling heart, one which was carefully hidden, but present nonetheless and revealed itself at the appropriate time. As for Maureen O’Hara, on the surface she was demure, shy and reticent, almost fey-like (it could be said that in her way, she was an Irish equivalent of a Princess Diana, long before she came upon the world stage).
But that was the surface appearance—underneath that halo of red hair and behind those green globes that were her eyes a lay a force of nature, a human tsunami of determination and fire that was the equal of any man—or woman. It was that side of her that she showed—fiercely—in all those movies. She was “man” enough to take the punishment, but her character never gave in—and just as importantly, never gave up. It was testament to her character(s)—on the screen or off—that she endured it all, whether she was dragged through the fields, slapped, or kicked from behind, only to be dragged through the piles of sheep dung (as director John Ford fiendishly put her through the takes of “The Quiet Man”) or slide down the muddy hill (as she did in “McClintock!”).
In whatever role she played in those movies, she stood up for her womanhood and her femininity: she would not allow any man to best her, even when it appeared she was at the losing end of the encounter. It was not for nothing that she was considered to be John Wayne’s favorite leading lady—for in the five films they starred in together, she proved that she was the one who had “True Grit.”
Maureen O’Hara was not just part of our St. Patrick’s Days—she also belonged to our Thanksgivings and Christmases, too, with the perennial favorite, “Miracle on 34th Street.” Ms. O’Hara starred alongside a memorable cast that included John Payne, Gene Lockhart, William Frawley (Fred Mertz of later “I Love Lucy” fame) Edmund Gwenn (no one ever played Santa Claus better than he—or ever will), and the adorable and all-knowing skeptical child-woman that was Natalie Wood. In it, Maureen O’Hara plays Doris Walker, the events director for Macy’s department store, who convinces Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle to take over the part of the store’s previous Santa Claus, who was incompatico with the management. And as Maureen O’Hara plays it, she is the jaded and harried mother/career woman who wants to believe in new beginnings, as does her non-believing daughter, only to be surprised at the end at what faith can accomplish.
It is not very often that an actor or an actress can have such a long and varied career playing fictional characters in such a real, believable way. Yet Maureen O’Hara did it. And it not often that a person achieves a goal that they’ve long held, since their earliest days. And yet, Maureen O’Hara did that. And not many people get to be the Grand Marshal of the greatest—and probably the oldest—parade ever known in the world, New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. And that, too, she did, marching up Jack McCarthy’s “Queen of Avenues” wearing the green-white-and-gold sash over an Aran sweater with a trademark beret atop that still-flaming red hair of hers, with the green-Irish eyes, shining ever so bright, bursting wide pride in her heritage and in what she and her compatriots from a small green island in the Atlantic had accomplished, not just in the New World, but throughout the rest of the world.
Maureen O’Hara was one of those people one would think would never die; she was always a part of us and one of us—she was always there. Yet, in time, she had to die, as we eventually all must. (As the Squire himself would say, “We’ll regret it to our dying day, if ever we live that long.”) The former Maureen FitzSimmons, born in 1920 in County Dublin, in an Ireland that was undergoing a wrenching Civil War so soon after Independence, could never have imagined the life ahead of her, especially the life she was to lead on the silver screen. And she would never had known what joy and appreciation she brought to a viewing public that longed for the certainties that her acting offered to people who entered the theater, who wanted their imaginations encouraged and supported, even for a time and even long after they left the theater, when they had to step out from the reel world into the real world once again.
Maureen O’Hara is gone now, but Mary Kate Danaher is not. She is reunited with Sean Thornton, Michaeleen Og, her brother the Squire, and with Fr. Lonergan and the Rev. Mr. Playfair and all the people she cared for and the home in the land that she loved so much. All is well at White-a-Morn cottage, and all the red roses bloom anew in an Ireland that is forever green.