The town of Kells laid claim to the national treasure that is Maureen O’Hara last weekend. The retired movie star was in town ostensibly to receive the Freedom of Kells in a civic ceremony, but also to acknowledge her ancestral heritage, writes Noel Shine.
When this writer broached the subject of a return visit to Kells with her (eight years ago at a booksigning in Dublin) she expressed doubts citing that the FitzSimons that she was familiar with were long since dead.When I informed her that Pierce Brosnan had been bestowed with a civic honour, five years previous in Navan she was interested but similarly non-committal. Roll forward a few years to an interview with Ryan Tubridy on The Late, Late Show and she declares her stated intention to visit her father’s hometown of Kells in County Meath. Many saw the interview in Kells, but none, including myself, did anything about it. None, that is with the exception of Aidan Carry who determined to make Maureen’s wish a reality.
This visit, which has been a half century in coming, was carefully co-ordinated by Aidan and his commitee over the past eighteen months culminating in last weekend’s festivities. Accompanied on her trip to Kells by her grandson Conor Beau FitzSimons and assorted relatives, Maureen arrived on Friday evening when the paint had barely dried on the last of the town’s many revamped buildings. On Saturday afternoon, she laid a wreath at Balrath cemetery where her paternal grandmother is buried, before returning to nearby Kells to attend a parade in her honour. Irish Grand National winner, Lion Na Bearnai did a lap of honour in the town prior to her arrival at 3pm.
Maureen, who at 91,uses a wheelchair for mobility, was ferried through the town on a minibus led by the Kells Silver Band and headed by members of the local army command. They proceeded to Bective Square where a huge throng of local people had gathered to witness the unveiling of a bronze bust, crafted in her likeness by local artist Betty Newman Maguire. When Maureen did eventually unveil it, the spectators were treated to the unedifying spectacle of local town councillors converging on the hapless star in a futile bid to ingratiate themselves with her. This combined with the overzealous antics of some so -called professional photographers attendant there, conspired to make what should have been a joyous event for all, a rather unsavoury affair for some. Nevertheless the doyenne of Hollywood herself remained unfazed and determined to be brought to the barriers to greet any and all who had taken the time out to greet her.
On a specially constructed stage, Kells native and film producer Arthur Lappin ( My Left Foot, The Field,In The Name Of the Father,In America etc) introduced Maureen to the crowd as probably the most notable visitor to the town since St Columba! It would probably be more accurate to suggest one ; Charles Stewart Parnell, the champion of Home Rule and one time sitting MP for Meath. Maureen’s father was named in his honour and having received a framed scroll in a civic ceremony, she referenced that fact adding “we were all brought up as republicans those days!”. Touchingly she recalls her parents, even now as ‘mammy’ and ‘daddy’ and remembered that the last time she was in Kells, over 50 years ago she was “still Maureen FitzSimons, but that she was a different person now since taking on the nickname of Maureen O’Hara”.
Never was a truer word spoken. Since then she has survived a roller-coaster career that has seen her become a Hollywood star in her own right starring alongside such luminaries as Natalie Wood, James Stewart, Alec Guinness, Errol Flynn, Rex Harrison, Clint Eastwood and most notably with John Wayne in five John Ford productions including the evergreen ” Quiet Man”. Throw in an early Hitchcock classic ‘Jamaica Inn’, Graham Greene’s ‘How Green Was My Valley’ and a 1991 comeback at the age of 71 opposite John Candy in ‘Only The Lonely’ and you can see she has been a busy woman.Her extra-curricular activity away from the sound stages of Hollywood are many and varied. Too many to list here, (See her autobiography, ‘T’is Herself’) so I will not try. Suffice to say, that even in her twilight years her energy and her zest for life remain undiminished. This was very much in evidence last Saturday, when she delivered a long and spirited address before conducting a question and answer session with those who were within earshot. Later that evening at the Headfort Arms Hotel, she was serenaded by local singer, Matthew Gilsenan singing ‘Danny Boy’ at a Gala Ball held in her honour.
On Sunday morning, Maureen was unable to attend a wreath laying ceremony at the Fitzsimon’s family plot in the new Kells graveyard, as she was understandably fatigued by Saturdays events. Conor , her grandson duly obliged in her absence and led a small group in prayer followed by a thoughtful and sincerely felt reflection. Later, Maureen went to Headfort Golf Club to symbolically plant a tree and was treated to a rendering of ’The Isle of Innisfree’ by local warbler, Paul Usher in his own, or was it Nat King Cole’s style! Then at nearby Grange football pitch Maureen watched part of a soccer match between her beloved Shamrock Rovers ( Maureen’s father had been a part owner of the club) and Kells Blackwater FC. This was the most relaxed part of her trip, with Maureen using the microphone to request that “everyone stop looking at me and get on with the match!” There were a few more presentations and a few more considered words with Jimmy Feehan, Blackwater Club Chairman expressing the hope that Maureen may make her visits to Kells an annual occasion. Maureen replied in the affirmative declaring ” with the help of God”.With that and with as little fanfare as when she arrived, she was gone. The public part of her visit concluded. Maureen remained in Kells for a third night before leaving to meet President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins at Aras An Uachtarain the next day.
Kells is still recovering from her whirlwind visit. All who met or saw Maureen O’Hara attest to the fact that they were glad they did, with their only reservation being that the visit should have been facilitated years ago. They have come away inspired by a lady whose beauty and indomitable spirit have not been compromised by time. A red headed girl who remained true to her God, her tribe, and ultimately remains one of our own - Maureen FitzSimons. Along the way she used her gift as an all-round entertainer to provide escapism long enough, for people to further their understanding of their own humanity and the higher purpose to which we are all called. That surely is the purpose of all art and good art transcends time. Maureen was party to a period of time and some film productions which will ensure her name will outlive her fame and become immortal. For a brief, glorious sunshine-filled three days she made us part of her experience and for that and so much more Kells in honouring her was itself honoured.(Words and Photography by Noel Shine at Meath Today on Facebook)