Obituary: Maureen O'Hara

Maureen O'Hara Image copyright Getty Images

Maureen O'Hara's red hair and emerald-green eyes made her a Technicolor treat.

Her passionate performances were in direct contrast to those of many of her contemporary screen sisters.

In four decades of films, she buckled her swash with the best of them.

One of film's great beauties, she was a talented singer as well as an actress and later ran an airline in the Caribbean.

She was born Maureen FitzSimons in Ranelagh, a district on the south side of Dublin, on 17 August 1920, one of six children.

Her mother Marguerita was a former opera singer who encouraged her daughter to develop her own singing voice.

But O'Hara was also a tomboy. Her father part-owned the Dublin football club Shamrock Rovers, and his daughter begged him to create a women's team so she could play.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption With Leslie Banks in Jamaica Inn

O'Hara began training in drama and dance when she was just six and had an early ambition to be a stage actress, working in local amateur drama companies after school.

However, her father, a hard-headed businessman, also insisted she learn book-keeping and typing so she would have an alternative career if she failed to find success in acting.

This came in useful later, when she often typed her own script rewrites.

While training at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, she had the opportunity to go to London for a screen test.

Image caption An appearance on the BBC's Picture Page programme in 1939

It was seen by the noted actor and director Charles Laughton, who was much taken with her expressive eyes.

Her first credited film appearance was in the 1938 musical My Irish Molly, the only film in which she appeared under her real name.

Languished

Laughton secured her the part of Mary Yellen in Alfred Hitchcock's film of Jamaica Inn, which was released in 1939.

It was decided that her name was too long for the film's scrolling credits so Laughton changed it to O'Hara.

The actress hit it off with Hitchcock, claiming: "I never experienced the strange feeling of detachment with Hitchcock that many other actors claimed to have felt when working with him."

She also made an appearance on the BBC's fledgling television service in a magazine programme called Picture Page.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Miracle on 34th Street became a Christmas favourite

Also in 1939, her second film with Laughton was released, a version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in which she portrayed Esmeralda.

The outbreak of war meant filming in the UK came to an end and Laughton sold O'Hara's contract to RKO Pictures.

She languished in low-budget films for nearly two years before the director John Ford cast her in How Green Was My Valley.

Natural athlete

The film won an Oscar for best picture and was the start of a collaboration between O'Hara and Ford that would last for 20 years.

There were 12 more films, including The Black Swan, before she gave what many consider her best performance.

Miracle on 34th Street, was released in 1947 and saw O'Hara playing the mother of up-and-coming child star Natalie Wood.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption She said The Quiet Man was her favourite film

"I have been mother to almost 40 children in movies," O'Hara later recalled, "but I always had a special place in my heart for little Natalie."

By now she had become a naturalised US citizen, although she retained her Irish citizenship, and was married to film director William Houston Price.

O'Hara's direct, green-eyed gaze was soon seen piercing many a saloon door. Her roles were frequently those of headstrong wife or rebellious townswoman in various action pictures.

A natural athlete, she was able to fence, engage in fisticuffs and did many of her own stunts.

Bullwhip

Over the next two decades she made more than 30 films, some of which she described as "stinkeroos."

One exception was The Quiet Man, directed by John Ford which put O'Hara opposite a long-time friend, John Wayne.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption She was a natural athlete and skilled fencer

"It is the one I am most proud of and I tend to be very protective of it," she said.

Other highlights she remembered were becoming an expert with a bullwhip in Comanche Territory and working with a young Clint Eastwood on the 1955 film Lady Godiva of Coventry.

The studio publicity for the latter film falsely claimed she would be riding the horse naked.

Dominated

"I was not in the nude," she said. "I wore a full-length body leotard and underwear that was concealed by my long tresses."

She had never lost her love of singing, but because she was already established in other film genres, the studios did not cast her in musicals.

However, she became a regular guest on TV music shows, including those hosted by Andy Williams and Perry Como.

In 1960 she had a part in the Broadway musical Christine, and she released two albums of songs, one of which was devoted to tunes from her Irish birthplace.

She gave up acting after she married her third husband, Captain Charles Blair, in 1968, her second marriage having foundered on her husband's alcoholism.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption She came out of retirement to make Only the Lonely

Her new husband was a distinguished test pilot who had made the first solo flight across the North Pole.

The couple moved to the US Virgin Islands to run their own seaplane company.

When Blair died in a plane crash in 1978, O'Hara took over the running of the company, becoming the first woman president of a US-based scheduled airline.

O'Hara was persuaded back on to the screen in 1991, to star as John Candy's mother in Only the Lonely.

She returned to live in Ireland in 2005 but, seven years later, moved back to the US to live with her grandson.

She was tall for an actress of her time and dominated the screen in most of the films she made.

It was why she enjoyed working with the towering figure of John Wayne, "one of the few men who made me feel short".

She was always the beauty with attitude whose mental toughness and physicality set her apart from other female stars of her time.

"I'm very lucky," she once said. "I really had some wonderful movies."