She was the screen icon who put Ireland in the Hollywood limelight. But a battle over her legacy could take the shine off Maureen O’Hara’s glittering career. Investigative Correspondent Conor Ryan reports
HIS is a dispute that threatens to herald a very sorry end to a truly celebrated life. At its core is the question of control over the life’s work of a cinema icon and the legacy she has wanted to leave in her adopted home on the Cork-Kerry border.
Maureen O’Hara pioneered the success of Irish idols in Hollywood. The Ranelagh-born actress’ contribution is already projected through the generations of film stars with Irish accents that followed her. But she wanted more than that. She had a dream.
“Sometimes I ask myself what was the purpose of all those glorious years. The struggle? The uncompromising pursuit of excellence? How can we pass this on to future generations?” she told perspective donors in 2009.
In the same video address, Ms O’Hara went on to introduce plans for a school and museum that would carry her name long after she was gone. She celebrates her 92nd birthday on Friday with her legacy now seemingly at the mercy of the family courts.
Meanwhile, those she entrusted with realising her dream, the Maureen O’Hara Foundation, have been accused of distorting it.
Demands have been made by her new legal team to reveal what the foundation has done with its money and what of Ms O’Hara’s has it got control of. In Glengarriff, the fledgling foundation has been torn apart.
It is now in limbo, unsure of the continued support of its lead patron and unwilling to continue without her.
Suspicion first circulated through innuendo, but was articulated by Ms O’Hara herself, following the intervention of some of her family.
These developments have prompted the foundation’s chief executive, Glengarriff accountant Frank McCarthy, to open the books. He said the foundation is anxious to explain what it has done with the trust, goodwill and contributions from Maureen O’Hara, her international friends and her neighbours in West Cork.
Mr McCarthy has outlined the ambitious vision that the group had been preparing to unveil to the public.
He set out what it needed from Ms O’Hara’s estate. And he gave a detailed account of the money it has raised and spent since its inception.
He said far from the foundation distorting the actress’ legacy, he believed it was on the cusp of securing it.
“The foundation remains steadfast in its primary purpose of making the dream and creative legacy of Maureen O’Hara a reality,” he said.
His words are echoed by Ms O’Hara’s stepson Chris Blair, who is a director of the American arm of the foundation and said in his conversations with the actress the dream espoused by the foundation was ambitious but it was what she wanted. Still, he said, that dream is in grave danger.
“The current difficulties are beyond distressing, and I
certainly hope that all questions can be cleared up through independent review as quickly as possible.
“With so much uncertainty about the future, I think it is impossible to move the organisation and its mission forward until this is accomplished.”
The reputation of the foundation, and that of those involved in it, has been swept up in a rancorous split between Maureen O’Hara’s friends, her family and her erstwhile team of advisors.
In May and early June, rumour wreaked havoc. Initially, Ms O’Hara was forced to come out and deny that she was the victim of elder abuse.
She had to confirm that the many events she attended had not been organised to tout her fame for money.
The elder abuse suggestion was dismissed after a visit from the Health Service Executive.
Around the same time, the High Court was asked to rule on who should take charge of her affairs.
The choice has effectively come down to her extended family or the friend she trusted to look after her estate during her old age.
That close friend is Carolyn Murphy, 71, who until recently was Ms O’Hara’s personal assistant. Originally from the US, Ms Murphy was trusted to act with power of attorney once the actress was too frail to manage her own affairs. The arrangement came about in 2005 after the two women had known each other for 30 years.
Ms Murphy is the chairman of the foundations in Ireland and America.
When allegations of elder abuse and maltreatment first surfaced, the aging actress energetically leapt to her friend’s defence.
But, Ms O’Hara’s tone changed when an accountant from the Caribbean, Pablo O’Neill, and a lawyer from America, Edward Fickess, arrived into West Cork with her grandson Conor Beau Fitzsimons and nephew Charles Fitzsimons.
Mr Fickess organised a press conference at Eccles Hotel in which Ms O’Hara said matters had been brought to her attention that caused her to question the role Ms Murphy had played. She sought to relinquish the power of attorney granted to her.
Mr Fickess also circulated a statement to newsrooms across the country that spelled out the whispered allegations that had been circulating around Glengarriff since the beginning of the summer.
At this conference the actress was flanked by Mr Beau Fitzsimons.
He is 42 and the son of her daughter Bronwyn Fitzsimons. She has not featured publicly in the dispute but Ms O’Hara has revealed that her family is back living with her.
Bronwyn’s cousin, Charles Fitzsimons, has spoken on the affair. He resigned as a director of the foundation and told the Sunday Independent it had outrageously misinterpreted her dream.
But her stepson, Mr Blair, contradicted him and maintained that the dream had to be ambitious or it would fail.
“The plans are certainly ambitious, but if there is to be an academy and legacy centre in Maureen’s name, the mission, the facility and its staffing must be of international stature.
“Otherwise what is the point? Another tourist bus stop in Glengarriff with movie curiosities and a shop selling reprint posters?
“The village is too far off the beaten path for the centre to have much of an impact on the economy and Irish culture unless it offers something essential and unique. The academy is that element in my view,” he said.
For her part Ms Murphy has said the suggestion of impropriety had annihilated her reputation but was proud of the work of the foundation.
“I am deeply disappointed, heartbroken and hurt by the false allegations and rumours surrounding the Maureen O’Hara Foundation.
“I cherish Maureen’s vision and dream. Her legacy is the precious seeds and blueprint for her ultimate achievements. A thing that can not ever be stolen or taken.
“I am very honoured to work with a group of people whose shared spirit of giving, passion and commitment is an expression of the true love for Ireland’s greatest actress, a great lady and a real legend.”
Ultimately the outcome will rest on whether Ms O’Hara still retains the mental competence to make the decision on who should manage her interests.
Reporters at her press conference noted that the actress appeared a little out of touch — she was asking about an Irish soccer match weeks after the conclusion of the European championships.
However, it is said that she has passed tests in hospital to confirm her state of mind.
There was one particularly pointed suggestion fingered at the foundation. This was contained in the statement released on behalf of Ms O’Hara.
The claim questioned the ownership rights to the valuable artifacts of Ms O’Hara’s career.
“I need answers to some disturbing questions because I feel like my trust has been violated. I want to know who holds the rights to my own name, image, likeness, movie memorabilia and signature,” Ms O’Hara’s statement said.
Her new lawyer, Mr Fickess, and accountant, Mr O’Neill, have begun their own audit to satisfy themselves as to the state of the actress’ possessions.
In response, the foundation said it laid claim to nothing and it had no assets to its name.
“[The foundation] does not have, and never had, title to the name, image, likeness, signature or memorabilia of Ms O’Hara,” a statement said.
And it said there were no transactions between the actress and the company that carried her name.
“The Maureen O’Hara Foundation has never received direct contributions, funds or assets at any time from Ms O’Hara,” it said.
Prospective memorabilia has been restored. Material has been warehoused and itemised by Ms O’Hara and Ms Murphy. But the actress still owns them.
The foundation said if Ms O’Hara was supplied with information that cast doubt on its motivations, then that was “factually incorrect”.
No complaint has been made to gardaí. But ultimately control of these assets is crucial to the future of the foundation and the outcome of the family dispute.
The idea underpinning the centre was that it would eventually get rights to these assets. This was to be organised by means of a long-term loan that would end if the foundation ever wound up.
This loan arrangement was considered essential for the proposed legacy centre if it were to attract tourists interested in the life’s work of Ms O’Hara.
The terms were with lawyers and were never finalised before relations became strained.
There have been suggestions that the foundation, and Ms Murphy, had taken direct control of responses to fans in exchange for contributions to the fund.
The foundation said it has received just €5,310 from this up to Dec 2011. The majority came anonymously but some was in return for signed photographs.
There has been a private contract entered into. But the foundation said it has not stolen money.
“Media suggestions and innuendo of financial appropriation and misappropriation is without merit and have hurt the foundation, its representatives and ultimately Ms O’Hara herself,” its board of directors said.
The foundation has produced a 181-page business plan for a new legacy centre.
It would cost close to €12.5m to build and seek to deliver an accumulated surplus of €294,000 in its first five years of operation. The one aspect of agreement from both sides of the dispute is that it is ambitious.
But while Ms O’Hara’s nephew, Charles Fitzsimons, said it was “outrageously ambitious” the foundation said it is “ambitious but achievable”.
Mr Fitzsimons said the legacy centre, as it has been envisioned by the foundation, is a far cry from small museum he claimed the actress had in mind.
The cost was to be €12.5m. This was to deliver the building and cover the construction and fit out of the centre. Money also had to be set aside to buy a suitable site, if necessary.
It would incorporate displays on the innovation of Ms O’Hara’s late husband Charles Blair. His son, Ms O’Hara’s stepson, Chris Blair, said all the discussions he had with her confirmed she wanted more than a museum.
“In my conversations with Maureen over the past several years, we have talked about the legacy centre, the film centre and festival, and ways to pass on her knowledge and experiences to future generations of film makers and performing artists.
“In particular, Maureen would often speak about her early training in elocution and other basic studies that provided such a good grounding for her later work in the theatre and films.
“So I have always felt that the educational side of the legacy centre was more central to her desires than the museum side, though the museum side with her artifacts and memorabilia is key to the financial plan and tourism benefits for the region.”
Cork County Council has offered a small plot. But provision has been made in the overall budget for additional space, to allow any education centre to expand.
Mr McCarthy said the vision was developed in consultation with Ms O’Hara and espoused a dream she vocalised in her appeal to donors.
This was not just for a museum and gift shop but an educational centre that would train students for the film industry. “She was about being Irish and that was what this document [the business plan] is about”.
The foundation’s chief executive said it had to be a legacy for a Hollywood icon.
“She wanted for this not to be about producing actresses for Hollywood. It was about producing Irish actresses and film makers, the Irish way,” he said.
It is envisaged that the building would house two grades of the Maureen O’Hara International Film Academy.
Once it established itself, it was predicted the academy would enrol at least 225 students in five disciplines and these would be taught by 20 full time and part-time tutors.
For the younger age group, there was a plan to open the Maureen O’Hara School of Elocution and Performing Arts.
In its first full year of operation, the plan was to have a centre that raised a little over €1.1m from tourism and €839,000 to cover the academic costs.
It was projected to make a loss of €9,000 that year, 2016. But as it bedded itself down this was to turn into an annual profit in excess of €100,000 by 2019.
During the first five years it was anticipated the centre would need 38 staff rising to 48. This would be evenly split between the tourism and teaching areas.
The tourism income would have to be in excess of €1m to satisfy the targets in the business plan. It would need in the region of 70,000 visitors a year to break even.
The figures were based on a detailed analysis of visitor patterns in West Cork.
The anchor items for the tourist attraction would have been the film memorabilia and costumes which belong to Ms O’Hara and her co-stars, such as John Wayne.
But Mr McCarthy said this was a future plan and it had not agreed the loan of image rights or artifacts.
“We do not have title rights or privileges to Maureen’s name, memorabilia or any part of her.”
It was planned for builders to start in Jun 2013. The centre was to open on Apr 1, 2015 and the film academy would take students from September that year.
Mr McCarthy believed the centre would not be in competition with any other school or academy because it would do something different and look to develop synergies with all of the big national universities and training colleges.
A fundraising letter Ms O’Hara signed last year spoke about the school of elocution and the academy for performing arts.
It also set out an ambition to train rather than to simply entertain visitors.
“Some of the finest actors, actresses, directors and cameramen have roots in this country. We have always given and continue to give the world our very best.
“My dream is to train our very best so that this flow of talent into the world from Ireland continues,” she wrote.
In Ireland, the Maureen O’Hara Foundation Ltd has existed since Mar 2010. Its 2011 accounts are with the auditors but, as the controversy kicked off, it has effectively gone into hibernation until it has renewed authority to continue its project.
At the end of 2010, it was in the red with debts of €77,231. Its income that year was €57,483.
However, Mr McCarthy said the debt relates to money owed to its directors and its chief executive for the services they supplied to the company.
He said none of the directors, or former directors, have been paid anything and they will not see their debt settled until the foundation is trading fully and has paid all its other bills.
“The total indebtedness of the Maureen O’Hara Foundation as at 31 May 2012 amounts to €126,974, all of which is owed to directors, committee members and the CEO of the foundation.
“Such costs are considered contingent liabilities of the foundation as they will only fall due for payment ‘if and when the foundation can pay same at some time in the future’,” it said.
Paddy O’Mahony, a committee member until last year, and Donal Deasy, a director until last year, are both owed money. The debts are still outstanding.
In its early years, the income generating opportunities for the foundation have been limited.
In Ireland, the legacy awards were hosted last year at a cost of €150 a ticket. The night made a modest €2,407 profit and surplus for the film festival in 2011 was €2,509. Its total income last year was €48,288, but the cost of raising that came to €42,202.
The only out and out fundraiser held so far was organised by the US foundation over two days at the New York Athletic Club.
It raised $68,961 and the cost of the running the event came to $51,602. There was PR, legal and marketing costs of more than €16,352.
In total, it generated a profit of €16,243, which was transferred to the Irish company to cover its setup costs.
The major expenses for the Irish company have been the running of the legacy awards and the money owed to its directors and committee members.
Mr McCarthy said there is a clear distinction between promotional and fundraising events. He said the foundation has not been in a position to raise money in the absence of an agreed business plan.
Instead he said its public activities have centred on raising awareness of the group in advance of a planned fundraising blitz.
Last year, the foundation brought over potential donors to a dinner in Kenmare, Co Kerry. Its costs were covered and given the small size of the event, it was used to explain the project rather than to solicit cash.
In May, another event was held in the Irish embassy in London.
This took place at the invitation of the Irish ambassador. It had a small attendance and money was not raised. Mr McCarthy said it came about through an offer from the embassy.
“It was an invitation we responded to and did not solicit in any way. We saw it as an opportunity to introduce the foundation to a British audience.
“It was not a fundraiser and it would not have been appropriate to do so at an embassy,” he said.
He said despite the acrimony that has surfaced since May, it was safe to agree to the embassy event at the time.
There has been a Maureen O’Hara golf classic held at Glengarriff.
But this is an annual event she has leant her name to for a number of years and has nothing to do with the foundation.
Mr McCarthy said he and Ms Murphy also flew to America on one occasion to meet donors. This happened in May 2011 and was could not be characterised as frequent travel.
“Suggestions that members of the foundation have taken numerous trips overseas is again factually inaccurate…
“The trip [in May 2011] was undertaken to meet key potential stakeholders and investors. No fundraising activity was undertaken on this occasion,” a statement said.
Maureen O’Hara will celebrate her 92nd birthday on Friday, and her legacy rests on rulings into decisions she made seven years ago; the conduct of those she trusted to handle her affairs and a judgment on whether she is competent enough to change her mind.
The foundation wants to clear its name and reclaim the support of the actress whose legacy it was created to secure.
But Mr McCarthy concedes the situation is difficult and unless the foundation gets support back from Ms O’Hara, it cannot continue.
He said he has no desire to remain as chief executive of the ultimate legacy centre and if it was delivered, he would happily walk away.
“My job was to exit once I got the money raised for the project,” he said.
However the board of directors has said its image has been tarnished.
“Unfortunately, recent media coverage seems committed to discredit the foundation by whatever means possible.
“Whist the reason for this action is wholly unclear, it is nevertheless causing the foundation considerable difficulty in terms of its credibility and in progressing with its objectives,” it said.
Its fate will most likely be bound up in the High Court dispute and whether or not Ms Murphy continues to act with power of attorney.
However, after three brutally destructive months, Mr McCarthy and the foundation know that whatever the outcome, it will struggle to win back the goodwill of those it was hoping to support its cause.
In a fight over how her legacy should take shape, Ms O’Hara could yet be left without one.
THE FOUNDATION: Facing mounting criticism and allegations
THE foundation has two arms, one in America and the other officially based out of Ms Murphy’s house in Ballylickey, Bantry, Co Cork. It was established in March 2010 as a follow on from the original Dromkeal Arts Centre project.
The Irish company is registered as a not-for-profit entity. Currently there are two directors: Carolyn Murphy and Glengarriff woman Orla Coughlan. The latter was appointed when the original director and local hotelier, Donal Deasy, and Maureen O’Hara’s nephew, Charles Fitzsimons, stepped down.
It has enjoyed the support of patrons include Dame Judy Dench, Colin Farrell, Pierce Brosnan, Dame Helen Mirren, and the powerful Irish-American philanthropist Loretta Brennan Glucksman.
“We didn’t look for any money from these people. The idea of patrons is that you can say on headed note paper that these people support the project but the project has got to work on its own and function in its own right,” said foundation chief executive Frank McCarthy.
The foundation hosted the classic film festival last year and held the legacy awards in 2010 and 2011. In January this year it also finalised a detailed business plan for the legacy centre and the academy that was to be built in Glengarriff.
So far the Irish entity has been the focus of the recent criticism and allegation. But there is an inextricable link to its sister operation in the US.
The American company was deemed essential. But, because of a different reporting code across the Atlantic, less is known about it.
The logic was that the affection towards Ms O’Hara among Irish-Americans would attract a number of large donations, once fundraising commenced, from the diaspora.
For tax reasons, this required the establishment of a not-for-profit vehicle resident in the US.
Maureen O’Hara Foundation Inc was set up in the state of Delaware, where corporate disclosures are minimal.
Crucially, the incorporated company has charitable status, under tax code 501 c3. This means donations can be written off against an American citizen’s revenue bill.
The incorporated arm of the foundation has Ms O’Hara as its president. This remains the case. Other directors include Ms Murphy, Mr McCarthy, and Charles Fitzsimons’s wife Maureen Frontino.
Ms Frontino has tendered her resignation but the foundation has not been active to accept it.
The final director is Chris Blair, Ms O’Hara’s stepson. His father, Charles Blair, was to have his incredible aviation legacy enshrined as part of the Glengarriff centre.
Mr Blair remains a director and has said there is support for the foundation and its ambitious plan. “The foundation is in its beginning days, and only earlier this year completed a business plan, which will be key to attracting private benefactors as well as foundation and government support.
“There have been various introductory events in Ireland and the USA to promote interest, and thanks must go to prominent artists who have lent their support and attendance to make these successful, but the serious fundraising phase for the centre is temporarily on hold until certain issues can be cleared up,” he said.
Mr Blair said he has been active in seeking preliminary commitments for the education element if the centre if it can be salvaged.
“I have been in contact with a prominent university in the USA which already has an Irish studies programme, a film studies programme, and an extension division in the West of Ireland.
“This university has expressed an interest in developing a formal teaching/exchange relationship with the academy and legacy centre, so modest progress is, in fact, being made on the academic mission,” he said.
The American company that Mr Blair and Ms O’Hara are involved in is connected, and shares an ethos with the Irish company. But it is not obliged to automatically direct its funds to it.
It has the ability to disperse money to other causes as it sees fit, once they fulfil its primary objective to “improve and advance public understanding and appreciation of the theatre, cinema, and film”.
So far the only recipient of its limited funds has been the Maureen O’Hara Foundation Ltd in Ireland. This has involved the transfer of €16,243, which was the profit from a two-day fundraising drive in New York two years ago. This was the only significant activity in the American accounts since its inception.
The foundation has said its primary aim, ahead of the publication of its business plan, has been to raise awareness. For this reason any events it has organised have not been designed to raise money. The Delaware company did not trade in 2011.
Mr McCarthy said the foundation is an independent legal entity to Ms O’Hara but it was not true to suggest she played no role in it.
“Ms O’Hara is the lead patron of the foundation. She is kept abreast of developments and progress by a continuous consultation process,” he said.
However, despite being the president of the American company, Ms O’Hara suggested at her press conference that she had been shut out of the business.
“Regarding the Maureen O’Hara Foundation, while that entity bears my name, I am not personally involved in its management or operations,” she said.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved
More in this section