A strange life in the year of Maureen O'Hara

TWO years ago Maureen O’Hara checked into the Ashford Castle hotel to stay in the room she called home during the filming of The Quiet Man.

A strange life in the year of Maureen O'Hara

She had returned to Mayo, along with 4,000 fans of the film, for the Cong Festival, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of the iconic production. O’Hara will always be synonymous with its tale of a bitter Irish-American’s struggle to love and control Mary Kate Danaher.

The festival takes place again this weekend but O’Hara won’t be there. Instead a statute will be unveiled, portraying her and her great friend John Wayne, who played the role of Sean Thornton in the film. During the festival a letter will be read from the 93-year-old actress, which she has penned from her new home in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Boise, Idaho is a long way from the life she built in Ireland. O’Hara’s journey there this time last year was just part of the enormous upheaval and anguish she has been through since her last visit to Cong in 2011.

Since then there has been a bitter private battle over her care and legacy that became a very public and increasingly litigious affair.

The fallout has seen two competing inquiries into the management of her finances. Allegation and insinuation have been aired, while plans for an elaborate legacy centre, museum and film school in Glengarriff, Co Cork, where she had lived, have been shelved.

In June 2012 the High Court was asked to intervene to decide if she had the wherewithal to make changes to those charged with running her affairs.

Currently one set of accountants is investigating the activities of another set of accounts.

And now a defamation action has been lodged, with her longtime friend seeking damages because of comments made by her nephew.

O’Hara and former personal assistant Carolyn Murphy

The spat resulted in O’Hara’s family hastily relocating her from Glengariff to western America, despite health concerns.

However, irrespective of the arguments that brought it about, the move has allowed her to live alongside her great grandchildren who previously were a world away. She now lives on the same street as her grandson, Conor Beau Fitzsimons, and two great grandchildren Everest and Bailey.

According to O’Hara’s manager, Johnny Nicoletti, her move to Idaho saw her “begin the process of saying goodbye to public life”. But he says she has not wanted to be a recluse in her new community. Boise, and the surrounding area, are closer to the quietness of provincial Ireland than some bustling cities in America. The people of Boise were invited to help her celebrate her 93rd birthday in August.

Her only other public engagement was a trip to Iowa, to visit the birthplace of her beloved co-star John Wayne.

A dinner was held in her honour and she spoke to the crowd who came out to celebrate the two screen legends.

She uses a mobility scooter to get around and according to Mr Nicoletti she is in good health. He says she used to joke with John Wayne that they would age like Rolls Royces and “high mileage never hurt a Rolls”.

O’Hara’s formidable presence has been missed in her former home of Glengariff but to some degree the connection still exists.

On her birthday a Skype connection to Glengarriff was set up to help her speak to her old friends at the golf club.

But the relocation and living in a new community has not stalled the struggles around O’Hara. As she celebrated her birthday in August the latest instalment in a family dispute was in train. That month her friend of 30 years and former personal assistant, Carolyn Murphy, took steps to sue O’Hara’s nephew, Charles Fitzsimons, for defamation.

The case has been listed in the High Court but according to Murphy’s solicitor, Paul Tweed, there has been some difficulty serving papers on Fitzsimons, who lives in Sweden.

In 2012 Fitzsimons had been vocal in his criticism of Murphy and was at the vanguard of efforts to have O’Hara retake control of her personal and financial affairs.

Fitzsimons, who now has joint power of attorney over O’Hara’s affairs, said he cannot comment on the case but he stands over what he said.

“Any statements I have made both public and privately have been, to the best of my knowledge, truthful, and consist of opinions that are honestly held by me.

“I have always acted in the best interest of my aunt Maureen O’Hara and will continue to offer my unconditional love, support and fierce loyalty to her in the future,” he said.

Tweed said what was said about his client was “outrageous” and specifically involved a number of emails that had discussed her.

Until last year, Murphy had helped organise almost every facet of O’Hara’s life and she said anything she has ever done has been with her consent and with her best interests at heart.

The defamation case is the second time in a little more than a year that Murphy and Fitzsimons have been on opposite sides of a legal battle. The first related to O’Hara’s decision to change who should have power of attorney over her affairs.

O’Hara had asked Murphy to take control of her affairs in 2005. But on November 5, 2012, an order of the High Court refused Murphy’s application for enduring power of attorney and control passed to O’Hara and Fitzsimons. The judge ruled O’Hara knew what she was doing when she opted to revoke the powers she had given to Murphy.

Possession of O’Hara’s archive of film memorabilia, which is still in west Cork, has not been resolved. Similarly, alleged issues with her investments have not been finalised or aired in any detail.

Last summer a press conference was held in west Cork at which allegations were levelled against those who had been running O’Hara’s affairs.

This included criticism of Murphy and the foundation that had been set up to enshrine O’Hara’s legacy and which was supported by her stepson Charles Blair and, at one stage, Charles Fitzsimons.

The foundation threw open its books to defend the money it had spent and its adherence to O’Hara’s dream of a multi-million euro theatre school and museum. No formal complaint was ever lodged.

Fitzsimons said his team’s inquiries into the foundation have yet to conclude. “The investigation and audit into the affairs of my aunt Maureen O’Hara are active and ongoing. I can confirm that we have engaged Arthur Cox solicitors in Dublin to assist our US legal team to analyze those results and make recommendations for further legal action,” he said.

So far the issues remain unresolved and, in at least one respect, it will be for the courts to again decide if there is any merit to what has been said during the dispute. All the while, like Mary Kate Danaher in the fictional village of Innisfree, Maureen is the star of a story played out by those struggling over her.

* The Quiet Man statue will be unveiled in the village of Cong this Sunday at 12.30pm.

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