Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Sheep’s Head and redhead

Tuesday was Maureen O’Hara’s birthday. She is now 90 years old.

As it happens, last week I passed through the place (twice) where she lives in beautiful West Cork. This was a complete coincidence, although the journey was actually slightly movie related.

We were headed to Bantry because the Missus had gotten it into her head that she wanted to visit Bantry House. It is an estate that features a mid-18th century Georgian house with extensive gardens and views of Bantry Bay and the Caha Mountains across the water on the Beara Peninsula. It has been in the hands of one family since 1765, and it has been open for public tours since 1946. The original owner was made an earl for service to King George III. (The title lapsed four generations later, for lack of a male heir.) For five years during the Irish Civil War, the house served as a hospital. During World War II (called The Emergency in neutral Ireland), it was occupied by the Second Cyclist Squadron of the Irish Army. It’s the sort of place that could be the basis of an epic movie. But, as far as I know, it hasn’t been.

So that wasn’t the movie part of the journey. That would be a quick stop on the drive to the tip of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, one of those narrow bits of land that extend out into the Atlantic along the coasts of Cork and Kerry. The Missus (you can probably tell she does most of the planning) had it in her head to see the lighthouse at the very end of the peninsula. That involved a drive down an increasingly narrow road that wound up near the top of a hill with a bit of a car park and a little café. From there it was a two-kilometer walk up and down hills, carefully avoiding droppings from the peninsula’s namesakes, to the last bit of land surrounded by ocean. Fortunately, the weather was pretty darn perfect because I imagine that bit of land gets a fair lashing of rain and wind many days and nights through the year.

But that wasn’t the movie part of the journey. As I said, that was a very quick stop, near a little village called Ahakista. That’s probably not a name that evokes memories of some Hollywood classic or even a European production. But it is the name of a documentary that we screened at the Irish Reels Film & Video Festival in Seattle in 2001. Made for RTÉ television by Hugh Farley, it was the first time the film was screened in the U.S. It told the story of Air India Flight 182 which, en route from Montreal to Delhi and Bombay (now called Mumbai), was destroyed in 1985 by a bomb that had been transferred to the plane in Toronto from a flight from Vancouver. The film did a lovely job of telling the story, not only finding poignancy in the victims (who were mostly women and children, mostly Canadian citizens and mostly of Hindi ethnicity) but also of the people who had the difficult job of recovering the bodies and wreckage from the seas off County Cork.

The mass murder of the Air India passengers was committed by Sikh separatists. Although as many as eight suspects were publicly identified, as far as I can determine, only three were ever charged. One man was convicted in relation to the Air India explosion and another explosion that happened around the same time in an airplane on the ground in Japan. He was sentenced to five years in 2003 and so is presumably free now. Two other men, in a trial that began in 2003 and eventually cost $7.2 million, were found not guilty in 2005. Another documentary about the tragedy was released in 2008. Written and directed by Sturla Gunnarsson for Canadian television, Air India 182 (unlike Ahakista) includes dramatic reconstructions using actors.

There is a simple and tasteful and moving memorial to the disaster outside Ahakista. It is a garden on the sea with a large sundial. There is also a wall with the names of all 329 victims.

The fact that West Cork is so beautiful probably explains, in part why so many famous people tend to reside there, either for the short term or long. By all accounts, the locals don’t bother people simply because they are, or have been, fixtures in newspapers and magazines around the world. And they don’t give up information to curious outsiders looking for a celebrity sighting.

Maybe that is why Maureen O’Hara lives there these days. Anyway, we didn’t see her during our visit there. She is not a native of the area, as she is a Dubliner (specifically, Ranelagh) by birth, with roots in Kells, County Meath. But I tend to think of her as a virtual neighbor of mine, since we are not too awfully far from Cong, the County Mayo village that was the center of filming for The Quiet Man, which is undoubtedly many people’s favorite O’Hara movie. But she has been in so many classics over the years, as far back as her turn as the stunning Esmeralda, opposite Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, in 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She played other storybook-type heroines in movies like The Black Swan, The Spanish Main, Sinbad the Sailor, Bagdad, Tripoli, Flame of Araby and At Sword’s Point. She has also played some memorably no-nonsense moms in movies like Miracle on 34th Street, The Parent Trap, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation and Spencer’s Mountain. She even starred with Alec Guinness in Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana. In addition to The Quiet Man, she starred opposite John Wayne in Rio Grande, The Wings of Eagles, McLintock! and Big Jake. After that last western, she would make only one more big screen appearance—although she has since made the odd TV appearance, the most recent being The Last Dance in 2000. A full two decades after Big Jake, she made her last feature film (to date) in 1991, playing John Candy’s domineering mother in Chris Columbus’s Only the Lonely.

O’Hara was seen on Irish television Monday evening. She was interviewed on the occasion of her impending 90th birthday. It was good to see that she seems to be in good shape and looks and sounds like a woman many years younger. (And, if the truth be told, she reminds me more than a bit of my own red-haired mother, who also would have turned 90 this year.) She spends part of her time planning the Maureen O’Hara Legacy Centre in Glengariff, which will display her memorabilia and provide educational facilities for those interested in an acting career. A good reason for a future return visit.

Slightly belated best birthday wishes, Ms. O’Hara. And many, many more.

-S.L., 19 August 2010

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