From bohemian Baggotonia to a Louisburgh retreat
In her compelling memoir, ‘The Third Daughter’, Eileen O’Mara Walsh, tracks the trajectory of her colourful, cosmopolitan and successful life as a leading business woman and longtime partner of incorrigible Westport-born artist, the late Owen Walsh.
Here, she talks with Áine Ryan about her relationship with Walsh, who eschewed political correctness and, in the lyrical words of poet Paul Durcan, ‘Never licked the buttock of any clique’.
AR Your love affair with the late Westport-born artist Owen Walsh spanned 40 years. Return to that February evening in Neary’s of Chatham Street, Dublin, and describe those first feelings and interactions with him.
EO’MW I had recently returned from 18 months living in Paris and was enjoying quite a ‘succès fou’ on the Dublin social scene. I remember thinking he was extremely attractive but wild. I describe him in my book as a mixture of Peter O’Toole and Rudolf Nureyev … slightly over the top perhaps. [I was] determined not to fall victim to his blatant attack on my virtue … that lasted for a few weeks until I began to see the vulnerable man beneath the motley.
AR It seems, from the beginning of your relationship, that Owen’s colourful character and artistic temperament meant that emotional pain was inevitable. Why do you think you were able to cope with that and remain close to him until he died? Do you think your own unconventional background helped?
EO’MW It is difficult in retrospect to recognise the young woman I then was. The relationship was certainly turbulent and many of my friends thought I should give him up and settle down with a ‘steady’ fellow. But once I had made the commitment it didn’t seem right to turn my back just because he was difficult and mercurial. I admired his work tremendously and his integrity as an artist. As Paul Durcan so memorably said, he ‘never licked the buttock of any clique’.
So I stubbornly soldiered on through good times and bad – and the good times were great, like the year we lived in Paris in 1967-68 when I worked for the first Irish Tourist Board office there. Probably my own background inured me against any disapproval of our unconventional lifestyle.
In fact, my mother was very fond of Owen, although my father took him aside once to ask him what his intentions were towards his daughter and was told in no uncertain terms they were totally dishonourable. Although our relationship lasted for 40 years it transmuted into friendship and companionship from the 1980s on.
AR Busy with your burgeoning career, you discovered you were pregnant, with your son, Eoghan, in the autumn of 1974, how did that change your life and relationship with Owen?
EO’MW Eoghan’s birth totally changed the direction of my life. I had been quite happy until then leading a bohemian existence in a pleasant job I enjoyed but did not take very seriously. Economic independence became my first priority.
Within two years I had bought my first house and a year later I set up my own company O’Mara Travel which was the beginning of my real career in business. I discovered I had a talent for business and a passion for tourism.
The first group I brought to Ireland was the Garden Club of Monaco, and Princess Grace travelled with them in her private capacity. From then on we went from strength to strength and I went on to become involved in the wider world of business chairing the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation and was subsequently appointed Chairman of Great Southern Hotels and a director of Aer Lingus.
Owen and I separated when young Eoghan was about three years old, but it was not a sudden or bitter break, more a gradual parting of the ways. Our friendship and Owen’s role as a father continued and matured as time went on. As he grew older, he became more solitary and his health declined, arthtritis and his old enemy epilepsy took their toll, but his spirit and cussedness remained as strong as ever.
AR In a recent Irish Times review of your book, journalist Susan McKay, focuses on the ‘everyday sexism’ you encountered as a successful career woman. Did these encounters ever reduce you to tears or were you always able for such gender challenges? Do you think the same challenges face successful women still today?
EO’MW I think I was reduced more to tears of laughter or occasional frustration. I was lucky enough to be my own boss so never experienced the glass ceiling of the corporate world. Yes, I believe challenges still exist today for women, though perhaps not expressed in the overt way which pertained in the ’70s and ’80s.
AR There is an evocative photograph in your memoir of you and Owen on a little ferry boat to Clare Island in 1966. Will you bring us back to that day?
EO’MW It was summer, the first time I visited Mayo and the first time I had ever been on a small boat on the open sea. We spent three wonderful days on Clare Island staying in the postman’s house [the late Michael James Moran]. Owen painted a sunny bluey-green picture of Grainne Mhaol’s castle and the shoreline, which hangs in our Louisburgh house today.
AR You set out to write a memoir of your parents, who both led quite unconventional lives but the narrative lured you into your own life. In the Limerick estate where you lived for a time, your mother was known as ‘the Egyptian prime minister’, because she wore turbans and slacks. A convert from socialism to Catholicism, Joan O’Mara clearly had a big influence on your life. What is her most important legacy to you?
EO’MW Independent thinking and a love of Victorian literature. She inculcated me from early childhood with stories from now long-forgotten children’s authors, such as E Nesbitt (‘Five Children and It’), Frances Hodgson Burnett (‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’), Susan Coolidge (‘What Katy Did’) and many more. I soon moved on to David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, although I had a sneaking lust for Enid Blyton and The Chalet Girls.
I still re-read them all with enjoyment, except for Enid Blyton who is unreadable as an adult and exposes all her nasty English middle-class prejudices. I know it sounds boring but my favourite author is Anthony Trollope.
… My mother remained a socialist all her life – by the way, I don’t believe that socialism and catholicism are incompatible – except of course in the Ireland of the 1950s. She taught me to be sceptical of orthodoxy and to question the accepted tenets of Irish society. She also taught me to be confident of my own ability to think things through, to follow my instincts rather than follow my leader.
AR In the end, when Owen was very ill with lung cancer and other ailments, he came back home to Mayo and your house outside Louisburgh. When he was healthy, he was high-maintenance, it seems, but they must have been special days for you?
EO’MW After several years of ill health, not helped by his determination to stay in his spartan studio in Lower Baggot Street, Owen was diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2002. Our holiday home in Louisburgh was the ideal solution, as Owen had been in regular residence there since we bought it in 1999. I was already cutting down on my business interests so was able to spend most of my time there.
It was only in the last couple of months that the illness took over and he suffered a great deal. Previous to that he had been able to go out and about. He never stopped working, though at the end he couldn’t hold the brushes properly and worked mainly in crayon.
In many ways, it was a redemptive time for him; the extended Westport family of Walshes and Hughes were terrifically supportive, especially his brothers and their wives, who used to call out and sit with him reminiscing about Bridge Street and holidays in Lecanvey when they were kids.
I wish we could have kept him with us to the end, but he was in such pain that he was transferred to Castlebar and died there on June 23. Westport gave him a magnificent send off – he would have enjoyed it thoroughly. He is buried in the family grave at Aughagower looking out towards Croagh Patrick. What better place could he be!
MORE The Third Daughter: A Retrospective by Eileen O’Mara Walsh is published by Lilliput Press, and has a recommended retail price of €20.