"This moving testimony concludes with the revival of Mary O'Hara's music career and a spell spent in Africa with her second husband." —Tablet magazine (October 2012)
Travels with My Harp: The Complete Autobiographyby Mary O'Hara
Inspirational and entertaining, this autobiography chronicles the life of a performing artist with a deeply devout outlook. Mary O’Hara won global acclaim as a singer and harpist, yet behind public success was an unsuspected tragedy in which joy turned to sorrow. From her humble beginnings in the west of Ireland to her first husband’s tragic death and
Inspirational and entertaining, this autobiography chronicles the life of a performing artist with a deeply devout outlook. Mary O’Hara won global acclaim as a singer and harpist, yet behind public success was an unsuspected tragedy in which joy turned to sorrow. From her humble beginnings in the west of Ireland to her first husband’s tragic death and her 12-year sojourn in a monastery, this tale of triumph over tragedy also journeys with O’Hara into the wilds of Africa following her second marriage. Written with warmth and humor, this book is also filled with insights into O’Hara’s albums and concert tours.
"This moving testimony concludes with the revival of Mary O'Hara's music career and a spell spent in Africa with her second husband." —Tablet magazine (October 2012)
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Travels with My Harp
The Complete Autobiography
By Mary O'Hara
Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) LtdCopyright © 2012 Mary O'Hara
All rights reserved.
That Child Won't Live
I don't know if my mother ever harboured notions of my becoming a singer: I very much doubt it, but if she did she never mentioned it to me. But I do know from others that she was worried I might not survive babyhood, though I personally have no recollection of being a sickly child, or frail, or mal-nourished.
I was an Easter child, born in Sligo, a small town on the west coast of Ireland. It had been a busy port before World War II, with an extensive trade in timber from the Baltic, weekly services to Liverpool and Glasgow, trade in grain from South America and Australia and various goods from Europe. From remote times, the O'Haras were settled in the Barony of Leyney in County Sligo. Thurlough Carolan (1670-1738), the noted Irish composer and harpist, composed 'Cupán Uí Eaghra' for Cian (Kean) O'Hara (1657-1719) who was High Sheriff of Sligo in 1703 and 1713. Cian's son, also named Cian (1713-1782), was a Drury Lane playwright of some note and is best known for his drama Midas. Our branch of the family, however, is descended from Oliver O'Hara, who took part in the Irish rebellion of 1641. Later, when Cromwell, the victor of the English Civil War, gave Irish Catholics the ultimatum of 'going to hell or to Connaught', the O'Haras were not immediately affected as they were already in Connaught, but Oliver O'Hara's family did forfeit their lands for participating in the rebellion. A section of the family conformed to the new religion and so retained their property. Soldiers figure along the line, including my great grand-uncle who, in 1863, fought as a cavalry officer in the Union Army in the American Civil War.
My mother (who by the time I was born had three children under the age of four) relied on our neighbour Lily Hession, a mother of seven children, as the resident expert on all child ailments. My mother did not breastfeed and relied completely on cow's milk. When I, the latest O'Hara newborn, could not keep the milk down, an SOS went out for Mrs Hession. Lily's daughter Eileen remembers her mother arriving back from her visit somewhat distraught and making the solemn pronouncement: 'That child won't live.' This stark phrase stuck in Eileen's mind. Eileen came to a concert of mine in Poole on the south coast of England in 1980 and, not having met since childhood, there was a lot of history to rake over. I casually mentioned that I'd recently seen a herbalist who had taken me off dairy products because, she said, I was allergic to them. Taken aback, Eileen butted in: 'But, didn't you know that, as a new-born baby, you almost died because you were allergic to dairy products?' And it had taken me forty-four years to discover this!
By any account, my parents' marriage was not the happiest of alliances. It is still very difficult to understand why they married. My father was a mild-mannered man; my mother was wilful with sometimes a tyrannical streak. I often think that if Father had married somebody who was more of a home-maker it would have provided him with the foundation he needed to make him truly happy. And if perhaps Mother had shared her life with someone firmer, she too might have thrived; she needed to be controlled. Although there were admirable qualities on both sides, they tended to negate each other. Some years ago my father told me that at one time they had both considered doing medicine at university. But as far as I can judge neither would have been the right type. Their temperaments were unsuitable. The medicine dream was an aspect of their partial inability to come to terms with everyday life.
John O'Hara, as his family referred to him, had a restless nature and had always wanted to travel. He attended Summerhill College, Sligo, but left at sixteen and qualified as a 'wireless operator' at the radio college in Cahirciveen, County Kerry. Though the course usually took a year, he applied himself diligently and qualified in a record three months. The college principal was impressed enough to ask him to stay on as an instructor, but, as his only reason for doing the course was to get away to sea, he declined. For three years he sailed the world with the merchant navy. On the high seas he had plenty of time to think and study. He matriculated and entered University College, Galway, where he met Mai Kirwan, a commerce student, who was to become my mother.
Mai Kirwan is reputed to have been very attractive and vivacious. Photographs confirm this. I've heard her referred to as a college beauty and very charming. She was musical, having played the piano in her school orchestra at Taylor's Hill Dominican School in Galway. Educated and consequently in one sense a liberated woman in her day, she was at the same time not really liberated due to her temperament.
John O'Hara graduated with degrees in civil engineering and geology while Mai Kirwan graduated with a degree in commerce. During their marriage, I seem to remember money being a source of dissension. Mother always appeared in my childhood eyes to be the aggressor with my long-suffering father never asserting himself, hoping in vain for a quiet life. She had a temper and he didn't. Only recently did I get to hear about my father's heavy gambling on horses during the very early years of their marriage. Not the most auspicious of starts.
After he qualified, John O'Hara, still hankering for adventure, planned to become a professional soldier with the British Army in India, but at his interview he was persuaded to change his mind. He ended up with the British Colonial Service and was posted to Nigeria. Mai Kirwan took a teaching job in the west of Ireland. They must have kept in touch and in two years John O'Hara came back to Ireland, married Mai Kirwan and together they returned to West Africa. He was twenty-seven and she was twenty-nine. Even then, Mother was beginning to show signs of neurotic behaviour.
Father told this story. They were on board the West African mail steamer, which had just started to sail down the Mersey with the pilot on board. Mother decided she'd investigate the as yet unseen cabin. Seeing the low bulkhead, she turned on Father and snapped: 'The ceiling is too low; get me off this ship at once.' He replied, 'If you really mean it, then you'd better hurry up so that you can leave with the pilot and get down by the Jacob's ladder.' Mother stayed.
This irrational strain in her character lingered on. Years later we were living close to the harbour in Sligo. For some reason or other Mother was in bed during the day and the heavy dray horses pulling their noisy carts over the cobbled stones alongside the house got on her nerves. She ordered Father to go to the Town Hall and get the traffic stopped. He never did.
It seemed an extraordinary partnership. I do think that Father really loved Mother in his own way. All his life he was very loyal and faithful to her, and he never mentioned the constant friction to anyone outside the family. If ever he overheard us children grumbling among ourselves about what we deemed to be our mother's irrational behaviour, he'd pull us up gently.
I have a theory that Mother did not have a strong maternal instinct and wanted only one child. This was my eldest sister, Joan. Thinking about it years later as an adult, it seemed to me that Mother saw Joan as an extension of herself. There was a companionship between them that was not shared by the rest of us. Joan had the dubious privilege of having her cot in Mother's bedroom. Later on, when my brother and I came along and we were taken out for walks by the 'girl' (our 'live-in' maid, though we were never allowed to refer to her as 'maid'), Mother would say, 'Now the babies are all out we can sing and dance together,' and she and Joan would dance around the room.
Mother found child-bearing and rearing difficult. When the second child was born, fifteen months after Joan, it was too much. She couldn't cope, so Angela was reared by our paternal grandmother. There was always antipathy between Mother and her mother-in-law, but it was one-sided and it didn't stop us visiting Granny, who lived nearby. I was extremely fond of Granny. Poor Angela had a difficult life and died young but that is another story. Sometime during the war Angela came to live with the rest of us for a short while, but she and Mother did not get on and soon she was away again. Perhaps their fiery temperaments were too alike. So, from the start and until her death in 1972, Angela was to me, most of the time, a remote figure and I never had the opportunity to really get to know and understand her. When my brother Dermot appeared on the scene, Mother spoiled him in a different way from Joan – I think she felt sentimental towards him because he was the only boy. I was one year and twelve days younger than he, (though for many years I was telling people there were just twelve days between us), and we were very close, right up to the time we went to boarding school.
Eileen Hession, some years older than me, remembers me in my pram as a thin, snotty-nosed little baby – which throws light on something puzzling my mother said to me in my early youth: 'I was ashamed of you when you were a baby. I used to keep you hidden in the pram,' she remarked. I didn't dare ask why. I must have recovered rather quickly because snaps of me show a healthy, chubby, cheerful baby. As a child I remember being kept in bed sometimes with tonsillitis and I recall my paleness being remarked upon. Angela, given to rhyming, used to chant: Pale Bale (my mother's pet name for me) is frail.
I think I must have sensed very early on that I would have to stand on my own two feet and fend for myself. Which is precisely what I proceeded to do at the age of seven months. My first steps were not only taken alone but were running ones. It was a mild December day and the family had driven out to Strandhill, a seaside resort five miles outside Sligo. Leaving me lying safely on a rug on the strand, the grown-ups started to take a walk along the edge of the sea. Suddenly, there was a noise and turning round they saw me running towards them. To this day I love speed.
Very early on I also learned to pull myself up in my pram and would sit there unusually straight-backed, grinning at the world. Worried that I must have something wrong with my back, Mother took me to the doctor but all was well. Later, I cultivated an upright stance and my boarding school reports, which got progressively worse, had one redeeming gleam of light. Beside the word deportment, the word 'excellent' invariably appeared.
I do think children ought to be told not only that they are loved but also that they are attractive, or at least made to feel they are. I grew up assuming that I was physically inferior to everyone else – the Plain Jane of the family. Some of this was due to the fact that Joan was blessed with an abundance of self-confidence about her appearance – about everything, in fact – which was wonderful and always endorsed by Mother's compliments. As a teenager she had her poetry published and one of her plays publicly performed in Sligo – by a group called 'The Sligo Unknown Players'. As a small child it always puzzled me how they could continue to be called 'Unknown' after we saw them perform. Now and then I'd overhear Mother quoting admiring remarks made by others about my sister's looks. Matters were not improved by my mother's tendency to dress me in Joan's cast-off clothes, which, since her colouring is completely different from mine (Joan looked marvellous in browns and dark colours) only emphasized my paleness. When I was older Mother once told me that when, as a small child, I fell and hurt myself I would run straight to Joan. I am delighted to know this now but when I was first told about it, it seemed very strange indeed because I recall finding Joan a distant person who rarely smiled – almost a stranger. Decades later when I mentioned this to my sister she said: 'Yes, and I used to push you away.'
It was only in adult life I discovered that at this period of her life Joan was preoccupied with her own problems.
Mother was conventional and curls were the 'in' thing in those days. My hair was very fine and straight and would probably have looked well with a proper cut, but curls were a must. She went to town where bows were concerned. Very large multi-coloured objects became permanently attached to the side of my head. I didn't object to these, perhaps because I couldn't see them. Then one day when I was about eight, Mother decided I must have a perm. This was an awesome business, and secretly I felt I was getting preferential treatment. Stoically I endured the hot irons clamped tightly to my head and after several hours I emerged from my first visit to the hairdresser with a halo of fuzz. Everyone was delighted, nobody more than I. In fact, in the long term, it did my hair good; and from then on, bit by bit, it became naturally wavy, and today there are times when it is decidedly curly, especially in damp weather.
Another time when I was very small, Mother suddenly got the whim to cut my hair very short and put me into a pair of shorts. I suffered this humiliation in silence, but after the job was completed I disappeared. Eventually, I was found hiding behind the pantry door, crying quietly. My explanation was, I'm told, 'You're trying to make a 'shame-boy' out of me.'
Although there were no really halcyon days that I can recall, nevertheless Dermot and I shared many happy childhood times. Father was a great pal to us, and we played a lot together. Dermot and I used to tumble about on Father's bed and he was unendingly patient with us. We were extremely lively, but he never once admonished us for all the shouting and squealing and pulling at him that we delighted in. If he failed to wake up when we yelled into his ears, we would pull up his eyelids and shout into his eyes!
As a small child my father would take me out for a walk while my mother took Joan elsewhere. One day Father said to me: 'Would you like to come with me to Liverpool?'
I was delighted and off we set. Very soon we were at the huge, now empty, timber warehouses by the docks. Written in large letters over one was 'LIVERPOOL'. I didn't hold it against him though!
* * *
Dermot and I frequently got into trouble together; like the time, when we were three or four, our next-door neighbour found us lying on our backs systematically eating her carefully grown peas, row after cherished row, which ran alongside our fence. She chased us away into a field of shin-deep nettles, and when we came home in tears smarting from the stings we rightly got little sympathy, so we comforted each other over our bowls of soup.
People sometimes ask me if I ever smoked. My answer is that I gave up cigarettes when I was three years old. Dermot and I used to puff away under the bedclothes. My parents, who were both heavy smokers, noticed that their supply in the spare bedroom was dwindling. They suspected the maid until one day the little clandestine mound of cigarette butts, secreted in some private corner by my brother, was found. He got punished, I didn't.
Joan would come home from school full of her new learning and eager to impart it to us two little receptive ignoramuses. She made us sit before a blackboard where she would chalk up her day's knowledge and, reversing her role of a short while before, make us be the pupils. She told me that she had a little cane and whacked us if we gave the wrong answers!
Later on when we were a bit older, she started writing plays which we all performed for the family. The one I remember best had a farmer in it, played by the maid, who was swathed in a curtain and shod in Mother's white leather mosquito boots. I was a rather superior fairy and, adopting a dramatic stance, was carefully coached by Joan to stare at a certain Victorian print on the wall and proclaim with raised magic wand, 'I am the fairy Zakufranzpenromanisk.' Dermot stole that show, dressed up as an exceedingly pretty fairy in a confection of yellow tulle, wearing bright red lipstick. Halfway through his bit he got an uncontrollable fit of the giggles and the 'curtain' had to be drawn.
Excerpted from Travels with My Harp by Mary O'Hara. Copyright © 2012 Mary O'Hara. Excerpted by permission of Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd.
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Meet the Author
Mary O'Hara is an Irish soprano and harpist who has recorded 22 albums and is featured on her own prime-time TV series on BBC and ITV. She is the author of Celebration of Love, The Scent of the Roses, and A Song for Ireland.
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