The harpist and the missionary: a love story
Musician Mary O’Hara and former priest Pádraig O’Toole had already lived eventful lives by the time they met
Love conquers: Pádraig O’Toole and Mary O’Hara in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Mary O’Hara at Galway Airport before flying to the Aran Islands in 1975. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The bride forgot her wedding dress and had to drive 30 miles to fetch it. The groom left his suit hanging behind his bedroom door, across the Atlantic Ocean. After the ceremony finally began, the priest couldn’t get the ring on the bride’s finger.
When former missionary Pádraig O’Toole recalls his marriage to harpist and singer Mary O’Hara in Canada in 1985, he remembers that “we all laughed a lot, for what particular reasons I still don’t know.”
Twenty-nine years later and the couple are still laughing like a pair of courting teenagers when I meet them in Galway’s Imperial Hotel on Eyre Square.
Time was when the couple were in a constant state of transit, after O’Toole left the priesthood and began to manage O’Hara’s stellar career. Back then, the Sligo-born musician’s soprano voice and harp accompaniment were the Riverdance equivalent of Irish music on the international stage.
“At least one of these records should be in every home,” Charles Acton , The Irish Times critic, advised in his review of one of her releases. That was shortly after she signed a contract with Decca and was booked for her own television series on BBC.
An aunt to Sebastian Barry
She was not the only success in her family. Her sister, the late Joan O’Hara, was a celebrated act or, and her nephew is Booker-nominated author Sebastian Barry whose latest novel, The Temporary Gentleman , was inspired by the life of Barry’s grandfather, and her father, Jack.
Four years after she had moved to North America with her first husband, poet Richard Selig, O’Hara turned her back on potential fortune and fame. Selig had become ill, and died just 15 months into their marriage. Heartbroken, she continued to tour and record for a time, but then applied to become a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey in England. She stayed for 12 years, melting down her wedding ring to celebrate her vows.
O’Toole was watching The Late Late Show in Dublin in 1974 when host Gay Byrne welcomed the tall, slim, beautiful musician on as a guest. The travel-hungry Aran islander, who had signed up for the Society of African Missions while at secondary school, was thrilled to hear O’Hara singing again.
At this stage, O’Toole was also in a state of transition. He had spent a number of years teaching with the missions in Nigeria, where he had learned how to tackle snakes, face down mercenaries, assist with childbirth, kayak the Niger river, speak the Yoruba and Nupe languages and live for a time in accommodation among the many wives of his employer, a Muslim emir who wanted him to head up a Catholic secondary school.
O’Toole had taken the “tourist route” to priesthood, having initially been told he was unsuitable for ordination. While abroad, he had railed privately against what he terms the “ridiculousness” of evangelisation, and the autocracy of the Catholic Church.
Just as a fellow Aran islander, Pítrirín, had once told him that “the man who did not fear the sea is dangerous”, so he recognised the limitations of his vocation, and opted eventually to leave the priesthood.
He was based temporarily in an English parish while awaiting his visa to Canada. There he first met O’Hara. Then she was known only as “Mrs Selig, a widow who lived in a small cottage on a local farm” and who cycled every Sunday on a “borrowed ancient wartime bicycle” to Mass. The “pingin” dropped when he called with a friend to help her move some furniture. She apologised for not hearing their knocks on the door, explaining that she had been “practising the harp”.
Keeping in touch
O’Toole left for Toronto, where he pursued a doctorate and became close friends with The Global Village author Marshall McLuhan. O’Hara kept in touch. The Observer newspaper described her return to the stage as “the folk music event of the year”.
“You are giving up a promising academic career to become harp carrier for Mary O’Hara,” his supervisor scolded when O’Toole offered to be her manager. They married quietly, and, after time in Kenya and Tanzania, where O’Toole taught, and a stint in Berkshire, they moved to his native Aran.
“He went very quiet after I suggested it,” she says. “Then he told me it was because he was just so excited.”
It was, as O’Toole says in his newly published memoir, “like a salmon coming home” to live with people who, he believes, were unquestioningly supportive of his many life choices.
Starting a sentence, which her partner finishes in the way intimates do, O’Hara describes her own love of the island, her faith and how she “cannot be without a book on theology close by”. He smiles, and says he is a “sceptical believer”.
Aran to Africa: An Irishman’s Unique Odyssey by Pádraig O’Toole is published by Nuascéalta. Mary O’Hara will give a public interview at NUI Galway at 7pm tomorrow with Dr Méabh Ní Fhuartháin, acting director at NUIG’s Centre for Irish Studies, as part of the Martin Reilly lecture series, dedicated to the 19th century uilleann piper. Admission is free. nuigalway.ie