The Third Daughter: A Retrospective, by Eileen O’Mara Walsh review: Bohemian businesswoman

Fascinating both as a social history and as a portrait of a talented woman with a generous soul, says Susan McKay

The Third Daughter – A Retrospective
The Third Daughter – A Retrospective
Author: Eileen O'Mara Walsh
ISBN-13: 978-1843516378
Publisher: Lilliput
Guideline Price: €20

In 1984 Eileen O'Mara Walsh's smiling photograph appeared on the cover of the Hotel and Catering Review, emblazoned with: "Can this woman work miracles?" She was the first woman to chair the board of a commercial State company (Great Southern Hotels) and had already set up a travel agency and been the first chairperson of the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation.

She was also, essentially, a single mother. In her new role she immediately found herself irked by a senior executive in human resources who insisted on calling her “love” and “dearie” while she was in the process of hiring a chief executive. Eventually she “intoned” that he might call her Eileen, Ms O’Mara Walsh or even Madam Chairman, but he was never again to address her as “love”.

She tells the story lightly, and good humour is her trademark. Her memoir includes many instances of male behaviour that are far from delightful. She was “not impressed” by the “opening gambit” from the artist Owen Walsh: “I’m going to get you into my bed.” Although he was right, as it happens, and she loved him for the rest of his life.

She recounts how Patrick Kavanagh once sat down beside her in McDaids pub in Dublin. “He huffed and puffed and coughed for a few moments before uttering the immortal words, ‘Are ye a good hoult, are ye?’ as if to say what good was I otherwise.”


In the “maelstrom of male egos” that was literary Dublin she has already realised that “the women who survived in this society had to be Amazonian by force of circumstances if not by nature”.

Double standards prevail – a writer (named) who has been courting her has her over to babysit and kisses her passionately on the sofa while his wife is upstairs, checking on the children. O’Mara Walsh describes the artist Nevill Johnson, who floated around the bars she frequented: “Unaware of the shibboleths of relationships between the sexes in Ireland, he treated women as equals.”

When describing more serious bad behaviour there is no levity. As a child in Limerick in the late 1940s she tried “juggling politeness and obedience with discomfort and embarrassment” to avoid the fat, perspiring and red-faced Fr Scanlon.

When the former wins she endures sitting on his lap while he pokes his stubby fingers inside her knickers to feel her “botty”. She never told. “It would have been too rude.”

In London in 1960, as a young woman, she lives with a friend who becomes pregnant to an Irish businessman. He has his solicitor get her to sign an agreement to the effect that she will not try to contact him, and will give up the baby for adoption at birth. O’Mara Walsh later rescues the same friend in Paris when she finds her in a “sea of blood” as a result of a botched abortion to end another pregnancy.

O’Mara Walsh, who is now in her 70s, intended to write a memoir of her parents, as an alternative to writing a thesis for an MA in literature at Trinity College Dublin.

Her mother was an English socialist and a convert to “the implacable Jansenistic sect that was Irish Catholicism.” She wore slacks and turbans and read a lot, and was known to the boys of the Crescent estate in Limerick as “the Egyptian prime minister”. The family had started in handsome Georgian streets, the Limerick of Kate O’Brien rather than Frank McCourt, and Joan O’Mara hated the raw breeze-block house to which they declined on the scruffy edge of the city. O’Mara Walsh does not know why they fell out of the middle classes, only that some sort of humiliation must have been involved.

IRA father

O’Mara Walsh came from a wealthy merchant family. Her father, Power, had been in the IRA and spent 20 mysterious years in exile in Canada before returning to Ireland, in the 1940s. He found it “radically different to the revolutionary fledgling republic” he left. It was a “closed society where Church rather than Empire held sway over a rigidly conservative and economically protectionist political system”. The couple had three daughters, Eileen, Ruth and Mary, but were unhappy in their separate ways.

As she wrote, O’Mara Walsh found herself focusing on her own story. She has had a dashing life – photographs show her in big-shouldered business suits, but also in kaftans and fake leopardskin. By day she consorted with taoisigh and bankers, by night with artists and dreamers. Her Bohemianism was a strength: she came to the male world of business already comfortable as an outsider, used to being unconventional and improvising. Setting up her own business was a doddle after learning to be a receptionist at the Grosvenor Hotel in London as a teenager.

She is a good writer, although a few passages come straight from annual reports: we learn that she “found the strategy of developing added value and taking up shareholdings across such diverse business sectors as the food industry and start-up technology companies” stimulating.

There is overwriting; in a passage about breastfeeding she refers to those “benighted by under-developed mammary appurtenances”. The book ends oddly with the death of Owen Walsh. But it is fascinating both as a social history and as a portrait of a talented woman with a generous soul.

Susan McKay is a writer and journalist

Susan McKay

Susan McKay, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and author. Her books include Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground