An Irishman's Diary Hugh Oram


The chic of Audrey Hepburn is once again much in vogue, an antidote perhaps to the endless displays of crass vulgarity on so-called " reality" TV shows. She had a remarkable film career, including the film of My Fair Ladyand before that, Breakfast at Tiffanys. Her own life story was equally amazing and while she had very little if any Irish ancestry through her parents, she did have a lot of connections with Dublin.

Her mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch aristocrat and she was a descendant of King Edward III of England. Her father was English, originally a wealthy banker. But later in life, through her father, she established many links with Dublin.

Audrey' s father, Joseph Hepburn-Ruston, had an extraordinary career, that began in banking and ended up, via a second World War internment camp, in the insurance business in Dublin. In the early 1920s, he was the honorary British consul in what was then Java, now part of Indonesia. In those far- off days, this was part of the Dutch empire in Asia and it was in Java that he and the Dutch baroness met. Subsequently, the pair married; it was the second time round for both of them.

Audrey Hepburn herself was born in Brussels on May 4th, 1929. In 1939, her parents divorced. She herself said that the day that her father walked out of the family home was the most traumatic moment of her life. During the second World War, the future film star managed to survive horrendous conditions in her mother's native country, mainly in Arnhem. The young girl was exactly the same age as Anne Frank.

Before the war, her father had become firmly devoted to the Nazi cause. With his strong pro- fascist leanings, it was inevitable that he would spend much of the second World War interned in the Isle of Man. Later, her father's extreme right-wing views were a cause of severe shame to Audrey Hepburn and she was also terrified that the unpleasant truth might surface to damage her movie career.

While he was interned in the Isle of Man, Hepburn-Ruston spent much of his time writing a history of the Celtic peoples and when he was released in 1945 at the conclusion of the war, he came to Dublin, where he spent the rest of his life.

With the help of the Carmelite order in Dublin, he was able to get work in the insurance business in the city. The order here helped many people with fascist sympathies at the end of the war, people who would have been otherwise unable to find employment, particularly in Britain. In 1947, Hepburn-Ruston met a model called Fidelma Walshe at a dinner in the Shelbourne Hotel and they subsequently got married, in May, 1950.

The insurance man about town quickly got to know the right people, including members of the Guinness family and Sir Alfred Beit, the founder of the Chester Beatty Library, who had arrived in Ireland as a tax exile from Britain. Hepburn- Ruston also became very friendly with Lord Dunsany and often went horse riding on his lordship's estate in Co Meath.

After Hepburn-Ruston got married, he and his new wife moved into a smart flat in Fitzwilliam Square, eventually moving to another flat, this time just off Merrion Square. Not having seen her father for 20 years, Audrey Hepburn made the big decision to come to Dublin and meet up with him once again, having discovered his whereabouts through the Red Cross.

Accompanied by her first husband, Mel Ferrer, also a film star of note, she came to Dublin and they stayed in style at the old Russell Hotel on St Stephen's Green. Audrey Hepburn duly met up with her father and subsequently, they kept in touch on an intermittent basis. She was to support him financially for the rest of his life but he never reciprocated the love that Audrey always showed towards him.

By the early 1960s, the health of Joseph Hepburn- Ruston was very frail, so he and his wife moved to a ground floor flat at Sydenham Road in Ballsbridge, a cul de sac off the Merrion Road, directly opposite the RDS.

He spent the rest of his life in that flat and one of the last times that Audrey Hepburn met up with her father was in 1964, when she came to Dublin for the Irish premiere of My Fair Lady. Quite a number of people in the Ballsbridge area still remember Joseph Hepburn-Ruston. Ironically, he was known in some quarters in the district as "Colonel Hepburn".

He died in 1980, at the age of 91 and after his death, Audrey Hepburn never visited Dublin again. Fidelma herself subsequently remarried, to Harry Donnelly.

As for Audrey, the beloved elfin- like film star, she died in Switzerland, where she had lived for many years, on January 20th, 1993, at the age of 63, from cancer of the colon. In her last years, she had been an active goodwill ambassador in Africa for Unicef, spurred on by her own wartime experiences, and this hadn't helped her health.