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Mary O'Hara papers

Collection IM-M175-2009: Mary O'Hara papers


  • Creation: 1926 - 2011
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1954 - 2007

Scope and Contents

These papers document the musical career of twentieth-century Irish soprano and harpist Mary O'Hara, as well as, to a lesser degree, her personal life. Materials include artifacts, awards, business files, correspondence, discographies, manuscripts, memorabilia, notebooks, photographs, press releases, print publicity, recorded talks and performances, scripts, set lists, and sheet music. The collection highlights O’Hara’s early musical success in the 1950s through her entrance to Stanbrook Abbey in 1962, as well her second music career in 1974 until her retirement in 1994, and her final return to lecturing and playing her “Travels with My Harp” series from 2007 until about 2012.

The bulk of O’Hara’s papers are represented by her correspondence - both personal and professional - and materials documenting her public presentations. Personal correspondence includes friends, family, and her first husband, American poet Richard Selig. Business correspondence covers her performances, published musical recordings, and books, and contains contract and royalty information, which is complemented by a later set of business files covering contracts and financial arrangements. Her correspondence also includes fan mail, and email from her years living in Kenya and Tanzania with her second husband, Irishman Padraig O’Toole. O’Hara’s performing and presenting materials span scripts, sheet music, slide shows, recordings of interviews and musical performances, as well as her dress, shawl, and first professional harp.

O’Hara’s papers also contain awards; memorabilia with family items and keepsakes from her time at Stanbrook Abbey; and notebooks on musical and religious topics. Her photographs consist mostly of portraits with her harp and events, but some candids with friends and family are also present. Her publicity materials include press releases, clippings, concert and tour schedules, ephemera, fan club newsletters, journal articles, posters, programs, fliers, and unpublished articles about her. Subject files comprise published articles, photographs, and notes on subjects of interest to O'Hara. And her writings are principally made up by drafts of her autobiographies, The Scent of the Roses, 1980, and Travels with My Harp (also the name of her last talk and performance series), 2012. Also included are drafts of O’Toole’s autobiography, Aran to Africa: An Irishman's Unique Odyssey.


Language of Materials

Predominantly in English with some Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, and Japanese.

Restrictions on Access

Collection is open for research. Audiovisual recordings and born-digital content have been digitally copied from source media; all original media were retained, but may not be played due to format. Digital use copies can only be accessed in the Burns Library Reading Room. O'Hara's scrapbooks are closed due to fragility. Personal correspondence with Adrian Hastings and Deirdre Kelleher is restricted until 2025.

Copyright Restrictions

These materials are made available for use in research, teaching and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright Law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. The original authors may retain copyright to the materials.

Biographical note

Mary O’Hara was born in 1935 in Sligo, Ireland, to John and Mai (Kirwan) O'Hara. She was the youngest of four siblings: Joan, Angela (who was raised by her paternal grandmother), and Dermot. Her family was Catholic, and faith played an important role throughout O'Hara's life.

O’Hara sang with her family from an early age and competed in the annual Easter Sligo Feis Ceóil, winning her first Children’s Cup at age 8. She attended Sion Hill boarding school, Dublin, from age 13. In 1951, Sion Hill hired harp teacher Máirín Ní Shéa to prepare several students, including O’Hara, for a pageant dedicated to the works of Thomas Moore. O’Hara continued to study singing and harp and performed on Radio Eireann before graduating in 1952.

In the early 1950s, O’Hara had a solo show on Radio Eireann performing Gaelic songs accompanied by harp and performed with the Radio Eireann Light Orchestra and on variety shows. In 1955, she played at the Edinburgh International Festival of the Arts between sets of the Trinity College Players and was invited to guest star the following year. In 1956, O’Hara signed her own BBC-TV London Saturday Night series, “The Starlight Series”; released an EP; recorded a full-length album, Songs of Erin (Decca, 1957); and married American poet Richard Selig, who she met through Thomas Kinsella.

O’Hara and Selig moved to New York City, where O’Hara recorded Love Songs of Ireland in the summer of 1957 (Decca, 1958). Selig died of Hodgkin’s disease that fall. O’Hara recorded Songs of Ireland (Tradition, 1958), weeks after his death. She returned to Ireland, and although she had determined to join a religious order, she continued performing, including participating in a charity tour in Australia and New Zealand in 1959.

In 1960, O’Hara began researching contemplative orders in earnest, and in 1962, she entered Stanbrook Abbey, a Benedictine community in York, England, where she remained for twelve years. Just before entering the Abbey, she recorded fifty-four songs that would later be released as Mary O’Hara’s Ireland (1973), Mary O’Hara’s Scotland (1974), and Mary O’Hara’s Monday, Tuesday - Songs for Children (1977). O’Hara was professed a Benedictine nun after her third year, and in her eighth year returned to playing the harp as part of her monastic practice. In 1974, she recorded part of the repertoire of what she termed her "God-songs" as Mary O’Hara: Recital, with the first side of the album dedicated to secular love songs, including a setting of one of Selig’s poems. O’Hara had suffered recurring health problems in the monastery and decided to leave the order that year.

O’Hara settled in the London area and relaunched her performance career. Padraig (Pat) O’Toole, who she met at church, helped promote her until she signed a professional manager in 1977. O’Hara bought a home in Plastow Green, Hampshire, England that she named Rivendell Cottage. She and O’Toole married in 1985.

During the second phase of her musical career, O’Hara released eighteen albums, hosted a series of radio and television programs, including BBC’s “Mary O’Hara and Friends," and wrote several books, among them her first autobiography, The Scent of the Roses (1980).

O’Hara retired from performing and recording again in 1994. From 1996 to 2002, she and O'Toole resided in first in Nairobi, Kenya and then Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he taught journalism.

After returning to England, O’Hara put together a talk and accompanying songbook for the 2005 World Harp Congress in Dublin. She toured for several years using these materials, and self-published five songbook volumes with accompanying recordings as “Mary O’Hara: Travels With My Harp” between 2007-2009. This work also led her to revise and update her autobiography, which she republished, also under the title Travels With My Harp (Shepheard-Walwyn Ltd.), in 2012.

After 2012, O’Hara and O’Toole sold Rivendell Cottage and divided their time between Inis Mor, in the Aran Islands in Ireland and La Carihuela, Spain. Pat O’Toole died in 2015. In 2016, O’Hara was honored with the Achill International Harp Festival and Harp Ireland-Fóram Cruite na hÉireann joint lifetime achievement award for her “outstanding career and promotion of the Irish harp around the world.”


“Mary O’Hara.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 9, 2013.'Hara.

Mary O’Hara official website. Accessed September 9, 2013.

O'Hara, Mary. The Scent of the Roses. London: Michael Joseph, 1980.

O'Hara, Mary. Travels With My Harp. London: Shepheard-Walwyn Ltd., 2012.


46.75 Linear Feet (57 containers)

178 Gigabytes (2049 files with approximately 89.5 hours of audiovisual materials plus digital documents )


Papers documenting the musical career and personal life of twentieth-century Irish soprano and harpist Mary O'Hara. Materials include a comprehensive set of audio and video recordings of performances and interviews. The recordings are complemented by set lists, scripts, and O'Hara's annotated sheet music, as well as her first professional harp. Business management is conveyed through contracts, correspondence, and publicity materials. Photographs are principally professional head shots and event images, but candid photographs bridge the gap into her personal life. A set of personal correspondence and autobiographical materials by both O'Hara and her second husband Padraig O'Toole give further insight into her personal life.


Organized in nine series: I. Business, II. Correspondence, III. Memorabilia, IV. Performing and Presenting, V. Photographs, VI. Publicity, VII. Subject Files, VIII. Works Inspired by O'Hara's Life Story, and IX. Writings.


Gift of Mary O'Hara and Padraig O'Toole, 2009-2013.

Related collections

Jean Heitz collection of Mary O'Hara, IM.M177.2010, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Richard Selig Papers, 1935-1962 (MS Am 1658). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Additional papers of Richard Selig are at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Separated Materials

Published works associated with this collection have been transferred within the Burns Library and can be found in the Boston College Library catalog.

Mary O'Hara Papers
1898-2012 (bulk 1954-2012)
Deanna Malvesti (October 2013), revised by Lynn Moulton
2024 February
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2024: Born-digital content described, arrangement changed, audiovisual materials moved to modern access method, and some limited rehousing.

Repository Details

Part of the John J. Burns Library Repository

John J. Burns Library
Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill MA 02467 United States