Oonagh Swift, who has died in the Algarve at the age of 83, was a cultured, charismatic and quintessentially Irish figure beloved by people of many nationalities.While her life in Ireland, London and Portugal was steeped in the arts and literature, many will remember her for her beauty and her mischievous smile.
Born in Dublin, she was the third youngest of eight children of Séamus Ryan and Agnes Ryan, née Harding, from County Tipperary. They christened her Agnes Mary, but Oonagh, a Gaelic variation of Agnes, is the name that caught on from an early age.
Her parents were Republican activists during the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. Her father, a successful, self-made businessman, was a totally committed member of the then fledgling Fianna Fáil party, a senator in De Valera's government and an active supporter of the old IRA.
The best known of her siblings were John Ryan, an artist, man of letters and an influential figure in bohemian Dublin in the 1940s and 50s, and Kathleen Ryan, a famous Irish film actress who appeared in British and Hollywood films between 1947 and 1957. Another brother, Séamus, became a Benedictine priest. Her older sister, Cora, married an Irish politician, Sean Dunn. A younger sister, Íde, became a nun, scholar and author.
After education in Dublin and finishing school in London, Oonagh spent a year in Belgium learning French. She met a Belgian linguist and literary scholar, Prince Alexis Guédroitz, whom she later married in Dublin when she was only 18. They spent time together in Brussels, Paris and Saint Tropez, returning to Dublin for the birth of their daughter, Ania.
It was in Dublin, after her separation from Prince Alexis, that she met the aspiring Irish artist Patrick Swift who would become her second husband. Through Patrick, she came to know the likes of writers Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Brian O’Nolan, John Jordan, John McGahern and artists Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon and Nano Reid. Brendan Behan was also a friend but, ironically, Oonagh had first met him through Alexis.
In 1954, Oonagh accompanied Patrick on a study visit to Italy, returning to Dublin the following year to give birth to their first child, Kate. On moving to London, the Swifts became further ensconced in creative bohemian life. The French House and the Coach and Horses pubs in Soho were popular meeting places for some of the most innovative artists and writers of the day. So was their flat in Westbourne Terrace W2 where Oonagh was able to feed the hungry, if not sate the gargantuan avante-garde thirsts. Frequent visitors included the South African-born poet David Wright with whom Patrick founded the quarterly review of literature and the arts, X magazine.
Dublin and London were the Swifts’ main stamping grounds throughout the 1950s and into the 60s, but then they chose a totally new working and family environment. In 1962, while still in their thirties, they pitched up in the remote and almost unheard of fishing village of Carvoeiro. It would remain their home for the rest of their lives. As one of the first expatriate families in the Algarve, the Swifts totally embraced and integrated into the local community in a way few foreigners do nowadays. Their many Portuguese friends ranged from the humblest of village folk to leaders such as Francisco de Sá Carneiro who became Portugal’s prime minister.
Patrick and Oonagh established a pottery near the village of Porches with a renowned Portuguese artist, Lima de Freitas, who many years later would become the minister of culture in Lisbon. Their first studio was in a 17th-century cottage. It was there that they first applied old designs and motifs to handmade ceramic plates and panels. The revival of a dying craft turned into a small business. As demand from residents and visitors increased, the studio moved into larger premises close by.
After Patrick’s death in 1983, Oonagh managed Porches Pottery for more than 20 years, employing and training a considerable number of local craftswomen and building up a high reputation internationally. The creative side of the business was led by her daughter Kate, an outstanding artist in her own right, until Kate’s untimely death in 2004. Upon retirement, Oonagh was able to hand over control of the business to her two younger daughters, Juliet and Stella.
In 1987, Oonagh married David Wright, whose wife had died two years after Patrick. David, a prolific author and editor as well as a poet, had co-written with Patrick three books on Portugal: Algarve (1965), Minho and North Portugal (1968) and Lisbon (1971). Oonagh was very much involved in all three publications having previously written a book herself with the Canadian poet and novelist Elizabeth Smart. It was a book on French cookery contained 400 recipes “to add pleasure and variety to English mealtimes.”
Throughout the intellectually and culturally glittering years, the Swift home near Carvoeiro was a meeting place for a rotating cast of overseas visitors from the world of painting, literature and photography. The conversation and the laughter, like the wine, always flowed copiously. Music came into it too. Even in her more sedentary years, Oonagh had a wonderful voice. In addition to Irish songs, she would perfectly accompany recordings by Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich.
After David died in 1994, there was a saying that if a book were written about Oonagh it should be called ‘The Prince, the Painter and the Poet.” That sort of jibe appealed to her keen sense of humour. She was often heard to come out with banter like, “he’s as blind as a bat flying through a thunderstorm.”
A lover of life to the full and an avid reader of everything from European classics to the latest bestsellers, until the very end Oonagh would quote from memory such poets as Yeats and Auden with a glass of wine in her hand and a twinkle in her eye.
The funeral service was held in the parish church at Porches.
Oonagh is survived by her daughters: Juliet (pictured left), Stella and Ania (right).