Stirring magical memories of times gone by

Photographer John Minihan recalls his encounters with writer Edna O’Brien, from London in the 1970s to Cork this year

PHOTOGRAPHS have a curious power to stir the imagination — there is nothing quite like them for communicating a sense of the past.

In 1972 the artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre in London, Oscar Lowenstein, asked if I would put on an exhibition of my photographs of Athy, Co Kildare, to coincide with a season of Irish plays by Brendan Behan and Edna O’Brien. The exhibition was a great success, so much so that when Harold Hobson, the theatre critic of the Sunday Times, made his commentary on Brendan Behan’s play, Richard’s Cork Leg, he called the pictures of a child crying by a coffin “poignant, sad and sublime”.

The same week Edna invited me over to her home in Chelsea for afternoon tea. I had always regarded her as one of the illustrious names in Irish literature. Edna was born in 1930 in the village of Tuamgraney, Co Clare, where many of her novels would be set. Her debut novel, published in 1960, was The Country Girls, which became a great success in Britain and America, but was banned in Ireland. It has now been adapted for the stage, and has played in theatres across Ireland.

Edna O’Brien’s home, as you would expect from a writer, is wall to wall with books, from Giacometti to Joyce and Beckett. Her mantelpiece is adorned with photographs of her loved ones. The image of Edna I took in 1972 has her staring out of the window of her Chelsea home, deep in thought, possibly thinking about how she is going to be perceived by observers in another time. Her thoughts cannot be visualised; the nostalgic quality of the photograph, now nearly 40 years old, is emblematic of a bohemian London, long gone, long dead, where I would photograph O’Brien with her friends Lady Antonia Fraser and her husband Harold Pinter in the Fitzroy Tavern, Soho. The French pub remains where great drinkers like Peter O’Toole and Francis Bacon held court, and Behan wrote large parts of The Quare Fellow, in the bar. O’Brien has always been part of the literary scene in London. It could be said she belongs to the same civilisation of James Joyce and Beckett. I often look back at the pleasures and pains of my youth, my recklessness and vanity woven into the pulsating sounds of the 1960s; it now seems an eternity away.

That’s the beauty of the photograph, the aura of time captured forever, which continues to evoke what is no longer there, like an old Irish mass card in black and white, with a thumbnail photograph of a loved one. In memoriam — a farewell you could say, there’s a sense of bereavement about the photograph wandering ghostlike through our lives.

Edna O’Brien was the winner of the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award for her collection, Saints and Sinners. She became the first Irish writer to win this prestigious award, the world’s richest prize for short fiction, worth €35,000. While she was in Cork to receive her award she invited me to her hotel for tea. She was still as gracious and vivacious as the first time we met, engaging the hotel staff who treated her like royalty. After taking some photographs on my Rolleiflex camera, I dropped her at the chapel at UCC where she attended mass.

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