Documenting a Life
What happens when you entrust someone to speak on your behalf, to tell your story and ensure your legacy? Maggie Armstrong explores the dynamic between subject and storyteller
Mick O'Dea RHA, from Ennis, Co Clare has painted the grandees of Irish letters – Mary Lavin, Francis Stuart, Colm Toibin, Sebastian Barry. He has painted seemingly everyone in Ireland. In the stacks of paintings and catalogue books in his marvellous Henrietta Street studio, faces peer out familiarly. O'Dea became fascinated with faces through painting his friend, the late Thom McGinty – aka The Diceman – a pantomimic Dublin character who life-modelled while O'Dea was at NCAD.
"He was a great inspiration for me, and he triggered my desire to paint people," he says.
In 2008, O'Dea was asked by the National Gallery to paint another dramatist.
Brian Friel, the enigmatic Tyrone playwright who was about to turn 80, whom O'Dea describes as "a wonderful man". (Friel's best-known works are 'Translations', 'Dancing at Lughnasa' and 'Philadelphia, Here I Come', as the Leaving Cert class of 2002 will know).
They first met in late 2008 in the Gresham Hotel. While making his preliminary sketches, O'Dea noticed that a characteristic pose seemed to be between poses – when Friel would look down and ponder, hands arched.
The sitting took two days in O'Dea's old studio on Mountjoy Square. O'Dea added armrests so that Friel might resume the pose that had caught his imagination.
"I decided to keep it small, low-key, not have any references to his life as a playwright. Just to concentrate on an inscape."
Friel does not often submit himself to interview, so this was a unique occasion. Asked if he found his subject reserved, O'Dea says: "Well, his reputation preceded him. I was familiar with some of the plays. I knew his worth, substance, gravitas, contribution."
Was Friel curious as to why O'Dea chose the pose? "No, I think it was a case that this guy's doing a job, he must know what he's doing."
Friel was extremely still and "very professional".
"Brian, when he sat for me first, didn't say anything. He was very quiet, which was a great help. But I was playing Martin Hayes the fiddle player during the course of the sitting so we had conversations about Donegal, and fiddle playing, and about east Clare."
There was a small gripe, in that on the second day, Friel had a different shirt on. O'Dea had to remember the exact shade of the cool blue shirt he had been wearing – which suited the emotion of the work – while drawing the structure of the folds of the new shirt.
"As I tell people who I paint, I have little or no imagination, I paint what I see. When you're looking at somebody for five, six hours at a time, it's a bit like being out at sea, and looking at all the different weather patterns coming in. Clouds, rain, sun. What you have at the end is a painting of somebody alone with their own thoughts.
"One of my jobs as a portrait painter is to try and pick up signals, and sensations. I'm an intuitive painter, not an intellectual painter."
O'Dea has painted the introverted, focused, tough-minded playwright in Friel, but also the father in his comfort zone.
O'Dea recalls that, after the unveiling in the National Gallery, "one of his daughters cried because she said it was 'so characteristic of Daddy, especially at the table'. I felt that was a real affirmation."
After the unveiling, O'Dea was asked if Friel was pleased with the work. He didn't know, because Friel hadn't said either way.
"He read that in the newspaper and wrote me a lovely letter saying how much he liked it. That was a terrific thing to get from him.
"It's a wonderful privilege to paint writers and to paint artists because they leave themselves open. They don't tend to try and engineer an outcome, and they are familiar with the creative process which is the same right throughout the arts, just you have different media."
John Minihan remembers Samuel Beckett as a "tall, gangling man in a pullover", who was "shy, modest, compassionate". He photographed him in his last years and they liked each other very much. "Occasionally, you know you're in the presence of supreme genius," says Minihan.
He took this photograph of Beckett (far right) the first time they met, in London in 1980. Beckett was staying in the Hyde Park Hotel to direct 'Endgame' and Minihan, a press photographer in his 30s at the time, had noticed how few photographs of the Nobel laureate there were. "I wanted to excavate and explore this man," he says.
He was going to get Beckett to agree to this not by flashing a celebrity portfolio his way, as one might do today, but by showing him his pictures of the ordinary people of Athy, a series called 'The Last Wake'. He left a note in Beckett's hotel and waited. A phone call came, and the following morning at 9am they were sitting in Room 604.
When Minihan presented his photographs, Beckett was "really curious, he took what seemed forever. He was excited that I knew the names of the people. He said 'ah, that's a fine portrait'. When he saw them there was an acceptance of truth. Sam trusted me."
Minihan describes his wake series as "stark, realistic, grainy black and white images of love, life and death". He believes Beckett saw in it some of the characters in his own plays, though Minihan would not have said so to him. "I'd learnt enough to know that you don't engage Beckett on who is Godot," he says. "I think he saw in me someone who had the tenacity not to be reverential towards him – my passion was my photography. He preferred being photographed than talking to journalists".
Paradoxically, the press photographer had released Beckett from the media gaze.
Here, Beckett looks almost creaturely, sitting in a sparse single room overlooking the park he loved to walk in. Somehow you can see the silence, and feel the end drawing near. "The room in the clinic where he died in December 1989 would not have been much different," says Minihan.
Minihan now lives in west Cork and still uses film, not digital. In his more than 50-year career he has photographed Francis Bacon, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and Jackie Onassis among others. He took the famous first shot of Lady Diana wearing a transparent skirt, when journalists scrambled to find her after she became engaged to Prince Charles.
But Beckett was his big scoop. "He introduced me to his world," says Minihan.
Minihan shot his final portrait of Beckett in Paris in December 1985. He wanted to photograph him in his chosen city before his 80th birthday. Beckett wrote a note of invitation first, to "Mr Minihan", saying he'd be delighted to see him in Paris, "provided you leave camera at home".
Beckett chose a secluded part of Le Petit Café in the PLM hotel on the Boulevard Saint Jacques, a modern building so busy with tourists he wouldn't be spotted. "It was exactly the sort of place where you wouldn't expect to find Sam," says Minihan. They had "copious cups of coffee" but he didn't photograph him. The following day (Sunday) Minihan returned and picked a window seat. "I was in a rapturous state – my cup overflowed when I was in his presence."
Beckett walked over to him smiling, knowing why Minihan had chosen a table where the light fell. The playwright was in waning health, drawing in cigarillos between shots of brandy as they chatted about "banalities", like the price of a pint of Guinness, places in Ireland and the Pere Lachaise cemetery.
"Graveyards were a good talking point," says Minihan, "to break the ice."
The afternoon passed and at about a quarter to five Beckett said "John, do you want to take a picture here?"
Before she spoke about writing Gay Byrne's autobiography, Deirdre Purcell ran it by him. "I assume you will say what you said to me at the end of our two years," Byrne asked, "that you liked me a lot better at the end than you did at the beginning?"
"That was true. I got to like him very much towards the end," she confirms.
Purcell was a journalist with the 'Sunday Tribune' and had been a newscaster with RTE, when she was asked by Gill & Macmillan to write 'The Time of My Life' (1987) with Byrne.
Purcell and Byrne only met on the corridor of RTE, though he liked her stuff in the 'Tribune' so he picked her.
Over two years, they met in disused rooms on the RTE campus, Purcell with her back to a radiator and her tape recorder on, Byrne sitting at a table holding forth. "It wasn't pretty, in terms of glamour," she says. The first six months did not go well. "Gay's very, very busy," she says, and this is coming from the former Abbey actress, newscaster and author of over 20 books including her latest, 'The Winter Gathering'.
"He was doing the radio and the 'Late Late' and it was a matter of fitting things in, and I was getting frustrated.
"His mind was elsewhere. He was just repeating anecdotes that he'd had in his previous book; I was looking for the real Gay. It was getting nowhere, so I told him. And he was absolutely gobsmacked.
"I said, 'You're treating me like a nuisance, Gay,' and his words were: 'No, dote!' From then on we had no problems at all, we became fast friends.
"I was absolutely lost with admiration. He scripts a lot of his programmes but he's extremely fluent and articulate, and he speaks in complete sentences, paragraphs even.
"So in terms of cleaning up, it was just a matter of picking and choosing. Gay loves telling stories and anecdotes and he's very funny, much funnier than he appears in his public persona. He's a great mimic, great gossip, loves the latest 'sca', as he calls it, and he was great company, I really enjoyed the process."
Occasionally, they went to Byrne's favourite restaurant, Furama in Donnybrook. Byrne's wife Kathleen Watkins took Purcell to Donegal to meet the "milieu" he was always talking about. She interviewed his family, friends and colleagues to get a fuller profile. The book is all in his voice, so Deirdre's skill was in building a history and a narrative behind the easy cadence of the broadcaster.
"I knew his voice intimately, I could have spoken his language. By the end of the two years, if you had asked me Gay's opinion on anything I'd be able to tell you, even if he hadn't said it himself."
When you're peeling back someone's past, where do you draw boundaries? "He put no boundaries at all, but I knew there were certain things that you just don't go into. Gay is a very public persona, but he's a very private person. Also, I discovered that he's very direct, and what you see is what you get. Naively, I was trying to winkle out really serious hidden depths. There are depths – but they're not hidden. He's candid."
As an author herself, was Deirdre tempted to add her own stamp? And as an actor, to corner some of the attention?
"A ghostwriter is a very strange animal. You're just a shadow, there's very little glory. I'm not regretful about that." She was well acknowledged at the vast launch party in Dobbins restaurant and in interviews but, she says: "I didn't give a sugar about that, and I was just very happy to be part of the whole razzmatazz."'The Winter Gathering' by Deirdre Purcell is published by Hachette Ireland
"I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage who stepped out from the faded flags of the Civil War and voted for a new Ireland. And above all by the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle rocked the system."
Mary Robinson delivered these words at the RDS on November 9, 1990, in that indigo coat and pearls. It is one of the most powerful pieces of oratory in the English language, said with such belief it doesn't matter how often her eye averts to the sheets of paper in her hand. That's because Eoghan Harris essentially wrote the whole speech.
In 'Everybody Matters', Robinson acknowledges the instrumental role the media guru played in her election as president of Ireland, and in this speech. "Eoghan Harris had helped me to prepare a rousing acceptance speech," she writes.
The speech, says Harris, was written overnight. After the count, Robinson's supporters went to Bernardo's restaurant. At midnight, Harris was invited back to the Robinsons' for a bite to eat to continue celebrations, but he had to draft her speech.
"She was astounded because she had forgotten she had that job to do the next day, but I knew she'd have to face the Labour Party, that she'd have to say goodbye to them. So I went home, and I wrote that speech in two hours, got into the car, and delivered it though her door at 4am."
Harris worked on Robinson's campaign because he admired her politics, in particular her courageous approach to Northern Ireland. She saw the need to look critically at nationalism, rather than castigating unionism, and that wasn't fashionable.
It was not difficult to choose the right words for her acceptance speech. "I was very much channelling Mary Robinson. I could finish a sentence for her, and probably she could finish a sentence for me, if we were talking about politics."
Harris has written speeches for David Trimble (after his Nobel award) and for John Bruton (Harris coined the term "coping class"), and others, but he believes Robinson's acceptance speech is his best work. "It was done at a ferocious speed, and that's what makes it special. It's like a lyric poem."
There are messages threaded into each line, in particular in the opening. The speech is one of "victory and valediction" because Robinson has to distance herself from the Labour Party who nominated her, and become "a president for all the people".
The finishing quote from Paul Durcan's poem 'Backside to the Wind' was, Harris says, "rough trade stuff to remind people that she did come from rural Ireland".
He put is like this: "Plot, Elizabeth Bowen said, is the knowing of destination. I believe all great speeches must have a plot – the plot is the character and the character is the plot. The plot is lambent; it's latent from the beginning. If the point of view is not evident from the beginning, people don't read on. This has a huge point of view."
The day Robinson thanked the mná na hÉireann, her character inhabited the words, and she became the plot as she spoke. It was a meeting of minds (hers and her speechwriter's) but also of form and content.
"She didn't say anything she didn't really believe in, and spin doctors couldn't persuade her to. She had the authority to deliver that speech. She'd lived pluralism – she wasn't just preaching pluralism, she was pluralism. It's like Bob Dylan singing 'Blowing in the Wind' is Bob Dylan, he believes in the politics of it."
Harris is a screenwriter and an English and history graduate as well as a journalist. His oratory influences are his mother (a story for another time), Abraham Lincoln, Padraig Pearse and Aristotle, who outlined in 'Rhetoric' the three important components of a speech: the character of the speaker, the emotion they bring and the strength of the argument.
Robinson's acceptance speech had all these elements. "While Mary Robinson was reading that speech, the singer and the song merged. She became the song, the words were very much inside, in her being. Mary Robinson, unlike other politicians, she would not deliver a speech she didn't believe in. Obviously, she liked it," says Harris.
If a leader is merely reading a speech, it's easily seen through. And if the speech sounds amazing, it's time to be afraid.
"If we have a crooked politician it doesn't matter if he's speaking with the tongue of an angel," concludes Harris.