Wednesday 22 August 2018

The story behind a poignant Hurricane Ophelia photograph that made front-page news this week

A private moment captured as a family mourns a father

The O'Sullivan family look out from the Glen Pier as Ophelia strikes the Co Kerry. Photo: Stephen Kelleghan
The O'Sullivan family look out from the Glen Pier as Ophelia strikes the Co Kerry. Photo: Stephen Kelleghan

Graham Clifford

It is perhaps the iconic picture of Storm Ophelia. Of massive waves attacking the South Kerry coastline. Of three men standing unmoved as the force of the one-time hurricane rages in from the southern seas to batter our exposed island. Tsunami-esque, foreboding and shocking.

On first sight the sheer size and awesome scale of the swells catches the viewer's eye but the story behind the shot, captured by local photographer Stephen Kelleghan on Monday afternoon at the Glen near Ballinskelligs, offers an altogether different and more personal dimension.

The three men in the picture are standing at the bottom of a lane leading from the O'Sullivan family home. The father of the house, Michael Joe O'Sullivan, passed away last Sunday and his funeral wake was due to take place on Monday, but was postponed because of Ophelia.

Two of those in the picture are Michael Joe's sons, from the left, Anthony and Declan, while a nephew, Brendan, stands on the far right. Another brother, Kieran, is out of shot chatting to the photographer.

"When I took the picture I didn't know of the family's loss. They are a lovely, quiet and helpful family. I'd know the boys from their involvement in coastal rowing and the GAA. When I met them down by the water on Monday, we chatted but they never mentioned their father had died. It was only later that evening that I realised that they were in mourning," explains Stephen Kelleghan.

Michael Joe, a father-of seven sons and grandfather to 14, loved the sea, and the point at which the picture was taken was his favourite place to stand and look out upon the world. His wife, Gobnait, passed away before him.

"The picture was used on the front page of a national newspaper and I felt a little uncomfortable. Had I known at the time Michael Joe had died, I would never have taken it and sent it on. But then when I spoke to the family, they were very happy with it, it meant a lot to them. In many ways it was a memorial to their dad," says Stephen.

And he told Review that when he looks at the shot now, it represents so much more knowing the context. "Here they are standing equidistant apart, their stances respectful and dignified, they seem lost in their thoughts. Declan, in the middle, has his hands crossed behind his back. There's inner turmoil after the loss of their father and in front of them complete turmoil on the seas. When I see it now, I don't actually see Ophelia, I see loss, pain and three men in grief."

And as we dissect this amazing picture, Stephen notices something previously unseen. "Oh my, there's a little wren on the wall right beside them. I've just noticed it now. Well, isn't that something," he says.

Michael Joe O'Sullivan was buried in the Glen on Wednesday surrounded by his devoted family, neighbours and friends. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

@GrahamJClifford

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