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John Minihan: a lens focused on love and life


SETTLED: John Minihan is now happily living in Skibbereen with his girlfriend Deirdre.

SETTLED: John Minihan is now happily living in Skibbereen with his girlfriend Deirdre.

Edna O'Brien by John Minihan

Edna O'Brien by John Minihan


SETTLED: John Minihan is now happily living in Skibbereen with his girlfriend Deirdre.

'MRS Kennedy, I'm Irish." When she heard these soothing four words, the world's then most famous woman wav-ed away her security and allowed young John Minihan, from Athy, Co Kildare, to take her photograph. It was early 1970 and, courtesy of a tip-off from a local gardener, he had tracked Jackie Kennedy Onassis down to her younger sister Lee Radziwill's Turville Grange estate, a 17th-Century country house outside Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.

She was grooming her horse with Lee when Minihan ran up to her "with a security guard chasing me". (Seven years before, as a young apprentice photographic printer starting off at the Daily Mail, John pulled the gruesome pictures off the wire of her husband's assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.)

"Knowing Jackie's relationship with Ireland – and her passion for Ireland – I told her where I was from and she smiled. I can still see her smiling in my mind," John says.

A year later, when Jackie was back in England, John deployed his Irish charm once more on the normally camera-averse former First Lady when he approached her as she was coming out of a shop in Curzon Street in London.

She not only remembered him, and presumably liked him, but allowed him to take her picture again. She even posed for a 'selfie' with him. The picture appeared on the front page of that night's Evening Standard, where John was now happily ensconced as staff photographer, with the caption: Jackie O meets an old friend in London.

The sad irony was the woman who should have been John Minihan's oldest and truest friend was living not far away in Northamptonshire, but never wanted to have him in her life: his mother.

Mary Rochford gave him up after he was born at the Rotunda hospital in Dublin on March 19, 1946, and she moved to England. John – whose father, also John, had died a few months before he was born – was brought up by his aunt and uncle in Athy. He was five when he realised they weren't, in fact, his real mother and father. "I always knew, I suppose, because my name was John Minihan and my aunt was called Mary Collinson," he says.

John met his mother only twice. The first time, his aunt brought John up to another aunt's house in Kimmage in Dublin when he was eight and his mother – visiting from England – was there. He was told vaguely who she was. Then, on the mantelpiece, he saw a picture of his mother and father's wedding. "You aren't as handsome as your father," she told the young boy.

"That remark," John says now, "has never left me."

He met her again the following year for the last time. He says he never thought to ask her why she had given him to her sister when he was a baby. "Maybe because I didn't want to know," he says. "I was effectively given away."

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I ask John did he ever wonder why his mother did that to him. "I have often thought about that. You obviously feel unloved. But at the time – I don't know. All I know is that my mother came over to England and she married again. I never heard anything from her again. Not as much as a postcard or a Christmas card."

Did he ever feel like it was a near-mortal wound from birth to be rejected by his mother?

"Dumped. Rejected. Of course. From a very early age, I understood that I was different. But I think for my real mother to lose my father, her husband, must have been very difficult for a young woman. He died of pneumonia and he is buried somewhere in England."

John can remember when he was 21 "finding my father's people – farming stock in County Limerick. He was a carpenter – he built a chapel – but I couldn't find out any more about him."

In 1955, John and his aunt and uncle and their two children moved to Barons Court in London. John's mother was living in the town of Corby in Northamptonshire, having got remarried (and had four sons – all of whom, John says, sadly, he wouldn't recognise if they met). John says of his late aunt and uncle: "I had a great deal of love for these people. They were very special to me. They were all very kind to me."

When he was 15, John responded to an ad in the paper for a job as an office boy in the Daily Mail. Within a few years, John was photographing the beau monde and the artists and bands of Swinging Sixties London for the Evening Standard. It felt almost like a calling for him.

In terms of his introduction to the opposite sex, he says he was a late starter. He met his first girlfriend, Lucille Gower, from Kent, when he was 18. They met in The Clarence, a bar in West Kensington, and stayed together for four years "before something happened".

What happened?

"It was the Sixties. I am running around. I was covering fashion shows in Paris. I was covering rock 'n roll things. I photographed The Stones, The Who, The Animals. I was probably a bit of a naughty boy," he says, meaning infidelity. "Then she ended up going to Greece, and she ended up marrying a commander. She was the first love of my life."

He describes his love life after that as "a labyrinth".

When John was 29, he married Sonia Avanessian, an Armenian Christian who had come from Tehran to London. "She was working as a manager of the Hilton Hotel in Kensington. I went in there and I saw this vision with curly hair. That was the beginning. We got married in 1976."

They lived in Chiswick in London and had a "lovely daughter", Siobhan. Now 33, she lives in Leicester, and "is about to have her second baby."

John's marriage to Sonia became complex, he says. "When you marry a woman from the mountain, you marry the whole f**king mountain," he laughs. "Sonia was my love, and very beautiful and loving. But obviously she had a sister and stuff and the family came over. The Armenians have a wonderful culture.

"My marriage lasted about four years ... " he adds. "I was in my 30s and my marriage broke up. I moved out of the house and bought a flat in Chiswick."

Was he faithful in the marriage?

"No. I have never been faithful really. I am faithful now because I'm at a point in my life with my current partner, Deirdre, who is from Dublin. She is an absolutely exceptional lady. She has brought incredible calm and love to my life."

Prior to meeting the divine Deirdre five years ago in West Cork, John Minihan's life seemed to be marked by anything but calm. In 1988, John met Hammond Journeaux, a "lovely" woman from New Zealand, at a dinner party in London, who "blessed" him with two sons – Emmet, now 23 and living in London, and 19-year-old Bosco ("after Saint John Bosco") who has just come back from mining in Australia and "is now fishing in Castletownbere."

John and Hammond lived first in an apartment in London's Portobello Road and then in 1991, they moved to Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire for five years before moving to Ballydehob in West Cork.

When I ask John how long he was with Emmet and Bosco's mother for, he gives me the characteristically extraordinary answer: "She left me 10 years ago."

Why did she leave him?

"I don't know."

Was he faithful to her?

"Absolutely. I was totally, totally enamoured with her and totally faithful to her. Because as you grow older, your need to find [sexual fulfilment] ... it becomes less and less."

So why did she leave him then?

"She left me probably because I'm unbearable, I'm probably egotistic. I'm probably self-consumed with my own rather limited importance."

A man of no small wit , John Minihan is, of course, being slightly tongue-in-cheek. "She kind of mentioned it tentatively, then just took off to another part of West Cork. She had left once before. For me, it was absolutely devastating."

This absolute emotional devastation lay in the fact, he admits, that "I kind of f**ked up my marriage to some degree with Sonia. I felt I could have been a better dad. I could have been a better soulmate. There were too many differences. There were too many things. And I really wanted it to work with Hammond. As I said, we met in 1988 and she left in 2003."

"John can be very charming, but when it came to the practicalities of raising a family, he wasn't able to fulfill that role," Hammond told me when I rang her in West Cork to ask her why she left him.

"I wasn't a plumber or an electrican – I did my best," John said when I told him what Hammond said about him.

Later, I ask him was he self-sabotaging his romantic relationships because of the love he never got from his mother?

"No!" he says forcefully. "This is all 21st Century psychiatric s**t. People say: 'Oh your mother left you'. Look, Barry, I was the youngest photographer on the Evening Standard and running around with Mary Quant. It was all there. It was a voracious time to be young, the Sixties."

You could fall into cliche and argue that perhaps, prior to meeting his girlfriend – even saviour – Deirdre, that the only love affair John Minihan was involved in was with his trusty camera. One of the most influential Irish photographers ever, he is preparing for an exhibition of his work at the Moscow Expo in September.

"I am the pre-eminent Irish photographer. There is no question about that. I am not a member of Aosdana," he says, referring to the association set up by The Arts Council in 1981 to honour those artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland. He says he was nominated and twice turned down. "I don't know why. At this stage I have been showing my work around the world for the last 40 years. I have had exhibitions in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, in the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. In 1987 to 1988 my work was at the National Portrait Gallery in London. David Bailey has an exhibition there right now. Bailey is in the pantheon of high art now."

And where is John Minihan right now?

"Good question. Where am I? I am where my head is at, knowing in fact that there is a lot of s**te out there, because to some degree in the art world, Ireland celebrates mediocrity. I'm not going to name names but people who will read this will know who I'm talking about. Let me give you an example. The National Gallery in London has photography. The National Portrait Gallery, as we speak, has this amazing whole floor devoted to Bailey. Down the road here," he says over a pot of tea in the Shelbourne Hotel, "there is some wonderful stuff in the National Gallery, but have I seen any photography shows? Yet George Bernard Shaw was an accomplished photographer who photographed George Moore leave Lady Gregory's home in Coole Park. They were wonderful pictures."

He mentioned David Bailey earlier. I point out that Bailey, in a recent interview, said that Francis Bacon appeared to come on to him in a bar in Soho once upon a time.

He says Bacon, whom he met and photographed many times, never made advances on him. "Francis Bacon, as he said himself, loved the smell of men's flesh. Of course I understood that homosexuality was very much a part of that world. Francis never came on to me."

You can kind of see why he would want to photograph the likes of Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon (both of whom he befriended) and would be drawn to women like Jackie O, Lady Diana (he photographed her in Pimlico in September, 1980) and his friend Edna O'Brien, of whom he says, "She has a luminous, golden beauty to her."

John, who will be 68 on Wednesday, obviously found the same golden luminosity in Deirdre Callaghan. Five years ago, she bought some of his photographs of Yves Saint Laurent for her boutique in Skibbereen and a mutual curiosity was born.

"I was an old fart and thought I wouldn't have a hope with her but then, when we talked, I found we had mutual interests," he says of Deirdre, who is 15 years his junior and with whom he has lived in Skibbereen for three years.

"She is the most gracious lady I have ever met. She still tolerates me," he adds. "We have travelled quite a bit together. We love each other. If you have an interesting mind,"John Minihan smiles, "you fall in love."

See John Minihan interview on video, www.independent.ie


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