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Picture This: Irish Writers’ Portraits on Exhibition

The bearded face of Northern Irish poet Michael Longley stares out pensively from its frame in stark black and white. It is one of nearly 100 intimate portraits of Irish authors captured by Robin Hiteshew over almost 40 years, a project that blended Hiteshew’s profound love of literature and his passion for photography—a talent he has refined to crystalline perfection.

Fifty of these author portraits will be brought together in an exhibition, “Portraits of Irish Writers,” which debuts June 5 at Neumann University in Aston, Delaware County. Sponsored by the Donegal Association of Philadelphia and funded by an Irish Heritage grant through the Irish government’s Emigrant Assistance Programme, it is Hiteshew’s second major photographic project funded by the Irish government. The first was “The Face of Irish Music,” portraits of Irish musicians from elder statesmen like fiddler and composer Ed Reavy, Sr., to young fiddler Haley Richardson, presented at the Irish Consulate in New York City in February 2015.

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Portraits of Courage

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowan, third from the left, with the Philadelphia contingent. They are, from left, John Joe Brady, Darby O'Connor, John Egan, Brenda McDonald, Tom Farrelly, Sean McMenamin, Vera Gallagher, Billy Brennan, and Vince Gallagher.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowan, third from the left, with the Philadelphia contingent. They are, from left, John Joe Brady, Darby O'Connor, John Egan, Brenda McDonald, Tom Farrelly, Sean McMenamin, Vera Gallagher, Billy Brennan, and Vince Gallagher.

By Brenda McDonald

As a photographer for the London Evening Standard, he took the famous back-lit photograph of a young nursery school teacher named Lady Diana Spenser, soon to become Princess Diana,  wearing a diaphanous dress revealing more of her slim figure than “shy Di” was comfortable with. Over his long career, Dublin-born John Minihan has become renowned for his pictures of the      rich and famous—along with England’s future “queen of hearts,” Minihan’s subjectshave included Gloria Swanson, Al Pacino, Ray Charles, Irish novelist Edna O’Brien and especially playwright Samuel Beckett, with whom the photographer had a special bond.

But Minihan also took beautiful portraits of many ordinary people. Some of those photographs, described by Irish poet Derek Mahon as “real people untouched by celebrity,” are in a special exhibit at the Irish Arts Center in New York called “To Love Two Countries.” All of the dramatic black and white images Minihan took are of Irish immigrants from Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey who came to the US between the years of 1948 and 1967.

A special reception was held on July 15, attended by many of Minihan’s “real people” subjects. It was hosted by Irish Ambassador Niall Burgess and the Irish Arts Center in association with the Commodore Barry USN Irish Center in Philadelphia, the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, NY, the Irish American Cultural Institute in Morristown, NJ, and Irish American Society of Nassau, Suffolk and Queens, Moneola, NY.

Among the Philadelphians featured were John Joe Brady, Barney McEnroe, and Tom Farrelly from Cavan; Jimmy Meehan and Barney Boyce from Donegal; Sean Healy from Kerry, Maureen Healy from Clare, and Jerry O’Connor from Limerick.

In the publication distributed at the event, John Minihan expressed the hope that those who view the photographs see them as a testament to human endurance. He noted that what all of these people shared is their pride and a strong sense of who they are and where they came from. The importance of their faith and their Irishness was very evident to him as he visited them in their homes in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, talking over cups of Barry’s tea, as they described the tragedies and poverty that drove them from Ireland to make their new lives in America.

The special guest of the evening was Ireland’s An Taoiseach Brian Cowen.  This was his first official visit to the United States.  He told the group that it was no accident that he chose his first event to be the photographic exhibition.  He can see now, he said, why the Irish are so influential in the US today. “It is because of the seed sown by earlier generations.”

 He congratulated Mr. Minihan for capturing the spirit of Irish immigrants.  “Mr.Minihan’s exhibit tells 1,000 words,” said Cowen.  “The exhibit literally shows in black and white the fortitude of the people who left and made numerous cities what they are today.  It is an indication of the huge number of people who came with not much in their pockets but huge hearts.  That legacy will live on.  Ireland is everywhere.  We need to make sure that we are united as a people with faith, hope and commitment.”

Christine Quinn, speaker forthe NYC Council, congratulated the organizations that brought the exhibit together, especially the Irish Arts Center which she remembers as “the little art center that could.”  The city has invested $5 million in city government funds to help fund the center. 

Other dignitaries in attendance were Niall Burgess, Consul General of Ireland, Breandán Ó Caollaí, Deputy Consul General and Michael Collins, Irish Ambassador from Washington, D.C.

In addition, on July 16 Niall Burgess and his wife, Marie Morgan-Burgess,  hosted a reception in the Ground Floor Lobby of the Consulate General of Ireland’s office on Park Avenue to honor Cowen.  More than 500 people were in attendance to welcome him to the United States.  From the Philadelphia area were Michael Callahan, (First Vice President of The St. Patrick’s  Day Observance Association), Jim Coyne, (President Emeritus of the Irish Memorial of Philadelphia), Edward Last, (President of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick),  Bernadette Truhlar,(Treasurer of the Commodore Barry Club), Michael Campbell (Donegal Football Association) and Brenda McDonald (Board Member of the Commodore Barry Club).  

“To Love Two Countries,” commissioned and presented by the Irish Arts Center and the Consulate of Ireland, will be at the Irish Arts Center at 553 W 51st Street in New York through December 2008.