Writing in Light

The luminaries of Irish literature photographed in their homes by Darragh Casey. Cup of tea, anyone?

Belfast poet Michael Longley stands in the doorway of his living room dressed only in his bathrobe, a look of resignation on his face, as if he wasn’t expecting to be photographed before porridge, but should have known better. That’s what he gets for inviting a photographer into his house…

It is, perhaps, the stand out image in Darragh Casey’s Writing in Light: Portraits of Contemporary Irish Writers, a photography exhibition which is currently on display at the Market Place Theatre in Armagh, part of the 25th John Hewitt International Summer School.

Casey spent the past few years travelling Ireland North and South photographing ‘esteemed Irish men and women of letters’. His series of black and white portraits are intimate and continually surprising.

Seamus Heaney is here, as is Colm Tóibín, Brian Friel, Anne Enright, Benedict Kiely and others, all photographed in their own homes. Some photos are clearly posed, whilst others are much more informal, often taken mid-sentence.

It’s fascinating to see such literary luminaries outside of their academic work environments or away from the podium, even if some of them don’t appear to be very happy in their own surroundings – at least not when a camera is pointed at them.

Writing in Light

 

Casey – who admits on his website to also being ‘passionate’ about wedding photography, unlike many of his contemporaries who tend to look down on the form as too blue collar, too workmanlike, now that they ‘do exhibitions’ – plays with our preconceptions of some writers, and shows others in an entirely unexpected light.

The likes of Owen McCafferty and John Banville behave as you would expect them to behave. Patterson sits astride a wooden armchair starring directly and defiantly into camera, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his thick Belfast arms exposed as if there is work to be done. Banville hunches over his writing desk, books stacked thereon, scratching his head as if shuffling the words around inside before he painstakingly applies them to page.

Seamus Heaney, meanwhile, is not at all serious, or even studious. He sits at his kitchen table smiling, surrounding by pots of jam and jars of herbs – the great man of Irish poetry, the Nobel Prize winner, dwarfed by domesticity. Here he is but a husband, a father, an uncle. He has the kettle on.

This exhibition shows that the pantheon of great modern Irish writers is populated, in the main, by men. That said, some would argue that the females featured here, including Jennifer Johnston and Sinead Morrissey, will be remembered more fondly than some of their male counterparts. The photos also show that Irish writers share a collective crutch: the good old-fashioned cup of tea.

Whether it’s Carlo Gebler reclining on his sofa, his dog and his paper spread out on the coffee table beside him, Longley in his robe, Tóibín leaning against a radiator in his hallway or Ciaran Carson gesticulating as he holds court – in all of these images, and more, the authors either clutch a cup or are accompanied by one.

There are few photographs taken in writing rooms, aside from the Banville shot. This is disappointing on one hand, but understandable on the other. After all, you don't ask Brad Pitt if you can film him rehearsing his lines.

Either the writers deemed that proposition too much of an intrusion, too voyeuristic (a lamp can say a lot about a person), or Casey felt it unnecessary, too predictable perhaps. Much better to capture these faces when not furrowed and strained by the creative process. Cup of tea, anyone?

Writing in Light runs in the Market Place Theatre until Friday, July 27, as does the 25th John Hewitt International Summer School.