The Times We Lived In

Friday 6/10/1989 ... Mrs Elgin O’Rahilly, sister of Kevin Barry and her granddaughter, Deirdre Sweetman, at the launch of “Kevin Barry and His Time” by Donal O’Donovan in the Kevin Barry Room, UCD, Earlsfort Terrace, last night. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Friday 6/10/1989 ... Mrs Elgin O’Rahilly, sister of Kevin Barry and her granddaughter, Deirdre Sweetman, at the launch of “Kevin Barry and His Time” by Donal O’Donovan in the Kevin Barry Room, UCD, Earlsfort Terrace, last night. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Sat, Jul 20, 2013, 01:00

Published on
October 6th, 1989
Photograph by
Peter Thursfield

A child leans in to her grandmother, maybe to give her a kiss, maybe to share a joke.

It’s a universal and timeless gesture. It must have happened in neolithic cave gatherings. A 21st-century version happens in my house every time my four-year-old granddaughter lurches towards the computer screen in suburban Sydney, plaits flying, eyes glowing, to tell me about the dolphins she saw at Sea World, or the swimming pool her mum is going to put on the top of her birthday cake.

It’s rare for such an ordinary family moment to be recorded in a newspaper. But the granddaughter in our picture is Deirdre Sweetman, and her grandmother is Mrs Elgin O’Rahilly – sister of Kevin Barry. Not the Kevin Barry who has just won the IMPAC Prize with his wonderful novel City of Bohane, but the original Kevin Barry. The 18-year-old rebel who, as the well-known song has it – “gave his young life/for the cause of liberty”.

The occasion was the launch of a biographical study, Kevin Barry and His Time, by the historian Donal O’Donovan, in the Kevin Barry Room. Which, in 1989, was still part of University College, Dublin but is now a recital space at the National Concert Hall.

As noted above, the emotions recorded in the picture can never be dated. The affection in the grandmother’s eyes, the excitement in the youngster’s. The faces defy time, too. They might be reflected in some magical Harry Potter-style mirror; one old, one young, but still the image of each other. The two hands facing each other, one gnarled with age and experience, the other splayed out over the page of the book, bursting with childish energy. The light streaming in from the left, illuminating the older woman’s immaculate bun and the girl’s hair, which is also upstyled in a hairband.

Do you know what, it’s like an Irish, female, secular version of Michelangelo’s God Creating Adam in the Sistine chapel. Or maybe, as a grandmother, I’m just biased.

Arminta Wallace


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