First Encounters: John Grenham and Jonathan Hession

‘We were fish out of water in Blackrock’

“In tough times, he just listened to me over pints”. John Grenham, left, and Jonathan Hession. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

“In tough times, he just listened to me over pints”. John Grenham, left, and Jonathan Hession. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

John Grenham is a genealogist who has developed genealogical software, Grenham’s Irish Recordfinder. He writes ‘Irish Roots’ column in 'The Irish Times’. He and photographer Jonathan Hession’s ‘The Atlantic Coast of Ireland’ was published recently. Originally from Castlerea, Co Roscommon, he lives in Drumcondra, Dublin.

I met Jonathan in Blackrock College when I was 15 or 16. I was a boarder there from the age of 11, he arrived as a boarder at the age of 16. We bonded very quickly over our shared detestation of everything Blackrock stood for. Within a few days of first meeting in 1970 we were fast friends and have remained very close for 44 years.

I did English and French in UCD, he started geography but dropped out and became a photographer’s apprentice. I had no idea whatsoever what I wanted to do but early on it was clear Jonathan had a talent for photography.

We were weekend hippies. I was a lot hairier than he was, but Jonathan was a follower of the guru Maharaj Ji for a while. We even trekked the first part of the hippy trail at the age of 19 in 1973 but only got as far as Istanbul, where a beefy Turkish policeman took my long hair to mean I was a woman and tried to seduce me.

After college I lived in Italy for about five years teaching English. I came back to do a doctorate and was funding myself by doing bits of genealogical research.

Then I got married, my first child was born and that rooted me to genealogy forever. I was the main breadwinner and it was quite precarious.

One thing Jonathan and I have in common is that we’re both self-employed and that’s not coincidental – neither of us takes orders easily.

Jonathan and I picked up the connection very fast when I came back to Dublin. He was my best man in 1986, I was his two years later.

We settled into a kind of routine of meeting up for a drink once a week. They were very good venting sessions; I could say anything to him and likewise. To have a strong connection with someone who knew you 40 years ago is extraordinary, we both value that.

In tough times, he just listened to me over pints, as I did for him. I still have a damp patch on my shoulder.

One of his great qualities is loyalty. We’ve never fallen out, although I’m still waiting for the photos he took of my graduation.

From the very start of our friendship we talked about collaborating on various projects, projects which didn’t survive the hangover. Until, blow me down, didn’t we talk to a publisher who said “Here’s a contract. Go away and do a book on Ireland’s Atlantic coast”.

Jonathan and I were both 60 within three weeks of each other last year. We wept into our pints.

Jonathan Hession is a photographer who specialises in film and TV publicity stills. He has worked on ‘The Tudors’, ‘Vikings’ and ‘Calvary’. He is also a landscape photographer. He is married to garden expert Jane Powers (with whom he co-authored ‘The Irish Garden’). They live in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin.

John and I were fish out of water in Blackrock College. Neither of us played rugby; I’d find myself wandering around the halls on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons and John and I bumped into each other along the way. John was one of the brightest guys in my year; I’m not the brightest academically and would have been a most unlikely companion for him.

We started talking about everything when we were 16, and haven’t stopped. Our really strong and deep affection grew back then and we are still very fond of each other, definitely best friends.

When he went to Italy after college we wrote each other the odd postcard. He finally arrived back one day: I was walking out the door of the place I worked on Leeson Street, and I hadn’t seen John for three or four years. My reaction was to leap from the top of the steps, and landed clasping him around the neck, I was so happy to see him. We’ve never really lost contact since then.

John might have been a weekend hippie but I was pretty full-time back then – this was the mid-1970s. I washed dishes in Captain Americas and was a member of Guru Maharaj Ji’s Divine Light Mission. I’m still a vegetarian but I wouldn’t lecture John on eating meat – he’s beyond redemption on that score.

Photography was completely an accident. One of my other close friends from school asked if I’d give photography a go – his dad was a photographer. That gave me the chance to work unpaid as a photographer’s assistant and I haven’t stopped taking pictures since then.

I’ve been blessed with the best luck you could wish on anybody but we all have our emotional ups and downs when we’re younger. We would meet regularly for a drink and a cry on each other’s shoulder. We used to anyway, we’re a bit tougher now. I think the idea that men don’t share their emotions is a bit of a stereotype. I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t told John. We’re in a book club that meets once a month and this is where John’s intelligence shines. He’s so good at analysing books; I’m pretty dull in what I take out of a book – he can read between the lines.

John and I have been through everything together, he knows all my emotional disasters, my victories, triumphs – and ditto with him.

The Atlantic Coast of Ireland by John Grenham and Jonathan Hession is published by Frances Lincoln

 

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