In 1992, Seamus Heaney and the American photographer Rachel Giese-Brown collaborated on Sweeney’s Flight, a book of Giese-Brown’s haunting photographs of the Ulster landscape paired with extracts from Heaney’s Sweeney Astray. Here, Rachel explains how the artistic partnership came about and recalls the day the book finally took shape.
Seamus proposed the collaboration around the time my Donegal book came out (Rachel Giese: The Donegal Pictures, 1987) and I enthusiastically said yes. We both agreed that we’d work on our parts of it over the coming months, years, however long it took, and then get together occasionally over lunch – usually somewhere near Harvard, where he taught each spring – and see where we were. Seamus was doing some revisions to Sweeney Astray while I was scrambling around Ulster with a camera, searching for images akin to the contrasting woeful and rapturous content of this ancient text. To quote from Seamus’s introduction: “I lived on the verges of that territory, in sight of Sweeney’s places and in earshot of others — Slemish, Rasharkin, Benevenagh, Dunseverick, the Bann, the Roe, the Mournes.”
The richest territories for such images were in Donegal: the areas around Mount Errigal, Dunlewy and Glenveagh. In County Antrim: the Braid Valley, the Glens of Antrim, the county’s north coast. In County Armagh, the area around Benburb offered a softer landscape for those passages in Sweeney Astray that evoked them. (There is a nod to Paul Muldoon in the image ‘Leaning Grove’ which is adjacent to John Mackle’s goose farm, immortalized in Muldoon’s haunting poem, ‘The Fox’.)
Finally, after a few years of dithering, we said let's put this together.
So. In 1990, on a short, dark, Sweeney-esque November afternoon, we spread out all the photos – maybe eighty or so – on the floor of the Heaneys’ conservatory in Dublin. Then we each selected some that we liked and thought matched the tone of the various texts. There was a lot of culling and thumbing through Sweeney Astray, discarding, undiscarding, yes, no and maybe.
By evening, when we were sufficiently satisfied with our work, we were greatly in need of some dinner and a drink. We picked up Derek Mahon along the way and the three of us went to a posh-ish place in the city centre and drank a great deal of champagne (Benedict Kiely also happened to be in the restaurant and generously added to our supply). The rest of the evening dims in memory except for the level of mirth and our growing sense of accomplishment. Finally, Seamus and Derek saw me out to the 45A bus to Dun Laoghaire and I tottered to my lodging. Book done.
Sweeney’s Flight was officially launched at three venues: in 1991, at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina, and in 1992 at the Ulster Museum in Belfast and The Writers Museum in Dublin. The photographs continue to tour, most recently opening in February, 2018, at the La Grua Center in Stonington, Connecticut, at which Paul Muldoon gave one of his inimitably amusing readings.
For more information on Rachel Giese-Brown’s work, visit www.rachelbrownphoto.com.