Marc O’Sullivan explains his role in how the late great photographer’s iconic image of the Fab Four found its way to Leeside
As a rookie snapper on Fleet Street, Terry O’Neill’s big break came in the autumn of 1962, when he was dispatched by the Daily Sketch to photograph a young band from Liverpool who were about to release their debut single. They called themselves The Beatles, the song was Love Me Do, and no one, least of all themselves, could have imagined that they would go on to become the most celebrated pop band of all time.
O’Neill had never photographed a group before, and he arranged the four as best he could, with John Lennon and George Harrison clutching their guitars, Ringo Starr holding a cymbal aloft, and Paul McCartney with the bass.
Years later, when I first met O’Neill, the photographer still seemed astonished at the reaction to his photograph when it was published in the Sketch; the newspaper sold out, and he was thrust headlong into his career chronicling the stars of Swinging Sixties London.
On that occasion, interviewing O’Neill in Dublin ahead of the first exhibition of his work in Ireland – at Kildare Village in 2009 – I was surprised to discover that his father Leonard was born and reared on Blarney St in Cork.
Leonard O’Neill had emigrated to work at the Ford’s plant in London, and, like many another Dagenham Yank, had married an Irishwoman, Josephine Gallagher from Waterford. Terry had grown up in London, but spent his summers at his grandparents’ home on Blarney St or at his uncle’s in Sunday’s Well, and he’d always thought of Cork as home.
In 2013, the curator Tina Darb and I were asked to organise an exhibition at CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery. Remembering how proud O’Neill had been of his connection to Cork, we wrote inviting him to show his work, and he replied at once, saying he’d be delighted.
O’Neill was managed by Robin Morgan, the former editor of the Sunday Times magazine, he sent on a catalogue of images – O’Neill seemed to have befriended and photographed just about every Sixties and Seventies celebrity one could think of – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, Muhammed Ali, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and David Bowie, to mention just a handful.
The Lord Mayor, John Buttimer, launched the exhibition. Earlier, Buttimer had very kindly hosted a reception for O’Neill that afternoon in his chambers at Cork City Hall. It was the first time the city he considered home had acknowledged his achievements, and he was genuinely humbled. He marked the occasion by donating a copy of his iconic Beatles portrait to the people of Cork.
O’Neill passed away in 2019, aged 81, an utter gentleman, one who’d achieved a stellar level of success in his career, photographing the most celebrated international artists of his time, but who always took pride in his family roots in the city of Cork.