Photographs are great prompts to memoir, especially if you are of the generation where they weren’t quite as ubiquitous as today – where they were taken on a camera and had to be handed in as film to the chemist and retrieved weeks later to great anticipation! They are also likely to have been less perfect than we expect now when we are all photographers. It is funny to look at our family ones and find heads cut off, the colour all wrong, the angle strange. But for all that they are hugely evocative of memory.

Just this week a friend sent this picture to one of my brothers. It shows my youngest two brothers who are “Irish twins” at a friend’s birthday party when they were just three and four. They are the two on each end. They were the youngest and I am the eldest, so I was in my teens when this was taken.

Memoir: This old photograph shows Maureen Boyle's two youngest brothers at a birthday party as children.

Apart from the cuteness- there is something so of its time in this picture- it was 1974. Their wee trousers and jumpers seem to say that and their hairstyles. It was clearly a winter birthday for the little boy holding the cake - from the reflection of the bare trees and the jumpers again. He was a neighbour. We lived on a busy road and all our friends were in the neighbouring houses. So this takes me back into that time. It reminds me of the smells of friends’ houses – each one distinct and different- of the games we played, of our own birthday parties.

Photographs of parents

Photographs that you were in or, like the one above, that have family in them, are one thing but even those taken before you, can set up the story. Here is a picture of my parents on their honeymoon that I found when doing some decorating and that I shared on Twitter. Something about it made people respond.

They were very young and they flew to London for their honeymoon and this was obviously taken in a photo-booth. I’ve written about this time before I existed in a poem that is part of a sequence about childhood called “Incunabula” (see below).

So all of this writing is of a time I didn’t know, of a time before me. If you are writing a memoir you will want to do this- to explore the lives that led to your life. I should say that sometimes in readings these days, the fact that my young father taught my mother in the final year of primary school, sometimes raises eyebrows - there were seven years between them, huge at that time but not later when they got together!

Inspiration from poetry

There are some famous poems that do this- most notably “I Go Back to May, 1937” by the American poet Sharon Olds. Olds had a difficult childhood and so the end of this poem is chilling in which she has imagined her parents together just out of college, about to marry and speaking to them directly she says, “you are about to do bad things to children” and at the end, sardonically, “Do what you are going to do and I will tell about it.” This poem is not necessarily a photo at all – she may simply be imagining the scene and that is what you can do too, from things you know or from things you have been told, create an imaginary photograph of your parents before you were born.

In Wendy Cope’s poem, “On Finding an Old Photograph” it is definitely an existing picture she describes, in which her father is in an apple orchard at Yalding in 1912 in stylish baggy trousers and with women in “soft, white blouses” and she says, If it were strangers it would calm me – half drugged by the atmosphere – but it does more - eases a burden made of all his sadness and the things I didn’t give him.

There he is, happy, and I am unborn.

So – for this month’s exercise use a photograph to prompt a memory or create an imaginary photograph from stories you have heard of your parents’ lives before you were born.


My father came to teach in Sion School when he was

nineteen years old, my mother in his P7 class.

He let her give out the pencils and directed her

as Buttons in the pantomime in the Bog Hall –

telling her at the dance that little girls like her should be in bed.

When she left school, she would wait for him at Hamilton’s Corner

as he rode his bike from the town. He wooed her with letters

of his cricket injuries and from a damp camping trip round Ireland

when his sister took him off to break it up and encourage

the bank clerk who had an interest in him instead.

They went to Belfast on the train to buy the rings

and were married by a priest who looked like Montgomery Clift

but who lost his mind in Biafra and had to be carted away

when he nailed himself and a woman called Mary,

who had the stigmata, into the parochial house.

They went to London for the honeymoon and my father

spent the flight talking to a hen man.

They poured the bottle of champagne left in their room

down the sink on the first night of their lives alone together

in the Frobischer Court Hotel.

Maureen Boyle

A poet and memoir mentor with the Irish Writers’ Centre. If any of our readers would like to share writing inspired by this exercise, for potential publication, please email

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