Forgotten Irish on canvas
An exhibition in Galway features powerful, challenging and disturbing paintings of the Irish who emigrated to London in the 1950s and 1960s
EMIGRATION IS a constant feature of Irish life and a familiar theme in literature and art. Certain episodes – the Flight of the Earls, the Wild Geese, the post-Famine outflow – have been well documented but, until recently, the huge wave of emigration during the decades following Independence was largely neglected. An exhibition of paintings depicting the “forgotten Irish” emigrants of the mid-20th century is likely to be of interest to collectors and first-time buyers of art.
For a great many Irishmen in the 1950s and 1960s, the path to freedom was a via dolorosa by boat to Holyhead in Wales, and then by train south to London’s Euston station – followed by years of back-breaking labour “on the buildings”.
Longford-born, London-based Irish artist Bernard Canavan has captured this bleak journey and its aftermath in his paintings. An exhibition of his work – titled Exile World – at Kenny’s art gallery in Galway is evoking a very emotional public response.
Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, professor emeritus in history at NUIG and a member of the Council of State since his appointment by President Michael D Higgins earlier this year, described Canavan’s paintings as “an extraordinarily powerful visual narrative of an aspect of Irish social history” which had gone “unchronicled for a very long time”. He said in the decades after Independence from Britain, despite “the rhetoric of achievement, the public ceremonials, A Nation Once Again, [and] Church and State presiding over a happy society”, modern Ireland had “decanted” tens of thousands of people either “into institutions within the island” or to exile.
During the 1950s alone, Ireland suffered a net loss of 410,000 people through emigration, mostly to England, which caused “psychological pain that was deeply felt”. Prof Ó Tuathaigh, who is also a member of the Government’s advisory group on centenary commemorations, said these “disturbing” and “very challenging” paintings were a critique of Irish society and a response to that pain.
He said that many of the young men who had emigrated, “irrespective of their background in Ireland”, had entered the unskilled labour market in England and become “the generic Paddy”.
The paintings depict these “muscular and melancholy” men and the “key shrines of their experience”: memories of the Ireland they left behind, the boat to Holyhead, Euston station and the construction sites, bedsits and pubs of London. He said that these men had a story that “needs telling” – and the “telling of that story in such vivid, forceful and powerful terms” by Canavan should be “acknowledged and celebrated”.
Opening speeches at art exhibitions are rarely so eloquent and utterly compelling. Prof Ó Tuathaigh’s remarks – and the artist’s reply – can be viewed at youtube.com.
The Kenny Art Gallery, along with the family bookselling business, has, sadly, relocated from Galway city centre to the Liosbán retail park off the Tuam Road, where the exhibition can be seen until September 20th.
The paintings can also be viewed and purchased at thekennygallery.ie.