Exhibition remembers England’s “Forgotten Irish”

Bernard Canavan’s paintings portray the experiences of Irish emigrants who have slipped from visual memory


An emigrant returns for a holiday. He hires a car and drives to his native Cavan and a pub full of locals. He enters and buys a drink for everyone. Then he takes to bed for two weeks, penniless, and borrows money from his aunt for the journey back.

This 1950s anecdote is told by London-Irish painter Bernard Canavan: “It fuelled a painting of a crowded country bar as an emigrant buys drink for everyone. It’s called When is He Going Back? – as if “back” was the place where you really belonged.

Returned emigrants
“It was common for returned emigrants in the summertime to try and not let the side down – to try and say they were a success.”

The Forgotten Irish is Canavan’s latest exhibition, which transferred on Thursday night from Longford Library to the Old Schoolhouse in Edgworthstown. His work is a portrait of navvies, labourers and nurses who have slipped from Irish visual memory.

A migrant himself who went to London as a teen with his father in 1959, Canavan is a sharp sociological artist. He captures a folk experience whose relevance links the 1950s and 1980s with today.

He describes his painting The Irish Geography Lesson: “This shows a group of boys in my school, as the master labours to teach them about the world. The lads are looking not into atlases but rather open suitcases.”

How We Learned the Iniquity of British Rule recalls a teacher “who used to thrash us all liberally to push into our head some of the facts of the world.

“Irish were emigrants seen as missionaries to convert England back to the true fold. Much more of us went over to the secular way of thinking and left behind the Ireland of miracles and wonder.”

Canavan’s exhibition features people making the crossing to Holyhead, and images of alienation and confusion. But what of the modern migrant – the creatures of the 1980s and now? “The world of ‘ourselves alone’ looks much further away – now we are all aware of the wider European British and American world,” he says.

Irish grandparents
“One in every 10 English people has an Irish grandparent. We don’t want to forget all these people – we want to honour them in some way. My pictures are there to make people remember what emigration was like.

“That is why I first started off painting them, not for money. I just wanted people like my father and some of my uncles and aunts just to be remembered, just to be recorded as part of the travail they had inflicted upon them, by not being prepared for the world that they were being reared for.”

Bernard Canavan’s The Forgotten Irish exhibition runs at the Old Schoolhouse, Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, until Friday as part of The Gathering