‘Ireland will always be my home but for now London is my city’

Former Riverdancer turned painter Aisling Drennan has found a niche in England

Working Abroad: Aisling Drennan is a former dancer with Riverdance and now a full-time artist based in south west London where she has a studio. She's originally from Co Clare.

Why did you go to England?

I moved to London in 2013 to begin my master's degree in fine art at Central Saint Martins. At the time, a practise-based fine art master's degree was not available at home. I had also been accepted to the New York Studio School and The Art Institute, Chicago, but my mom asked me to choose London as it's closer to home and I had been working overseas for many years.

How did you become an artist?

I completed my BA in fine art at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and quickly recognised what an excellent academic foundation I had received from my tutors there. I felt my understanding of art history, its critical contexts, was acute which gave me an edge. My BA was highly enriching – and it opened my eyes to the many Irish artists who had studied abroad. My MA defined my voice within my work through day-to-day practice in an international setting.

I now have a studio in London. It’s my creative space in a massive, cosmopolitan city, a place that has changed the course of my career as a painter.


How has being in London impacted on you?

The art scene here nourishes my creative growth. It's competitive, which results in a focused work ethic. Standards are very high and you really have to work hard. The life of an artist is a risk-taking venture. Committing to this career is a noble thing. It's courageous to put yourself in a precarious position trying to make it in an industry that has very few entrances, and even fewer moments of luck. I'm grateful that I've had financial help along the way from the Arts Council of Ireland and Co Clare Arts Office. I feel more should be done to support Irish artists working overseas and I understand the Arts Council has plans to do so.

How has being Irish influenced your work?

Growing up in Co Clare, it was difficult not to be affected by the county's strong history of music and dance. I am indebted to my parents for the time and effort they put into driving my sisters and I to Irish dancing classes. In passing on their love of Irish dancing, they gave me an unexpected career as I performed on the international stage with Riverdance for more than 10 years. I danced my way through more than 400 cities in 43 countries on six continents. In a sense I grew up on the road.

Do you identify as an Irish artist?

My relationship to Irish identity is as important to me now as when I toured with Riverdance. Putting a nationality on your art practice can be treacherous but I am proud to be an Irish artist in London. I am defined by my country. I was reared there. My family still lives there and I'm hugely appreciative of Ireland.

However I understand Ireland in two strands: the Ireland I have come to know on an international scale and the Ireland I grew up in. I adore the unique humour and the craic but at times I feel frustrated that it doesn’t always move with the momentum of its people.

Are you glad you moved to London?

I’ve been here more than four years now and it’s been a game changer. I have many memories and a few unforgettable highlights. Firstly, my mom’s visit to my MA graduate show. She is also an artist and understands what it takes. Seeing her visibly moved by the paintings I had produced during my course was a defining moment.

Secondly, I was lucky enough to get a seat at the Royal Albert Hall to see Ceiliúradh, which was billed as an evening of "shared stories, music, song and dance". It was momentous and emphasised the seismic shift in how Irish people are considered in London. It's very positive in comparison to what generations before went through. At an after-party in a hotel in South Kensington my friends and I danced in the street to a full trad session – it was a magical night!

Finally, I was delighted to be selected for the 2015 London Irish Art Exhibition at the Central Hall Museum in Westminster. The focus of the show was to gain insights into the modern experience of the Irish diaspora in the UK. It included traditional and contemporary art and was a real showcase of what we are doing here.

Will you stay in England?

Ireland will always be my home but for now London is my city. Both are important to me and my future but I’ve learned I need each at different points in my life. Who knows what will happen next but that’s what keeps things exciting.

For more about Aisling Drennan's work, see AislingDrennan.com or follow her on Twitter @AislingDrennan or Instagram aisling_drennan_art

If you work in an interesting job overseas and would like to share your experience with readers as part of the Working Abroad series, email abroad@irishtimes.com to tell us a little about yourself.