27 Nov 2021

Longford Lives: Distinguished Service award for Longford artist Bernard Canavan

Bernard Canavan

Longford artist, Bernard Canavan, who will be awarded a Distinguised Service award, from President Michael D Higgins, for his distinctive exhibitions on emigrant themes.

To receive an award as an artist is certainly a great honour, but to be handed an award from President Michael D Higgins himself is an achievement indeed

This is the reality for Longford artist, Bernard Canavan, who will be alongside the likes of Liam Neeson at the annual Presidential Distinguished Service Awards for the Irish Abroad this year.

Bernard will receive a Distinguished Service Award for his distinctive exhibitions, which deal with emigration and particularly the 'forgotten Irish' in the UK.

Bernard was born in Wicklow in 1944, into what he said was “an essentially religious world in which we all took ourselves to be souls in exile from heaven because of the original sin of our first parents”.

“The art that best expressed our world was the essentially religious art painted between the end of the Classical age and the Renaissance of the 16th century,” Bernard explained.

These images, he said, are best described as “little windows into the sacred”, their subject matter being miracles from the New Testament and the lives of saints.

“Dozens of such images were crammed into our prayer books, painted by Fra Angelo, Raphael and Carravagio. It was a charming childlike world, full of mysteries and secrets, which had to be believed on pain of eternal damnation.

“We were all sinners then, and I, in particular, was seen by many as a product of sin as I spent the first three and a half years of my life in St Patrick’s orphanage in Dublin, run by the Sisters of Charity,” Bernard told the Longford Leader.

“Like many infants from such institutions, I was in and out of hospital for many years after and didn't go to school much, just the odd few months here and there, and left before my thirteenth birthday with no documentary evidence that I had ever been there.”

It was Margaret Canavan who rescued Bernard from that sorry situation and changed his life completely.

“She was an unusual and remarkably independently-minded woman, perhaps because of her cosmopolitan background, for she was born and spent her infant years in Rosario, Argentina, her parents being one of the Longford families who emigrated there in the Post Famine period,” Bernard explained.

Margaret and her sister, Molly, only returned to Ireland with their mother as small children on the death of their father.

A second blow occurred soon after when their mother died, leaving the girls as orphans in Ireland.

Their Irish-Argentinian uncles paid for them as boarders in the convent school in Moate until they were eighteen, whereupon they promptly left the ‘Troubled Ireland’ of the 1920s and spent the next eighteen years in Leicester, England.

When these same uncles came back to Ireland in their old age, to a widowed sister with a little bacon shop in Edgeworthstown, their niece Margaret dutifully returned from England to look after them. And when they died, she inherited the little shop, married late in life, and rescued Bernard all in quick succession, lavishing her savings on his medical care.

“She was a significant figure in my life for she taught me to read and instilled in me a love of literature that has never left me,” Bernard explained.

Margaret and her husband also encouraged Bernard to draw and he won little prizes for his work from a popular Irish radio programme.

It quickly became apparent to Bernard that he wasn't like other boys his age.

“All through the 1950s, while other friends went off to St Mel’s college, Longford, and Maynooth, to become bank clerks, civil servants and priests, I lived in a fantasy world,” he said.

“It was full of superheroes, and cowboys shooting Indians, and stories from the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount which spoke about love and forgiveness; so that religion seemed to become the mere application of dead rules learned from the catechisms we learned, parrot-fashion.”

But, Bernard recalls, what he hadn’t noticed, was the mass exodus of people from Ireland in the 1950s - though the evidence in the falling custom in the shop beneath his bedroom was not lost on his mother as the country silently emptied at the rate of 50,000 a year.

“However, I was awakened rather abruptly from my dream just before my sixteenth birthday in 1959 when I found myself with my father on a crowded emigrant boat sailing out of Dun Laoghaire, surrounded by weeping apprehensive young women and old navvies singing patriot songs and drinking pints to keep up their spirits, all heading into anonymity.”

Like the rest of the emigrants, Bernard and his father were singularly unqualified and unskilled for anything but the roughest work.

“We had fallen from the Main Street in Ireland into lodging houses and trailer parks in the edge of the Cotswold villages where there was employment,” said Bernard.

“We had entered the floating world of the displaced, from whom Irish spirituality had evaporated and we were just muscles and sinew employed to take our place at the base of the highly structured industrial society that had emerged from bomb-torn Britain.”

A migrant's only role, as far as Ireland was concerned, was to send back remittances to help support parents and siblings, postal orders that undermined their own attempts to establish themselves in this new society.

But these funds allowed Ireland to remain a low tax country, and were a reward for the patriots among the landed classes. Those that left were condemned by the Church for being attracted to “the fleshpots of materialist England”.

For Bernard, this was a second beginning, with parallels to his arrival in Edgeworthstown a dozen years earlier.

“But I found the local people surprisingly kind, not at all what I had been led to expect,” he explained.

Casual labour was tough for Bernard and his father, as they weren't used to the industrial regimentation and speed of modern life.

However, he had one consolation: an abundance of secondhand bookshops.

“I soon migrated from the comics and fantasies of my childhood to English and American novels and translations from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Kafka and Camus.

“One small volume I stumbled on in my late teens, written in the France of the ancient regime, had the same profound effect on me as it once had on Europe: Descartes’ 'A Discourse on Method', which asked the question that put into focus all the other accumulated questions about this new society around me; and would have intrigued many of the lads who drank lemonade in our shop when cycling back in the early hours from dances during my early teens,” Bernard recalled.

“What, he asked, if one came to doubt everything, what could one not doubt?

“The answer Descartes gave was that one could not doubt one’s own existence, and not just one’s existence, but one’s existence as a rational being.

“So he placed the self before ‘Faith’, and provided the key of rationality to the modern world.

“Of course this opened up many more questions, which led me on a long detour through Locke, Berkeley, Hume and on towards Kant; and on that detour I left any belief in sin and inherited guilt behind.

“Understanding our relations to ourselves and others became central to our new modernity: and so we would have to do our thinking on earth rather than in heaven.”

The effects of that change was visible in the art books Bernard bought, and on the walls of the galleries he visited.

“Most of the paintings produced from 1600 onwards ceased to be windows into heaven. They would be better described as mirrors of our human desires; mirrors for the necessities of life; celebrations of family life, wealth and recognition, love and sex,” he said.

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