“They were tough men, some people couldn’t understand that toughness but they had a rich culture, loved their language, music and dancing.”
That’s how abstract artist Mike Cahillane describes the subjects depicted in his new exhibition Work, Rest & Play.
Currently running at the London Irish Centre in Camden, the paintings – 20 in total – portray the rich history of being Irish in Britain and the sometimes negative connotations that can come with being second generation.
“My heroes are the trench men,” Cahillane says when asked about the inspiration behind his latest collection. “Growing up most of my English mates had dad’s in the army, but looking back now I think my dad went to war every day, working in construction when health and safety didn’t exist. There were men who never came home or those who did often came back with broken bones, lost limbs, blind…”
Cahillane, who own uncle died while working on railway construction in the 1940s, says it was his every day experiences as the son of a Kerry man growing up in 1960s inner city London that drove his desire to create this particular set of paintings.
“I wanted to record a window in Irish and British history that doesn’t stereotype the Irish,” he said. “I’ve painted these form memories and discussions.”
Everything from navvy tea breaks to children playing on the street is captured in his work – one also pays tribute to the Galtymore dance hall.
“There wasn’t a dance hall in the world bigger than the Galtymore,” the artist, who also teaches art part time in prisons said. “People came from all over to be there. I used to go and just look over the balcony at all the Irish there, young and old. I’ve made it a bit posher than it was in my painting but that’s like anywhere – when the lights come…”
And it’s this sometimes grim reality that shines through to reflect the exhibition’s title – Work, Rest & Play.
“They played harder!” Cahillane laughs describing the characters that have positively come to life on his canvases.
“People talk about negative history but I say if you continue doing this it’s as if you did nothing else,” he said. “We’ve been here over 50 years now and whether we like it or not we’re British of Irish origin – it’s about dual citizenship. It’s like a separate culture caught between two stalls. But I’m an Irishman. My blood and my heart is Irish. My first love is Ireland.”
Work Rest & Play, sponsored by Powerday, runs at the Irish Centre until April.
Among the guests who attended the official launch was construction pioneer Sir William McAlpine.