- 09 Nov 23
He was wrenched from his biological mother and father immediately after he was born, and dumped in a religious institution that masqueraded as an orphanage. Brutally neglected there for over three years, his luck was in when a 47 year-old woman realised that she was never going to have a child and chose him as her only son. From winning scholarships, through working with underground magazines like Oz and International Times, to discovering the truth about his family, he has since led a truly remarkable life. It has all come together brilliantly in the powerful and controversial paintings that will be seen in Bernard Canavan’s first, and potentially climactic Dublin exhibition, titled Theocracy.
Bernard Canavan is talking and I am listening attentively. For good reason. He has, it is emerging as he sifts through the memories of his childhood, an extraordinary story to tell.
Bernard is speaking to me by video-link from London. I am in Dublin – but I am being transported, as if by Time Machine, back to a place that may feel very different but is still desperately familiar. For it is Ireland of which Bernard speaks. Ireland in the dark ages. Not so long ago.
Bernard Canavan is an artist. He is about to have his first ever exhibition in Dublin. Titled ‘Theocracy’, it deals, in starkly brilliant visual terms, with the vice-like grip, in which the Catholic Church held Irish society for so long. So what is behind this remarkably vivid collection of paintings? The recording devices are rolling. Let’s find out...
DOWN THE SEWERS
Bernard Canavan was born in Ireland in 1944. That wasn’t his birth name. As a newborn child, Bernard was taken away from his young parents and dumped in an orphanage. It didn’t matter that his pregnant mother and her then-boyfriend had decided to marry. A child born out of wedlock, Bernard explains, was seen as a physical representation of sin. The young parents had to be punished and they were. The child was stolen from them. It happened again and again, to people all over Ireland.
“They got rid of parents,” Bernard explains of the Roman Catholic clergy of the time, “by keeping a perpetual anxiety going about shame in the community. Everybody was supposed to be shamed.”
Punishment of sinners was only one part of what was also a business enterprise for the nuns who ran the orphanages. Children were seen as commodities, extra revenue streams. The nuns had a beady eye on the bottom line.
“There were four or five different ways the Church could make money out of these orphans,” Bernard says. “That’s why they had to get rid of their parents. They could, for example, lend me to a British drug company to test out drugs on me. If I died, I could be buried in a corner of the high walled convent garden, or I could be put down the sewers as they were in Tuam, in Co. Galway.”
Even where cases of premature death were concerned, the bodies of children remained valuable assets to the religious orders that ran the institutions.
“At the time,” Brendan explains, “two fine teaching hospitals in Dublin depended upon a regular supply of cadavers from the orphanages.”
It is a black subject, dark and horrible. Bernard pauses to think about what he has just said. Calling these institutions orphanages, he notes, can be misleading. The majority of these kids’ parents were still out there, alive and – in many cases – futilely wondering exactly where their children might be now.
“Everybody had a living father and mother,” he says. “Well, I was stripped of them. So I didn’t know who I was.”
Try saying it with emphasis: I – didn’t – know – who – I – was.
“Think about the implications of that,” he adds, “not to know who you are. You don’t even know what a mother is because you never had one in your life.”
The memories of neglect – and the despondency he felt when he was incarcerated in the institution – are firmly imprinted on Bernard’s mind.
“You had these women in black outfits,” he recalls. “They called themselves the Brides of Christ, but they never taught us anything. We weren’t even taught prayers or nursery rhymes. We knew nothing. And I knew nothing about anything. I hadn’t even learned how to stop wetting the bed.”
Inevitably, that is an especially painful memory.
“They had ‘skivvies’ – domestics who did the cleaning – who used to come in in the morning to throw out the bedclothes and the mattresses on a sunny day and let them dry,” he recalls. “I didn’t know anything about it. Nobody ever said to me: ‘Listen, if you don’t wet the bed, we’ll give you a sweetie in the morning’ or something like that. No one made any effort to help me.”
GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY
Notwithstanding the degrading, and deeply damaging, treatment he received at the hands of the nuns during his first three and a bit years on the planet, Bernard considers himself lucky. But only because he was “saved” – his term – by a woman who would become a hugely important figure in his life.
Margaret Canavan was born into an Irish family living in Argentina. Following the death of her father, she came to Longford. She graduated from the Convent of Mercy Secondary School in Moate in 1918. It was while there, Bernard believes, that she may have got an inkling of at least some of the things that went on in Mount Carmel Industrial School for Girls, which was connected to the school.
At 47 years of age, Margaret realised that she was never going to have a baby herself, and decided to adopt a child. It was far from straightforward. In fact it is almost as if there was a conspiracy to keep orphaned children under lock and key – unless, of course, they could be sold to the Americans who were sent to Ireland for children to adopt. This too was a business venture for the religious orders.
“It was explained to my mother that I could never be adopted because there was no adoption in the new constitution,” says Bernard. “So this couple actually paid for me on a private contractual basis, as if you were buying a pig or a cow.”
The new-fangled Constitution of Ireland was ratified on 1 July 1937, and became effective on 29 December that same year. Hailed by the Irish Catholic newspaper as “a noble document in harmony with papal teachings”, it was a pivotal moment in cementing the control exerted by the Roman Catholic Church on Irish life.
“Éamon de Valera gave the Church the instruments for controlling life,” Bernard argues.
The Fianna Fáil leader – and then Taoiseach – was a close friend of the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, and while he didn’t bow to the prelate’s every injunction, de Valera did allow him to participate directly in the wording of the constitution. The result was – in contrast to the secular constitution of the Irish Free State, introduced in 1922 – a clause in Article 41.1 which provided that, “The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.”
That so-called special position was gradually and aggressively reinforced by the Church, as it assumed control over as many aspects of the running of the country as possible, most notably including education and health.
These, of course, were the areas that offered maximum control over children, and what they might be allowed to learn. In effect, based on the privileged position afforded to them in the constitution, the Catholic hierarchy and the religious orders engineered a shift into what became a theocracy, Irish-style – with, as we know only too well now, utterly disastrous consequences.
“It was a kind of organised slavery in Ireland,” Bernard reflects. “If you were running a place of correction, the corrections would be in line with the corrections the Church would feel were acceptable. They controlled the hospitals, so you couldn’t get an abortion.”
There were aspects of it at which you might have laughed if it all hadn’t been so serious.
“We were obsessed with sex in Ireland, and yet at the same time, Christianity said, go forth and multiply,” he says sardonically.
“The church didn’t mind killing,” he adds, nodding in the direction of the close bond between the Catholic Church and the militant, armed nationalism of the IRA – featured already in his paintings. “Killing was part of the 17th century, which continued in Ireland, or really opened up in Ireland, because theocracy is the denial of modernity.”
LOOKING FOR MIRACLES AND THEOLOGY
Life as an adoptive child was always likely to be tough, given that shame was an integral part of the equation, when children were born outside marriage. This was particularly true in a small town like Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford, where Bernard lived with his new family.
“The stigma followed me,” he recalls. “The people in the town would hear about the fact that this woman had a child. ‘How did she have a child? She’s 45, 50’. They would say to my mother, ‘Where did you get him out of?’ As if I was a shameful product of sin.
“I didn’t ever mention that my real name was Power. Because it wouldn’t just confuse people, it would give people more openings to gossip, which is very important in small town life.”
Bernard spent a few weeks at a nun-run school in the town, before being passed over to the schoolmaster, who, as the husband of the local priest’s sister, was given free rein to treat students with viciousness and cruelty.
“Beatings were endemic in Ireland,” Bernard says. “Beatings were also part of the macho world of killing and the IRA and all that. So this was something that began to permeate the whole culture of Ireland. The master in the school I went to used to hang the children out of the school window, shut it on their jacket and leave them hanging so their parents would see them. It was part of the Irish world of shame.”
Bernard fell ill and was kept out of school for long stretches by his mother. Mrs. Canavan remained a strong and positive influence in his life. She understood how important education was and her passion for the English language made a big impression on Bernard.
“At four years of age, I used to be sent up for the newspaper,” he recalls. “She’d say, ‘Now read me the front page. Here’s a dictionary. If there’s any word that you don’t understand, I want you to look it up in that dictionary. Ask me if you still don’t understand it’.”
Bernard dates his life-long obsession with reading back to the schooling his mother provided, which in turn profoundly impacted his outlook on life and, inevitably, on art.
“As well as reading, in order to indulge me, they gave me crayons and colouring books,” he says. “I began to get good at drawing cowboys and gunslingers. I began to move on from that then to romantic artists, to paint like Caspar David Friedrich. People used to come in and say, where did you get these ideas? Because they were looking for miracles and theology. They were starting to see, now, that I was a strange boy.”
The limitations of small town life notwithstanding, Bernard’s artistic talents were starting to be recognised at a local level.
“I was on the radio, let’s say, three times a year,” he recalls with a laugh. “There was an art competition on a Wednesday, and they would read out who won. I would turn up on the radio – and that kept me in the public eye. It also made me think about drawing better. They’d send you a little box of watercolours. It was so hard to get brushes in the middle of Ireland, but I used to use a bit of cotton wool on a lollipop stick and use that to spread the paint.”
In truth, Mrs Canavan brought both peace and a real sense of direction to Bernard’s life. Other children were not as lucky. There must be moments when Bernard feels: there but for fortune...
He recounts the shattering story of the writer Peter Tyrrell, who died by suicide, following the years of abuse he suffered at the hands of clerics. In the Irish theocracy, priests or Christian Brothers could do not wrong – and so they perpetrated the most appalling things with impunity.
“In Letterfrack, they were beaten every day, and they were fucked every night,” Bernard says. “Peter Tyrrell had been abused there, all the way up till he was 16, by three different Christian Brothers.
“He went back years afterwards,” he elaborates, “and the State had a lawyer sitting beside the priest, who was running the place. The priest said, ‘If you say anything, or try to publish anything, or try to do anything that in any way undermines us, you’re a liar. Everything you say about what we did is untrue’.”
In 1967, on Hampstead Heath in London, Peter Tyrell doused himself in petrol, set himself on fire, and burned to death. The only clue to his identity was a torn postcard addressed to the Irish civil rights activist and Senator, Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, with whom he had corresponded – and who had made efforts to bring his particular case to light.
But the God Squad was very active in mainstream media in Ireland, and so the story – published in Hibernia magazine – was completely ignored by RTÉ and by national newspapers. Only much later would the bitter truth emerge.
THE HEIGHT OF SWINGING LONDON
Bernard Canavan left Ireland as a young teenager, travelling with his father to live in the Cotswolds in England.
“I had no qualifications of any kind,” he remembers. “I worked in a sawmill from eight in the morning till eight at night. I began to see what the Irish emigrant’s world was about. I didn’t feel like a social investigator, I just lived in it. I was living in a caravan. Sometimes we slept out if we couldn’t get a place for a night. It was a make-do world back then.”
On the plus side, secular Britain provided the opportunity for self-development, free of the looming, dark shadow of Catholicism. In Ireland censorship was commonplace. Even in the Cotswolds, there was far greater access to books, and therefore to new ideas.
“All the second-hand shops were marvellous,” Bernard says. “They sold top-shelf kinds of sex magazines and stuff by the readers’ wives. For half a crown, I got the eight volumes of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. What a book.
“All the best emperors persecuted the Christians,” he says with a chuckle. “All the worst emperors indulged them.”
Bernard cites reading Rene Descartes’ Discourse On Methods as a crucial turning point in his intellectual maturity.
“It totally switched me on to thinking about philosophy,” he says, “and about the excuses we gave in Ireland for the world we were living in – because we were living in a backward world.”
An autodidact, he earned himself a scholarship to Ruskin College in Oxford, later studying politics, philosophy and economics at Worcester College.
He returned to Ireland briefly in the 1960s, working as a marketing executive in Dublin, all the while improving his capabilities as an artist.
After two years in Ireland, Bernard returned to England, this time taking residence in London – where he still lives. He got freelance artistic work for a variety of underground papers and magazines, producing illustrations, cartoon strips and political satire for the likes of OZ, Peach News and International Times (IT).
“In making that journey, I migrated into the modern world before an awful lot of people did,” says Bernard. “A lot of people came from Ireland and made their lives in London. But they spent their time in pubs, because pubs were the only place where they could meet and socialise with other Irish people. They were always staring at the bottom of a beer glass. A lot of them didn’t really have the opportunity to think, because they were too busy earning to send back remittances to Ireland.”
At the height of swinging London in the 1960s, Bernard had arrived at the frontier of progressive thinking. Apart from the beatniks and hippies in the underground publications, he crossed paths with several influential intellectual figures of the time.
“I shared a flat with C.L.R. James,” he says. “He was a very famous black historian, who wrote The Black Jacobins, an account of the revolutionary impact of the French Revolution on Haiti. He was writing about the Renaissance, so I was learning more and more about art.”
No matter how far down the road he travelled intellectually, he refused to forget where he had come from – and what it had done to him.
“I’m never a lapsed Catholic,” he says. “A lapsed Catholic goes away and tries to forget what he was. I remember what I was – and I remember the excuses that people gave for the way they treated me.”
I KNOW WHO YOU ARE
In so many respects, by the turn of hte millennium, Bernard Canavan had come a long way since the dark days in the orphanage. Well established as an artist and teacher in London, he was also happily married with two sons. Yet, his origins remained a mystery. A very big piece of the jigsaw was missing.
It was only when his adoptive parents passed away that he felt he could start searching for that missing piece.
“The thing is,” he reasons, “you couldn’t be brought up by somebody and start looking for your birth mother when you’re with them. It’s just too ungrateful. But when my mother and father died, I was free to some extent now.”
Having embarked on the quest, Bernard hit several roadblocks.
“I went back to the town I was supposed to have been born in, Kilcullen, Co. Kildare,” he recounts. “I went with my birth certificate, the only document I had. It turned out that it was mostly fiction. My birth certificate is basically a tissue of fictions to hide the shame, because my mother was trying to hide the fact – the shame of the fact – that she had borne a child out of wedlock.”
After numerous dead-end phone calls, with institutional Ireland refusing to tell him the truth, Bernard came across a local councillor named Paddy Aspinall.
“He knew far more about the town than the town knew about itself,” Bernard says, “because that’s how you get votes.”
Aspinall informed him that he had once shared a cottage with a family by the name of Power.
“He said, there were three boys and there was a girl in the family. The girl had been killed in an accident, a crash. When I heard that, I knew I wasn’t looking for a woman who was alive. Because she was already dead.”
“In a way, I was relieved,” he admits. “I was relieved that she was dead. The legacy of being a nobody would make you happy that you didn’t have a mother.”
The Councillor informed Bernard that he had come across a person that might be of interest in Glengarriff, Co. Cork. He followed the trail.
“My son had just bought a computer,” Bernard says, “and you could, for the first time, find out who lives in a town and if there were any Powers there. I rang up and this woman came to the phone. I said, ‘My name is Bernard’. ‘I know who you are’, she replied ‘We’ve been looking for you for years’.”
Now in his 60s, it was the first time he had spoken to someone who knew who he really was.
“I felt: I am somebody, after nearly 70 years of being an anonymous person,” he says.
The twisted machinations of a disapproving Church, and its lay adherents, were exposed, as they have been for so many people in Ireland over the past 20 or 30 years, when Bernard was told that he had two half-sisters in America, part of an extremely wealthy family.
He was gradually able to put the pieces together. His biological mother, Helen Power, became a model in London in the 1950s. Her picture was all over the newspapers, magazines, and the tube in the very city he has called home for most of his life.
“She was sophisticated enough to move in high society,” he says. “She wasn’t educated, but she was a highly intelligent girl and she knew about the proprieties of bourgeois life. As a model, she was probably mixing with a new class of people, because she must have been primed, or prepped a bit, in order to get into that community – where she met the man who would eventually become her husband. She was quite an exceptional beauty.
“She married rich. But there was a row in the family,” Bernard says. “The man my mother married was having an affair and she divorced him.
“She knew nothing about Ireland”, he adds. “She was, in fact, English. She’d been to an English finishing school. In other words, she reinvented herself.”
The tragic circumstances in which she died meant that Bernard wouldn’t ever get to meet his biological mother. However, he has since been in contact with, and met his two sisters, who are both living in the United States.
VICTIMS OF SEX ABUSE
It’s only in recent years that Bernard has gained the plaudits his extraordinary art deserves. including powerful acknowledgment from President Michael D. Higgins for his contribution to Irish culture in the UK.
In his work to date, Bernard Canavan has captured so much of what it means to be an Irish emigrant in the UK. Now, however, the feeling is that he has moved onto a different level with the paintings that comprise Theology. This is his story. It is the climax he has been working towards. He is the canvas as well as the artist.
His depictions of clerics reveal the sinister aspect of how the Catholic hierarchy and religious orders operated. There is a startling painting of a bishop – his face shrouded in darkness and secrecy – holding a teddy bear in his left hand as he fingers a crucifix with his right. There is another of a group of nuns furiously digging a grave, clearly with the intention of burying the bodies of dead babies, or children who had been in their care.
These images may prove controversial, but they speak of a brutal time when the Roman Catholic Church ruled, and could get away – sometimes it seems literally – with murder.
There may be people who think that chapter is closed now and we should move on.
But try telling that to the victims of sex abuse, who are still out there, alive and grieving. Try telling it to the children who were at the butt end of the theocratic nightmare imposed by the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church on Ireland.
Bernard Canavan is not just a great painter. He is a truly authentic artistic voice, speaking for all of those people who were cast out in shame, who were brutalised and abused as a result of Theocracy, Irish-style.
It behoves us all to listen. And to learn this much: never, ever again…
• Theocracy, the first Dublin exhibition of the works of Bernard Canavan, takes place in the United Arts Club, 3 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin. It opens on November 9th. For more information,
tel: 01-661 1411