John Behan was born in Dublin in 1938, he now lives and works in Galway where he continues to vary his style of expression. Following his apprenticeship in metal work and welding, he continued his training at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin, Ealing Art College, London and at the Royal Academy School in Oslo. He exhibited widely and was included in major group shows such as the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, the Royal Hibernian Academy and the Oireachtas. Behan was a founder member of the New Artists’ group in 1962 and Dublin’s innovative Project Art Centre in 1967. He was a co-founder of the Dublin Art Foundry in 1970. He has been awarded many honours over the years and became a Member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1990, having been an Associate of the Academy since 1973. He is also a member of Aosdána. Behan was appointed to the Arts Council of Ireland from 1973 to 1978 and was conferred an honorary Doctor of Literature by NUI Galway in 2000. He has had many major commissions and his work is included in numerous private collections throughout the world, including Arrival, a bronze sculpture of a famine ship, with 150 bronze figures on deck and disembarking which was presented to the United Nations by the Government of Ireland in 2000 and is sited outside the UN Buildings in New York.
Behan has long been fascinated by boats and ships. With his long-running series of Famine Ships, from the large-scale National Famine Memorial in County Mayo to Arrival sited at the United Nations building in New York, to smaller table sculptures, Behan has consistently explored the relationship between our Famine history, and our present selves, the connecting factors being not just hope, suffering, pain, disease and despair, but also the inevitability of death. Behan doesn’t repeat himself and if one looks closely at each individual work, the ships and the articulation of the bodies varies considerably, as does the patination.
The Famine Ship has become a symbol of the aspirations, hopes and fears of those millions who were forced to sail across the Atlantic in the search of a promised land; a benchmark in our understanding of the darker side of emigration, the conduits of which were the coffin ships, within which human beings, ordinary men, women and children, were crushed together, deprived of an adequate diet and exposed to disease.
The sculpture Coffin Ship, was acquired by The Doyle Collection in 2010 and is currently on view at The Gallery in The Westbury.