Second generation Irish woman paints the diaspora

Second generation Irish woman paints the diaspora

EMMA O'ROURKE is a London Irish artist working with the human condition, archival material and narrative.

A graduate of Wimbledon College of Art and with an MA from the University of Manchester in Museum Studies, she is based at Second Floor Studios and Arts, Wembley Park.

Born in Brent, her most recent solo show V E S S E L S took place at Willesden Gallery, NW10. The exhibition was inspired by Brent Museum and Archives where she has been researching the history of Irish migration to London, the mental health challenges faced, and the traditions and values passed down without explanation.

Her own family migrated from Portlaoise and Mayo with further roots in Kildare and Cork.

Emma speaks of a sense of displacement — not British but without an Irish accent — identifying with the Irish diaspora.



Emma’s art practice focuses on drawing and painting, delicately assembling often indistinguishable forms, an insight into her heritage, day-to-day life and internal dialogue.

Drawing is important to the work and something she has prioritised since the birth of her son in 2018,

“There’s lots of ‘in-between time’ as a parent to a young child but it’s always short lived so I’ve adapted to drawing fast and loose - it’s been very freeing. The aim is always to capture energy and emotion over an accurate representation,” she says/

Emma’s son features throughout her work, often as a figure layered on top of abstract forms - the past and the present coming together. “ The works highlight how we internalise our surroundings - porous people carrying our ancestors and exchanges with others.”
Women are a common theme in the exhibition, with references to Hagar, Mary, Margaret and Carmel, a mixture of biblical women and the artist’s friends and family — jigsaw pieces of the Irish diaspora.

Emma uses colour to hint at the 1980s landscape she was born into, placing particular importance on transparency and the layering of brushstrokes. The works on show merge internal worlds to create surreal yet familiar images reminiscent of growing up working class Irish Catholic.


Emma O' Rourke, VESSELS, Willesden Gallery, Willesden Library, 29th November 2022.
Photo by Amanda Rose/@amandarosephoto



Emma’s research into Irish migration to London has shown that housing was a particularly big issue and often dependent on income. Discrimination was rife, ranging from ‘jokes’ to repressive treatement. More than half of Irish born women in London had no qualifications (1988) suffering huge disadvantages in employment and housing but these problems were largely unrecognised.

“My nan (on my mum’s side) was one of these women and did everything she could to earn money and keep a roof over her family’s head. My mum grew up in Willesden and Harlesden but went home to Ireland every summer, like a lot of her friends,” says Emma.

The PTA was another additional stress on the Irish in Britain - directly shown in mental health research before and after the introduction of the Act in 1974.

“My dad came to England in 1985 and earned a living as a carpenter - he comes from a very large family and came to London with his brother for work. It wasn’t a glamorous existence and prejudices were pre-existing.”

Emma says that her work and research into migration has only just begun. If you have a story you would like to share or would like to know more about the work please get in touch at [email protected]