Friday 23 August 2019

The strange tale of the tattooed Irishman

In 1840s New York, a Dubliner entertained the masses with tales of his capture by 'savages' and his extensive body art. Joe Kearney on his legacy

Irish jig: O'Connell dancing to appease the natives of Pohnpei to save his own skin
Irish jig: O'Connell dancing to appease the natives of Pohnpei to save his own skin

PT Barnum, the famous American showman and promoter, is believed to have coined the phrase 'There's a sucker born every minute'. In 1840s New York City, Barnum was proud to offer the public, as a headline exhibit, one Mr James F O'Connell, the Tattooed Irishman. O'Connell was born in 1808 on Thomas Street in the Liberties, and raised deep in the heart of the inner-city Dublin.

Years later, the public paid 25 cents to watch O'Connell perform at Barnum's American Museum. His was an audacious tale of being held in captivity amongst 'savages' on the remote Pacific island of Pohnpei. After being shipwrecked on the shores, he was forcibly tattooed all over his body and then married off to the chief's youngest daughter. He would strip to reveal his tattooed body markings and perform the Irish jig that he claimed saved his life. Earlier this summer I stood in New York, at the original location of Barnum's American Museum. I was researching O'Connell's life story, trying to separate fact from fiction.

Barnum's Museum burned down in 1865 but in its day it was the talk of New York. There was a flea circus, a loom run by a dog, the trunk of a tree under which Jesus's disciples were said to have sat, Ned the learned seal, the Feejee Mermaid (a mummified monkey's torso with a fish's tail), midgets, Siamese twins, giant men and bearded ladies. At its peak, the museum received as many as 15,000 visitors daily.

O'Connell is recognised as America's first tattooed showman - and a seminal figure in the world of tattoo. It's estimated that over 40pc of us now have tattoos, and the fashion began with O'Connell, who became famous after the story of his life was published in 1836. His autobiography reads like a Boy's Own novel and provides a record of an undisturbed culture on the remote South Pacific coral island of Pohnpei in the 1830s. The island lies about half way between Hawaii and the Philippines and is one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia. It's also about 13,000km to the east of Ireland. O'Connell managed to record ethnographic detail that would quickly vanish as European contact increased in the decades following his departure.

The son of circus parents, he writes how he went to sea as a cabin boy aged 11 on a ship carrying 200 female convicts to Botany Bay. Later, he signed on with the Whaler 'John Bull', sailing from Australia to New Zealand. In a bad storm the ship hit a reef and sank, leaving him in an open boat with five other men for four days until they finally sighted the island of Pohnpei.

Marriage ritual

There the locals took them captive and O' Connell danced the Irish jig that was later to make him famous. The dance may have saved his and the other men's lives. O'Connell had been stripped naked and was concerned when the islanders seemed interested in his blue veins and white skin. Tales of cannibalism were common at the time in seafaring lore. So he danced to save his own skin.

Initially, life was good amongst his saviours. But one day, without warning, he was imprisoned in a hut and over eight days was tattooed about the body by a succession of "voluptuous virgins". It took the Irishman a month to recover from his ordeal. A feast was then held in his honour. At the celebration, further tattoos were placed upon his body by yet another island "beauty". Later on, O'Connell realised that he was married to the girl who applied those final markings. He spent four or five years amongst the community and fathered two children.

We are unsure if he was subjected to the rite of passage ritual reserved for Pohnpeian warriors - the crushing of the left testicle between two rocks as a proof of pain endurance. He makes no reference to that. What we do know is he did not hesitate to depart the island on the first ship that moored close enough for him to reach with a stolen canoe.

In 1835, he arrived in New York City and quickly gained notoriety. For the next 20 years he danced, stripped and told his story up and down the eastern seaboard of the US, but always returning to the theatres and shows in New York, where he was guaranteed a receptive crowd. Audience reports and newspaper reviews from this time refer to the grotesque appearance of his markings. This has caused a number of writers and historians to dispute some of James F O'Connell's personal details. It is known that in Pohnpeian culture only the hands, arms, legs and lower body of men are tattooed. It is speculated that O'Connell's other tattoo work was probably added later to give him more showbiz appeal.

In the latter stages of his career, he worked for Dan Rice's Circus. In his autobiography Dan Rice writes: "In 1852 we travelled by my steamship on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. We got up the electric light to illuminate the tent… but a performer took sick and died from the effect of the chemicals we used to create the light. Many of the troupe took sick and one member, James O'Connell, who had weak lungs, died a short time after."

O'Connell passed away on January 29, 1854. He was 46 years of age. Even in death he was a showman. Maria Ward Brown, a relative of Rice wrote: "When committed to the earth, the band played a lively tune... Poor O'Connell thought that the transition from a life of privation and suffering was more appropriately celebrated by music and mirth than grief and lamentation."

In the world of tattooing and body art, O'Connell is fêted as a seminal pioneer. His story has been studied and interrogated by historians and anthropologists, many of whom have disputed large swathes of his tale. In my own case, I have travelled thousands of miles, studied records, manifests and ship's logs in an attempt to find the facts behind the legend. O'Connell had a gift that allowed him to invent and piece together his tale using real people, real places and real ships and than rearranging them into an order that suited his narrative. We know where and when he was born and we know where and when he died. We know he lived on the island of Pohnpei and was tattooed by female tattooists. As for the remaining questions throughout his life, some I've found answers to, some not - but either way, it's been a fascinating documentary to have worked on.

Documentary On One: The Tattooed Irishman, airs today at 2pm on RTÉ Radio 1, and is repeated tomorrow at 7pm. Also online

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top