Documentary On One: The Tattooed Irishman

Pohnpei Image Name: Pohnpei
In 1830, 22yr old Dubliner James F. O’Connell found himself shipwrecked on the remote Pacific Island of Pohnpei. Over 13,000km from home, this was a moment that would define his life, but not in a way you might think. Clambering ashore, O’Connell was greeted by island natives brandishing weapons. Years later, O’Connell would write about this moment and how he ‘talked’ his way out of trouble by dancing an Irish jig. Brought into the local tribe, O’Connell was treated like one of their own, quite literally. He was heavily tattooed about the body as was the local tradition. He even married a daughter of a tribe leader leaving behind some Irish DNA on a remote Pacific island to this day. But Pohnpei was never going to be a lifetime home for O’Connell. His passage back to the western world came courtesy of a passing ship and by the mid 1830’s, O’Connell found himself in New York City as a freak amongst men.

Americans had rarely seen tattoos, and with O’Connell’s full body tattoo, he quickly gained fame – fêted by many as the first man to bring tattoos to the Western World. He became a seminal figure in the tattoo world and the first tattooed man ever on ‘exhibition’.

Taking advantage of his notoriety, in 1836, O’Connell published his memoirThe Life and Adventures of James F OConnell, the Tattooed Man’ and for the following two decades, until his death, he performed in the circus and freakshow circuit across the United States. He showed off his tattoo’s, regaled his story from Pohnpei – and sold his books. O’Connell tells of the reaction of people in the street to his appearance and of how young girls fainted when they laid eyes on him. Pregnant women were told not to look upon him for fear that their unborn children would be blemished with marks similar to his.

By 1842, O’Connell was one of the main attractions at Barnums American Museum in New York City. This museum was a live ‘freak’ show, with giants, dwarfs and those with unusual physical traits on show. The museum drew in up to 500,000 visitors a year – and O’Connell, the Tattooed Irishman, was top of the list when it came to live ‘freaks’. His tattoos clearly marked his body, whilst also marking him out from the rest of the world. He also built on his story by dancing the famous Irish jig that had saved his life years earlier. Through tattoos and Irish dancing, a showman had come of age.

By the time James F O’Connell died in 1852, it’s estimated that upwards of 20million people had seen him in person as a result of his years on the freak show circuit. It’s rumoured a hornpipe was danced on his grave as a sign of respect. O’Connell had remained a showman to the end of his days. And until very recently, there was a bar and a cocktail drink on Pohnpei bearing the name ‘The Tattooed Irishman.’

But just who was James F. O’Connell? And why isn’t he celebrated back home in his native land? Born on Thomas Street in Dublin on November 10th, 1808, this documentary traces O’Connell’s life from his childhood in Dublin to Pohnpei and across to North America. At times, fact, fiction and freaks fuse together to form what is a remarkable story that has come to be known as ‘The Tattooed Irishman’.

Documentary On One: The Tattooed Irishman is produced by Joe Kearney and Liam O’Brien.

Funded through the BAI (Broadcasting Authority of Ireland) Sound and Vision Scheme.

First Broadcast Saturday November 11th @2pm, RTÉ Radio 1
Repeat Sunday November 12th  @7pm, RTÉ Radio 1
Available online from Friday November 10th www.rte.ie/doconone