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 memoir‘The Life and Adventures of James F O’Connell, 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 Barnum’s 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.