Documentary On One: The Tattooed IrishmanBy Joe Kearney
A year ago if anyone had asked me who brought tattooed body art to North America I’d have been at a loss to answer the question.
The last person I would have given credit for that achievement would have been a nineteenth-century Dublin man named James F. O’Connell.
However, today I know better.
Over the past year, I've been making a radio documentary on James F. O'Connell (Documentary On One: The Tattooed Irishman) In the 1830’s this young man from Thomas Street in Dublin’s Liberties was the sensation of New York City when he displayed his heavily tattooed body to the public. Up to that time, minor body markings might have been glimpsed on perhaps the hands or forearms of sailors and convicts. This was different. O’Connell’s tattoos covered his torso, arms and legs. But it was not just the markings that intrigued the public, the main attraction was the story behind how he had acquired these strange designs.
When I learned of James O’Connell’s story last year I was immediately intrigued. How could someone so seminal and pioneering in what has become the ultimate fashion accessory in the developed world be unknown in his country of origin? I have always been attracted to a good story and this one got a hook into me from the start. In 1836, he published his autobiography. He was only 28 years of age but, by that time, had experienced such adventure to warrant its immediate popularity. The Dubliner wrote about how he had gone to sea as an 11 year old cabin boy on a voyage to Australia, how he had been shipwrecked many times and at at the age of 21 was washed up on a remote coral island in the Pacific. There he was forcibly tattooed by a series of ‘voluptuous virgins’ over an 8 day period and lived amongst ‘savages’ until his dramatic rescue some 5 years later. Although O’Connell is unrecognised on this side of the Atlantic his story has fascinated academics and anthropologists for decades. I became aware that many elements of his book have been hotly disputed and this further led to my interest in the man.
In an effort to separate fact from fiction, I followed O’Connell’s story from Dublin’s Liberties to Liverpool and London. From there, his trail led me to Australia and to the small Pacific island of Pohnpei. In The Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC and the P.T. Barnum Museum in Connecticut, more layers of his story began to emerge. O’Connell toured the circus and freak show circuits of the Eastern seaboard of the United States telling his tale and displaying his tattooed body until his death in 1854. He attracted large audiences who were intrigued by the adventure he revealed. But it seemed there was a darkness in his past that he covered up. The suspicions of researchers and academics could never be proven, even though many dug deeply into his life over the years.
Sometimes, when a thing is hidden in plain sight it is less likely to be uncovered. This has been the case with James F O’Connell, The Tattooed Irishman. The truth behind his life story was staring everyone in the face, and this documentary reveals what was so obviously overlooked and what he had gone to such pains to hide.
Documentary On One: The Tattooed Irishman is produced by Joe Kearney and Liam O'Brien andfunded 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