Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.
Above: Offices of The Irish People 1865.
The holiday season is upon us, and while for many, this means family gatherings, mulled wine, Christmas markets and, if we’re lucky, tins of roses; there is no denying the increasing commercialisation of the season, which seems to begin earlier and earlier each year. While shops will undoubtedly be busy selling various bits and bobs this holiday season, many consumers have turned to the Internet to find the perfect gifts for their loved ones.
Thinking about the commercial element of the Christmas season in the digital age, as well as the wide variety of gifts available at the click of mouse and the great distances they travel to reach consumers worldwide brings to mind a bizarre incident that took place in the winter of 1863, long before the days of online shopping.
Seeking to raise funds to advance their nationalist activities, the Fenian Brotherhood announced in December of that year that they would be holding a week long ‘Irish National Fair’ in Chicago’s Bryan Hall, beginning on Easter Monday, 1864. Following their initial announcement, the writers of the ‘Irish People’ appealed to their readership to contribute items and artefacts that might be of interest to the many prospective Irish-American consumers in attendance. In the weeks and months that followed, unique and unusual pieces from all over Ireland poured in to the offices of the ‘Irish People’ in Dublin. Included in the lot were a number of curiosities from West Cork, including many from one Ellen Callanan, of Clonakilty, who contributed early and often in the months leading up to the event. Amongst the wide-range of items sent by Callanan were a number books, articles, and pictures, a ‘curious bone’ found on Inchydoney Island, the crowbar of a repentant bailiff who had used it during tenant evictions in the 1840s, and a pike that was said to have been used by one of the rebels in 1798. Donations that were of historical significance and family heirlooms with revolutionary connections were especially popular. Possibly the most unusual of such donations were a collection of two-dozen arrows that were claimed to have belonged to Fionn MacCumhaill, clay taken from the graves of Robert Emmett and Wolfe Tone, a bottle of poitín that had supposedly belonged to the rebel forces on Vinegar Hill and a griddle that they had used to bake bread, a piece of the Atlantic cable connecting the United States and Ireland, and one of Daniel O’Connell’s toothpicks. After a sufficient amount of treasures had been collected, an inventory of the various goods was taken and they were appropriately packaged for the transatlantic journey. In total, three large loads each containing thirty cases, were sent on to their final destination of Chicago. Although the goods arrived four days into the weeklong festival, they proved wildly popular with their target audience, who looked upon the cultural oddities and historical artefacts with wonder and awe. The success was also reflected in the final sale figures from the week, which in total had raised $54,000 for the Fenian cause.
So there you have it, some wonderful gift ideas for the holiday season or perhaps a starting point if you are interested in making a bit of extra cash on Ebay. Who wouldn’t be interested in a curious bone, a bottle of rebel poitín, or the Liberator’s toothpick?
However you choose to celebrate the season, happiest of Christmases to you and yours from the History Corner!