There was an eleven-ton cheese. There was a replica of the Venus de Milo, made from chocolate. There was the world's first ferris wheel, designed by Mr Ferris himself. The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 was spectacular, a celebration of America's industrial achievements and a sign of the increasing global importance of the United States. And if all the industry and new-fangled electricity was too much for you, you could kiss the Blarney Stone. Well, a plaster replica of the Blarney Stone.
The 'Irish Village' at the World's Fair was by no means the first such attempt to sell Ireland's economic and tourist attractions abroad - and by God it wasn't the last. Since the Great Exhibition of 1851, housed in the Crystal Palace in London, industrial exhibitions had become de rigueur for that boastful mixture of capitalism and land-grabbing self-aggrandisement which characterised the Victorian world. Ireland's strange position within the British Empire meant that Dublin quickly imitated the Crystal Palace Exhibition, and staged its own 'Great Industrial Exhibition' in 1853. After the Chicago World's Fair Ireland was again to play the role of mimic with the 'Great White Fair', as it was known, of 1907, an event which Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, saw as the beginnings of a new, technology-driven, non-sectarian Ireland of happy workers. Nearly a hundred years later you have to admire the continual persistence of this hopelessly unfulfilled commercial utopianism.
The opening day of the 1893 Chicago World Fair.
By the time of the 1907 exhibition the pattern of fakery and kitsch was firmly set in place and a whole industry of replica Irish fair villages was in motion, mainly acting as a vehicle for and advertising the small-time economical fanaticism of a few philanthropic individuals. The 'Irish Village' idea seems to have had its origins in the 1888 Irish Exhibition at Olympia in London. This was not an unqualified success - the salacious Pall Mall Gazette, in an article ostensibly on the Jack the Ripper murders of the same year, complained that such exhibitions were becoming too violent; live Arabs seemed to kill live colonial French men, American Indians were roundly defeated by frontiersmen in wild west shows, and Irishmen did mock violence to each other in Olympia (all this symptomatic, according to the Pall Mall Gazette, of the social malaise which had led to the Ripper and to Burke and Hare). Whatever the good offices and intentions of those behind the promotion of Ireland through temporary and moveable versions of the actual place, the reputation of the much more ancient Donnybrook Fair was never far away. Even at the Chicago Fair in 1893 there was trouble, when a Union Flag was flown from the replica of Blarney Castle and a few hefty Irish-Americans tore it down.
The idea for the Irish Village at the Chicago Fair was not a new one, but it was pursued with real zeal by one woman who came to dominate the fund-raising effort and the whole Irish show.
Lady Aberdeen pretending to practise some traditional craft...
Lady Aberdeen was wife of the one-time Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Aberdeen. From early after her arrival in Ireland she had decided that the place needed a bit of taking-in-hand, and her solution to the problems of poverty, mismanagement of the land, sectarian violence and emigration was largely to lie in the cunning use of crochet and lace-making. Along with people such as the redoubtable Horace Plunkett, she was to become obsessed with the traditional cottage industries as ways of regenerating the Irish economy and Irish life. This was neither as mad nor ill-conceived as it might sound. Indeed, most aid agencies working today in the developing world encourage similar schemes where possible. Lady Aberdeen really found her métier, though, in the Irish Village, because here her sense of grandeur (partly her own) was able to take off. The results of her ambitions were startling. One contemporary journalist described entering the Irish village:
The main entrance reproduces in facsimile the doorway of a chapel built on the Rock of Cashel in the opening years of the twelfth century by Cormac, 'the bishop king of Munster.' Passing through this arched portal, its panels enriched with mouldings and heads in low relief, the visitor enters the cloisters of Muckross abbey, the original of which, a picturesque but melancholy ruin, stands hoar and solemn amid the most beautiful scenery of the lakes and mountains of Killarney. But here are no priests at prayer or study; no sound nor sign of devotion or of penance; for like everything else about the villages, these cloistered retreats are essentially practical. Opening the door of one of the apartments, we find here around a turf fire above which a potato pot is boiling, a number of men carving trinkets, furniture, and articles of church decoration. Thence we may pass to other rooms or cottages where various industries are in progress. In one young women are busied over lace and crochet work, as made in the cottage homes of Limerick and Carrickmacross; in another there is knitting and the making of a material for homespuns; in a third, embroidery; in a fourth the carving of bog-oak, of which there are many beautiful specimens. Elsewhere dairymaids, rosy and buxom, are showing what their deft fingers can accomplish with the aid of modern utensils and the milk of Kerry kine.
This weird montage of Irish life was full of living exhibits. The women spinning were specially chosen to be taken to Chicago from Ireland - Lady Aberdeen suspected that the men on her committees chose the prettiest girls rather than the best knitters. The girls, 'rosy and buxom' as they were, seem to have thrown the journalist a little out of kilter, because he soon loses his sense of geography entirely and forgets that he is in Chicago:
Passing thence across an open court we come to Blarney castle, built in the fifteenth century by one Cormack MacCarthy, a brave man and a strong, on a site where Druids held their mystic rites long before Saint Patrick and his white-robed disciples set foot in the land of Erin.
The entrance to the Irish Village with imitation Blarney Castle.
Its counterpart at Jackson park is a three-story building, set apart for the village workers; but for visitors there is a winding staircase, from the top of which one may creep to the battlements at risk of life and limb and there kiss the magic stone and obtain a view of Ireland in the form of a large relief map. But it is a prosaic structure, with little of the romance contained in the original, and especially is missing the creeping ivy on the walls.
It's as well the ivy couldn't be replicated, otherwise this might have been better than the real thing. The condensation of all things Irish in one place is a heady brew, and can lead to lost, maybe broken heads. In Lady Aberdeen's Irish Village lies the key to the origins of the mysterious Ireland of tourist board nonsense. The sadness is that what was actually being made by the 'exhibits' was what was meant to be important (not Druidic worship or the gift of the gab, bestowed by a temporary structure).
An Irish Cottage
The story goes that when the American President, Grover Cleveland, visited the Irish Village he couldn't be bothered to wait for the presentation ceremony at which he would receive his lace and Aran jumper. Lady Aberdeen was not to be deterred, though and, with a delegation of rosy and buxom exhibits, hunted up and down Chicago in search of Cleveland. They finally found him at the train station waiting to leave. And such has been Ireland's dignified relationship with the United States since.