Irish-American Fashion: Tattoos

Samel O'Reilley's patented tattooing machine.

Sameul O’Reilley’s patented tattooing machine.

Irish-Americans like tattoos, which isn’t especially surprising, as Americans in general are maniacs for tattoos. I read a recent statistic that 40 percent of American households have somebody with a tattoo in it, which is tantalizing, as I don’t know who it is in my family. I saw my 8-month-old niece this past weekend, and I didn’t see any tattoos, but babies can be crafty.

Apparently, tattooing wasn’t much of a tradition in Ireland before the 20th century. Sure, the Picts in Scotland were supposed to be covered in tattoos — their name may literally mean “the tattooed people.” But there’s no evidence of similar marking on their Celtic brethren across the Inner Seas, according to tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman in an interview on NPR.

Additionally, the article interview points out that Celtic knot tattoos are actually American in origin. Not the knots themselves, of course — those are legitimately Irish. But it was Americans that started using them as permanent skin decoration, inspired by similarly ethnic “tribal” tattoos that grew in popularity on the American West Coast in the 70s, called “blackwork” in the interview.

I am delighted to discover that this tradition is Irish-American in origin, although not delighted enough to actually get a Celtic knot tattoo of my own. I’m a fan of Irish-American expressions of identity, sure, but I’m not going to get a Notre Dame Leprechaun on my shoulder either.

Instead, I want to explore an older tradition of Irish-American tattooing, and point out that Irish-Americans has a hand in the history of tattooing in this country. As an example, the first patent for a tattoo machine, dating all the way back to 1891, was Bowery tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly, an Irish immigrant.

Bowery tattoo artists tended to do a lot of business with sailors and soldiers, and O’Reilly’s clientele also included a variety of sideshow performers — because O’Reilly’s machine could produce finely detailed tattoos relatively quickly, he had a large hand in the creation of the sideshow tattooed man. One example: O’Reilly tattooed John Hayes, a performer with Barnum and Bailey who was a sort of forerunner to the blackwork tradition: He claimed to have been captured by Apache braves, who forcibly tattooed 870 images on him as a sort of torture; presumably the tattoos were vaguely Native American in style.

We can actually see some examples of O’Reilley’s work: Two of his other patrons were tattooed showpeople Frank & Emma deBurgh, and there are surviving photos of the couple.

DeBurgh, oh deBurgh oh have you met deBurgh.

DeBurgh, oh deBurgh oh have you met deBurgh.

Their tattoos are sort of a classic sideshow illustrated man type: He has a recumbent woman on his chest holding a banner reading “Forget Me Not,” while she has a recreation of the Last Supper on her back over the words “Love One Another.” The larger tattoos are surrounded by all sorts of decorative patterns and smaller tattoos, including some traditional sailor’s tattoos: As an example, he has a nautical star near his right arm.

While it’s nice to know that the full-bodied, very old-school carnival illustrated man is partly an Irish-American invention, the purpose of this article is to discuss what sorts of inspiration we can draw from this era for contemporary tattoos. And, thanks to Damian Shiels of the Irish in the American Civil War blog, we have some ideas.

Shiels looked at the the enlistment records of the New York Naval Rendezvous for July 1863, and of the 319 Irishmen who enlisted, 30 of them had tattoos. He lists them in this blog post, and I’d like to take a look at the most common and suggest how a modern tattoo enthusiast might be inspired by them.


It’s not surprising to see this one show up — it’s still one of the most popular tattoo designs, and for the largely Catholic Irish immigrant population, this could be a great source of comfort while at sea.

This is a tremendously flexible design, as crosses can have other symbols wrapped around them, or be draped in banners that read significant text. For Irish-Americans who want a cross tattoo, this is an excellent opportunity to explore the endless variations of the Celtic cross, which, at its simplest, is an encircled cross. Celtic crosses can be exquisitely detailed — sometimes with knotwork — or quite minimalist. A warning, however: The Celtic cross has been used as a symbol by both white nationalists and the Zodiac killer, so if you’re thinking about getting tattooed with a Celtic cross, do some research. You don’t want to pick a design that will misrepresent your worldview.


Another classic, sometimes with the word “mom” written below it, or, in a risky choice, the name of a current girlfriend.

This is an easy one to make explicitly Irish — a crown and a pair of hands turns it into a Claddagh (you can also leave off the crown, making it a “Fenian” Claddagh.)


This is probably one you should steer clear of unless you have a specific relationship with seafaring, and according to the Sailor Jerry website, the anchor symbolizes stability — it is sometimes emblazoned with words that likewise represent some stable aspect of a sailor’s life.

There have been some particularly Irish versions of this tattoo, including a number of logos designed for The Pogues, who has a taste for shanties and sailor’s songs.


Traditionally tattooed men seemed especially attracted to images of women — sometimes pin-up girls — on a bicep or across their chest. This is a motif that strikes me as being especially flexible — first of all, there’s no reason to be so particular about gender, so if someone wants to tattoo a saucy fella on their body, more power to them.

But, secondly, there are all sorts of Irish-Americans who would be ideal subjects for this tattoo. Looking for people from Samuel O’Reilly’s era: Pick a couple of characters from Gangs of New York, such as Sadie the Goat and and Dan the Dude. Something more modern? How about Texas Guinan and Owney Madden. All would look great rendered as folk art ink figures on your forearms.


Shiels spends some of his piece puzzling about the various numbers Irish sailors had tattooed on their bodies. He feels pretty sure about initials — they seem to be part of a long tradition of tattoos intended for postmortem identification, which could be complicated if a body washed up on shore. But why the numbers?

Some, he suspects, are numbers for fire departments, which seems a likely guess. Amateur fire departments were essentially men’s clubs in the era, and members were proud to show their allegiance to their department. Others might be auspicious dates, such as birth dates.

This is the sort of tattoo that can be adapted to whatever you want it to be. There are a large variety of Irish-inspired typefaces you can draw from, whether you tattoo a family name, an ancestral county, or a fate that has particular meaning for you. I also rather like the idea of borrowing from the amateur firefighter tradition.


This is likely the nautical star, a representation of the North Star, which was used in navigation. This tattoo is today primarily associated with the United States Armed Forces, so be cautious about using the traditional star unless you have a military background. There is also a tradition in the gay community of getting these tattooed on wrists.

However, there are people in the tattooing community who insist the star has an early history in Ireland, where it was found in Irish hospitals, although I cannot find any documentary evidence of this, and there is a green and black version of the star that is widely, and distinctly, associated with Irish-Americans.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.