I’m not the first to think of this. This one is from http://mysmallobsessionminiatures.blogspot.com
This is a bit of an odd entry, but I find myself fascinated by dollhouses. I once went into a shop that sold items specifically for dollhouses and discovered it was possible to purchase a miniature box of condoms, and that’s when I realized it was possible to make a dollhouse version of anything. For a while, I considered making a dollhouse of my actual apartment, but then I would trash it, as though the doll versions of myself were slobby hedonists. It would be like a dollhouse version of Dorian Grey’s portrait, as though my pit-together real world were simply a masquerade covering for a dissolute private life, which would be true.
Lately I find myself thinking about making an Irish pub dollhouse. I have always wanted my own Irish pub, but am in no condition to buy one, so perhaps a tiny version will do.
I suppose one might start with an empty dollhouse room — those are easy to find — and then just start filling it with stuff. And there is a lot of stuff out there. I mean, whiskey bottles?
There is now, and always has been, a market for antiques. And if you’re the sort of person who wants to fill your house with Depression glass or, I don’t know, banjo clocks, have at it. There is a whole industry to support you, from fellow collectors to various antiques publications to Antiques Roadshow. Everybody seems to want a silver bowl made by Paul Revere, and let them go after the decorative stuff.
There is less of a market for what I will call historical collectibles, for lack of a better name. This is especially true of artifacts that represent regional or ethnic histories. I work in a historical society, and we discover with alarming frequency that whole collections of invaluable historical documents have just been dumped because it was assumed nobody would want them.
We Irish-Americans have to take responsibility for preserving our own history. One day, perhaps, there will be a really fine museum of the Irish-American experience, but, until then, our houses and apartments will do the trick just as well. Better yet: These collectables often serve as excellent decorative items, and conversation pieces, because they generally have a story associated with them.
Here is a handful of examples, but these are illustrative, and not merely intended as recommendations. My suggestion is that you do a little reading and find a subject that especially interests you. It might be a local Irish-American group, or a publication, or a specific person. Go ahead and search the web for an item that represents that person, or several items, or as many as possible. Congratulations: Your home is now a historical archive!
The history of Irish-American vaudeville and melodrama seems to regularly make an appearance on eBay, as demonstrated here by one performer from the era: Cork-born, New York-based actor Barney Williams, who was popular in the middle part of the 19th century, sometimes as a minstrel, and more often playing Irish roles. All sorts of memorabilia from the early days of Irish-American performance is out there, most of it under $100, much of it available for much less.
Properly titled the Century of Progress International Exposition, the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago is famous for many things: Fan dancer Sally Rand, an exhibit of baby incubators that contained actual premature babies, and a Homes of Tomorrow exhibit. It also featured an Irish village, the second time such a thing had appeared at a Chicago World’s Fair. Irish Village souvenirs from the 1934 fair are generally quite reasonably priced, 0ften coming in at under $10. It’s also possible to find souvenirs from the village at the 1893 fair, but those tend to go for more money, such as an Irish Village token now on sale for about $150.
Martin Sheridan was part of a group of Irish-American athletes called the “Irish whales,” all associated with the Irish American Athletic Club in Queens (and many, including Sheridan, were NY policemen.) Famous for their athletic prowess and ample girth (Sheridan himself won nine Olympic medals between 1904 and 1906). Irish Whales memorabilia isn’t hard to find, and, best still, it’s often low-priced.
One of the easiest items to find online is old postcards, and Irish-themed postcards, especially those meant for St. Patrick’s Day, are often both strange and hilarious. Even cards from the Victorian era will sometimes go for $5-$10, so fill an entire wall with them!
There are a lot of Irish-themed pinbacks online. I like this one, which is just like the one worn by Dick O’Connor to kick off his 1978 Congressional campaign in Trenton. He doesn’t seem to have won, so perhaps don’t use the button to forward your own political ambitions, or, failing that, look at other button options. You might even be able to find the earliest “kiss me, I’m Irish” buttons, which seems like it might have debuted at the 1965 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston, where it sold like gangbusters at an event that was otherwise marred by hooliganism.
How have Irish-Americans fallen behind in the kitsch arms race?
I’m surprised to discover that Irish-Americans have fallen behind in the arms race that is kitsch. I go into novelty stores and discover that a playful, ironic, pop-culture-obsessed sensibility seems to have colonized everything imaginable, from Bigfoot to fezes to hillbillies to Freud. But Irish-American content is in short supply.
How can this be? If ever there was a people who delighted in the ironic, the twee, and the popular, it is the Irish diaspora in America. But you’ll find shushing librarian bobbleheads, but not a single one based on Warwick Davis’ Leprechaun.
Now, I know I am misusing the word kitsch slightly. It properly describes tacky art that jejune sensibilities mistake for sophistication, such as plaster of Paris cupids and big-eyed Keane paintings. But there is no better word for the phenomenon I am referring to, which I suspect is a uniquely American one. It’s a sort of hipster nostalgia for novelties, plastic toys, and tacky collectibles that can be treated as objets d’art. It’s the sort of thing that is easy to dismiss as affected, as can be anything that is approached with an appreciation for irony. But I would argue that loving something ironically is nonetheless loving it. We don’t collect drinking birds and cheap nurse-themed romance paperbacks because we despise them and wish to mock them; we collect them because we love them despite their cheapness, their tackiness, their trashiness. One does not buy a pet rock to hate the pet rock; one buys the pet rock to love having it.
And so let me offer some suggestions for great examples of Irish-American kitsch, knowing it is in short supply, with the goal of encouraging more.
1. Funco Lucky Charms Wacky Wobbler
It’s magically bobblishious.
If there’s no Warwick Davis bobblehead, there is one for Lucky Charms, or, at least, there once was. Vinyl collectable figure manufacturer made one of the Sir Charms mascot a few years back, and they are still easy to locate.
2. Instant Irish Accent Mouth Spray
Ta tee ta too ta ta
Novelty mouth sprays are all the rage, and this one promises to give its user a proper brogue. Probably best as a joke, but only attempt if you can do a convincing Irish accent, which few Americans can — I think it has only been managed once by an American actor onscreen, and it was none other than Meryl Streep in “Dancing at Lughnasa.” Unless you have Ms. Streep’s facility with accents, perhaps steer clear of this.
3. Irish knit beard
This one is from Etsy, but there are a lot of these knit beards available online, usually coupled with a green hat.
4. Shamrock party lights
Party on, lights.
When I was younger, no self-respecting hipster was seen without party lights, and the varieties of them were uncountable: trailer homes, hot dogs, chilies, skeletons, etc. These shamrocks are nice, but the selection of Irish-American party lights is disappointingly small.
5. Finlay inflatable shillelagh
Probably not the best for fighting.
Few things have greater kitsch appeal the professional wrestling, and Northern Ireland’s Dace Finlay embraces this. His tights are emblazoned with a shamrock, he often waves a shillelagh at the audience, and he is sometimes accompanied by a little person dressed as a leprechaun. Among his branded merchandize is this inflatable shillelagh, almost literally deflating he purpose of the Irish fighting stick.
6. Green flamingos
If John Water made films about Irish-Americans.
There may be no more iconic a representation of kitsch Americanus than the beloved and reviled pink lawn flamingos. Well, it is possible to get them in green as well, which is just write for the Irish-American lawn.
7. Shamrock sunglasses
Green color my world.
Ordinarily, the sort of thing people wear on St. Paddy’s Day. Our suggestion: Wear them everyday!
In the Victorian era, everybody sort of looked like a leprechaun.
Lord, I know the Irish hate us Irish-Americans for our leprechauns. It’s as though everything wrong with the Irish diaspora can be found in these little green-clad men. And perhaps it is because the leprechaun perfectly sums up everything we get wrong about Ireland: We have taken a minor figure from legend and made him a symbol of Ireland, forgetting all the other myths, and we have made him the perfect twee, twinkling, tiny Irishman, a Victorian creature moved to our time without a hint of modernity. I can imagine that sometimes Irish people look at the American conception of the leprechaun and think, oh, there, that’s exactly what they think we are.
Like it or not, Americans have seized on the leprechaun and aren’t likely to let go soon. So it isn’t a proper Irish-American home without one of these wee men about, even if the sight of it will make an Irish person shudder.
But we need not be tacky about it. There are plenty of leprechauns out there that anyone might proudly put in their home, and here are a few of my recommendations.
1. Hellboy Leprechaun by Mike Mignola
Leprechaun by Mike Mignola.
California cartoonist Mike Mignola’s character Hellboy has had a few run-ins with this leprechaun, and, as is generally the case with his stories, the creature is at once stranger and more perverse than the leprechaun of popular culture. Mignola has not made this print available for purchase yet; the moment he does it will be going up on my wall.
2. Vintage Postcards of Leprechauns
Die cut leprechaun postcard.
If you’re looking at Victorian postcards, pretty much every fellow looks like a leprechaun — they all wear the green top hats and swallow-tail coats. As we move forward into the 20th century, the leprechauns become a lot more distinct and a lot more whimsical, and any one of them would look terrific in the right frame.
3. Draw the Leprechaun
Draw the leprechaun!
It’s likely that this will only appeal to me, but, when selecting a leprechaun, it’s useful to pick the images that speak to you. Here’s a little leprechaun cartoon that hopeful cartoonists were encouraged to duplicate to be accepted into a correspondence school called Art Instruction Schools. I have a long interest in this program, because both it and I are native Minneapolitans, and it has a secret history: Past instructors include fellow Minnesotan and “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz.
4. Bell Telephone Leprechaun
With 500 transistors!
This is a bit of a deep cut and is likely only to appeal to fans of early computing, but in 1958 Bell Telephone Labs came up with a computer for the US Air Force which they called the Leprechaun, perhaps because, for a 1958 computer, it was relatively small. Nowadays, if you can find one, it will mostly be a conversation piece, although if you can find a programmer that still knows the appropriate machine language, you might be able to program the thing to play a text-based, leprechaun-themed game.
5. “Leprechaun” memorabilia
Invite Warwick Davis over and see if it still fits!
While the “Leprechaun” film series isn’t terribly good, it’s hard not to be jealous of the collector who got his hands on this costume from the film, and, further, displayed it so well.
Nine Fine Irishmen in Las Vegas: Win enough money at the casinos and you could have something like this in your living room.
The last time I wrote about turning a home into an Irish pub, I focused on pub signs. But it isn’t a pub without a bar, and, moreover, it isn’t as much fun without a bar. If you’ve got quite a lot of room and quite a lot of money, you can do what many Irish pubs in America do, and actually buy a bar from Ireland. The most popular example of this is the Irish Pub Company, who Slate rather dimissively identified as being one of the guilty parties behind an explosion of “faux Irish pubs” throughout the world.
I understand Slate’s complain, and it’s easy to sneer at the inauthenticity of a business that builds antique-looking pubs (their styles included the “Country Cottage” and “Victorian Dublin.” But, then, I like these styles of pub, even if there is a whiff of Disneyland-style stage management about it. Whenever I’m in a new town, I go to the pubs that locals name as being “most like a real Irish pub,” and they’re always dives. I’ve never been one to mistake “crappy” for “authentic” when it comes to watering holes, and, besides, one you start arguing authenticity, you’re sliding down a long and dark rabbit hole. We Americans have always liked our Irishness to have a dollop of nostalgia and more than a dash of twee, and if these Irish-made pubs somehow aren’t authentically Irish, well, they’re perfect for Irish-Americans.
The real issue is cost: While the Pub Company says it will work around client’s budgets, those are typically going to budgets that range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and unless you’re an eccentric millionaire, that’s probably not what you’re ready to spend. So let’s discuss some other options, starting with the expensive and working our way back down to the reasonable.
There are others as well, such as the Irish Fitzpatrick Solid Mahogany Tavern from the King’s Bay, priced at $8,795 without shipping, but I still feel like we’re in eccentric millionaire territory here.
Far more reasonable, both in terms of price and in terms of space used is the Guinness Raised Panel Bar Set, selling for $1606. It’s the sort of thing you can tuck into the corner of a room or make the centerpiece of a basement rumpus room, and who would not want a rumpus room in their basement?
Of course, having a home bar is just one way to display your liquor, and if you’re on a budget, in an apartment, or just space-conscious, a bar cart might be a better option. As far as I have been able to figure, there are no specifically Irish bar carts online, but for an elegant deco model made by an Irish company that would look right in a Noel Coward play and exactly wrong in a home Irish pub.
My recommendation it to go rustic and do some home crafts. My tastes are for furniture that looks like it was built by a hobo out of wood saved from a fire, and, fortunately, that style happens to be popular just now, such as this industrial bar cart from Target. Now, if you’re taste is for the kitschy, paint the wood green, but the Irish have a tradition of painting their doors all kinds of colors, and any will do.
Even the plainest bar becomes Irish when you add in Irish beer, liquor, and barware. And, as the so-called faux Irish pubs have discovered, the real trick is to decorate with Irish bric-a-brac, and we’ll cover that in the next installment.
I’d like to suggest a decorating option that I work with every day: historical photographs. I work at a historical society just now, and part of my job involves tracking down images of old Omaha for people. Almost every historical society offers this service, as do many newspaper archives, often at relatively low prices. There are a few ways to approach this: You might collect photos around a certain theme, such as St. Patrick’s Day; you might collect photos based on a certain location, such as your home town; you might collect photos just based on whatever catches your fancy. I have a few photo suggestions to offer, and they are just what I fancy.
Let me offer a moment of warning before we enter the word of the Sheela na gig: As decorative motifs go, this one is rather rude. In fact, it is so rude as to be legitimately shocking, doubly so when you realize that these images are often found on Irish churches. I’d describe the image, but Wikipedia has already done so for me, and so let’s go to their definition:
Sheela na gigs are figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva.
There are around 101 of them in Ireland, although Britain has about half that number, and nobody really knows much more about them. There are competing, often contradictory explanations: That they are surviving representations of a forgotten goddess; that they were meant to ward away evil; that they are representations of the sinfulness of female lust. They may have come with the Normans, or they may have predated the Normans and simply been incorporated into new buildings when the Normans invaded.
My biological mother, Patricia Monaghan, preferred the goddess interpretation, writing of it in her “Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore.” Although she allows that many interpretations are credible, Patricia pointed out that there are per-Christian antecedents to the Sheela na gig, both sculptural and folkloric. Additionally, Patricia pointed out that the Sheela na gig “has been used in recent times as an image of women’s power by feminist artists in Celtic lands.”
It’s a bold aesthetic statement, to the least, but aesthetics, like fortune, favor the bold. So, for the valiant and adventurous, here are a few samples of contemporary artistic and decorative uses of the Sheela na gig.
Sheela na Gig is a popular subject for many amateur and folk artists — especially artists who are women. I include this example because it’s one I especially like, by a fellow Minneapolitan named Kathy Glover who passed away a few years ago. The piece is not for sale, but I think it is a superlative example of this sort of art, and so wanted to start with it, because I especially like the fact that this image has become a folk image, one whose meaning is determined by the artist. Glover calls her “The dark one who dispels fear” on the image, offering a new, and possibly very personal, interpretation of the figure.
Shakti Studios have done a very good job rendering a rather traditional Sheela na gig bas-relief sculpture as a small silvern metal pendant. A good piece of jewelry will invite comment; a great one will invite conversation.
I’m ribber and you’re glue; also, I may be a representation of a hag goddess
Haven’t we all had that experience where we are planning to send a letter, but the envelope just seems woefully bare, and we wish we had just the right stamp to add a bit of decoration? Well, problem solved.
I expect this is also intended to be worn as a necklace, and it would be a fine one, but I have another suggestion: Replace the cord with colored ribbon and offer this up as an award. For what? Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it? I’m not here to tell you what the Sheela na gig means.
Just the everyday housework of a sexually explicit ancient image.
I’ll close with an example of visual artist Nancy Spero’s use of the image, an installation called “Sheela na Gig at Home” that was installed at the Jack Tilton Gallery in New York in 1996. The New York Time soffered this short, but delightful, description:
In an installation titled ”Sheela (na-gig) at Home,” repetitive images of Sheela, in hand-printed cutout paper, share a clothesline also hung with various items of women’s underwear. ”I didn’t have a dryer,” the artist explains deadpan in an accompanying video loop.
John F. Kennedy portrait, a tradition in Irish-American homes.
If there is one single marker that once defined the Irish-American home, it was a portrait of one or more of the Kennedys. And of course. Jack F Kennedy may not have been the first US President with Irish ancestors — that would be Andrew Jackson, whose parents were Scots Irish who had immigrated to the United States two years before Jackson was born. But the Irish presidents who predated Kennedy were Ulster Scots, and JFK was Irish Catholic, from a family who migrated to America during the famine, and his father had come to power as part of a core of Boston Irish Catholic Democrats. And so, for many Irish-Americans, JFK was the first Irish-American president in a way that 14 previous Scots Irish US presidents weren’t. And so up JFK went onto the walls of Irish-American houses. In fact, he was popular enough that his portrait could often be seen on the walls of Irish homes and businesses.
Often, the image was the official presidential portrait by Louis Fabian Bachrach, pictured above, and it’s pretty easy to track down versions of this, or variations. But I’d like to offer some alternative suggestions. 1. “Flash – November 22, 1963, 1968” by Andy Warhol.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with Andy Warhol, whose obsession with the intersection of fame and tragedy led him to create a number of prints featuring the Kennedy family. The one above is just one of many, this one available as an inexpensive print from Art.com. 2. “JFK drawing print,” Daniel Medders
There are a number of portraits of Jack Kennedy on Etsy, unsurprisingly, so take your pick of whatever suits your tastes best. I rather like this pen drawing by Daniel Medders, which looks like an image that you might find in a 1960s underground comic. Most of all, I like Kennedy’s hair in this. God, it looks great. 3. JFK and Superman, Superman issue 170.
It is still possible to get issues of this comic, in which JFK asks Superman for help with his presidential physical fitness program. The issue almost didn’t go to print, as it was scheduled to go to press on April of 1964 and Kennedy was assassinated about a half-year before. Johnson requested the issue be published anyway, and so it was, as a memorial. JFK is not featured on the cover of the issue, so if you want to use it as a portrait of Kennedy you’ll have to frame the issue open or tear out the appropriate page — both suggestions would cause real comic collectors to howl with horror. Nonetheless, as portraits and as collector’s editions of comics go, these are relatively reasonably priced, ranging between $20 and several hundred dollars, depending on the quality. 4. “JFK’s Other Missile Crisis” by Nadia Khuzina
JFK had a reputation as a womanizer — made legendary by his reputed dalliance with Marilyn Monroe — and some artists enjoy highlighting his roguish side. If you have a taste for more risque imagery on your walls, satirical Russian artist Nadia Khuzina is responsible for a portrait that combines a leering Kennedy with an underwear-clad temptress that could have come from a 1960s pulp paperback or a James Bond novel, which Kennedy famously loved. 5. “John F. Kennedy Alien Hunter” by Jason Heuser
Artist Jason Heuser specializes in utterly mad portraits of presidents, including “Ronald Reagan Riding a Velociraptor” and “Thomas Jefferson Vs Gorilla.” So it is perhaps unsurprising that he put Kennedy, the president who created the moon program, on the moon. However, it is a bit surprising that Kennedy is riding a robot unicorn and has a knife in his hand. 6. Hipster Kennedy by Amit Shimoni.
There’s a trope that shows up now and then in films, and I love it. A scion of an ancient family takes another character for a walk around their house, and they pass picture after picture of ancestors while the scion recites the family history, and usually it is grim and strange. There is one in “Grand Budapest Hotel” and there is an astonishing collection of bullfighter portraits in “Book of Life,” and we should all be able to point at our own weird history upon our walls and tell our grim stories. Especially we Irish-Americans, who can claim a history as peculiar as anybody’s.
I’d like to start by suggesting that you just go ahead and get portraits painted of your ancestors and dedicate a wall to them, or even an entire wing of your house. Just find an artist, or several artists, whose work you like and commission them, although this can be a pricey affair — a commissioned portrait can cost anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the artist. Of course, if you want to do it on the cheap, there are tricks as well — like big corporations, you can outsource your portraits to foreign artists, who can often turn an image around quickly and for just a few dollars.
But I’m not here to tell you how to exploit foreign labor, but instead how to represent your Irish family tree best. And there are a lot of options here.
The simplest is to just purchase a blank family tree and have someone who knows calligraphy to write in the names of your family members. There are a lot of options for this sort of family tree, and below are a few I especially like.
This one, from RaymonTroup, is a literal tree. If you’re going to have somebody add the names in calligraphy, I would recommend tracking down someone who knows how to do the Irish uncial alphabet or a variation — you know the sort, as it will look something like this:
I’ve been seeing a lit of family tree picture frames lately, and they’re nice, but if you have photos of old family members, plus a few things that belonged to them, I think we can go one step better. I give you shadow boxes of family members. Here is a nice example:
This is for the craftier person, but coupling images with physical objects will offer a fuller portrait of your ancestors than just photos alone. If you don’t have any items they left behind, you may have to do some digging, but if you know anything about your ancestor’s life, there is probably something you can find. For instance, one of my biological grandfathers was a salesman for an industrial cleanser called Gunk. Turns out their old containers were terrifically well designed and easy to find on auction sites. And so, should I want to put together a letterbox for that grandfather, I have a starting point.
Once you have some portraits, or photos, or letterboxes, you may now want to really make a wall out of it. There are dozens of tree-like wall decals intended just for this purpose, and they are visually striking:
Of course, a tree is just one way to represent your family line. There’s also a design called the bow tie, where each of your ancestors branch away from you horizontally — here’s an example of this being done with photographs:
Sooner or later, your family tree is going to get back to Ireland, and here you may want to make use of motifs representing your heritage. Many family names have crests or coats of arms associated with them, although this steers into nonsense — unless you know for a fact that your family is the one given the coat of arms by the Irish College of Heralds, even if you share the name on the coat of arms, it isn’t really yours to use.
Perhaps a better choice would be regional flags, symbols, and coats of arms. The various counties in Ireland all have their own coats of arms, and it would be completely appropriate to pair these with family members who came from those area. I have ancestors from Meath, as an example, and they have a marvelous coat of arm featuring a fish, a crown, and what looks to be a hypno-wheel, and who wouldn’t want that on their wall?
However you choose to represent it, the family tree is many Irish-Americans’ most direct connection with Ireland, telling them who came from where, and when and why. There are a lot of ways to represent it, and there is enormous room for creativity here, but, in the end, they all tell the same story: It’s your piece of the tale of a massive movement of people from one place to another, and the development of a diaspora. It’s how you fit into the story. It’s a map of your part of history.
There was a genre of art that developed in Los Angeles in the 1970s called “Lowbrow,” and a parallel art form called Pop Surrealism. Both borrow heavily from popular culture, both draw their artistic influences from underground comix, tattoo artists, and the punk scene, among other vaguely disreputable influences. It’s the first art I started collecting, thanks to quite a few years spent in LA in my early 20s, as well as a lifetime love for popular culture. And lowbrow artists touch on Irish themes with surprising frequency, so I thought I would offer a few samples of Irish-American lowbrow:
This one is stretching the definition of lowbrow art a bit — properly, Lewis is an American Contemporary Realist Artist. But Lewis also makes regular appearances in Juxtapoz, the sort of official organ of the lowbrow movement, and this piece works so well with the others I have selected, that I am including it.
I generally turn to Etsy to satisfy my need for twee, but it’s hard not to like the grotesque underground comix sensibility that has this angry Old Scratch peering at a clock while nymphs sob around his throne.
But, oh no, here it is, the twee. This could be one of those album covers for Blue Note jazz that Jim Flora did, and somehow it seems so right when applied to one of the deadliest breakfasts ever concocted.