|Possibly the first appearance of an Irish tinker in American culture.|
I have found what looks to be an ever older reference to Irish Travellers than in my first entry — all the way back in 1852, according to Baltimore’s American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, there was a performance called “The Irish Tinker.” It was performed in September of that year at the Baltimore Museum and Gallery of the Fine Arts on the corner of Baltimore and Calvert Streets, and starred Mr. and Mrs. B. Williams as Barney O’Toole and Edith. It was part of an evening of performance, the last of three, with the first two named “The Robber’s Hut” and “It’s the Custom of the Country.”
Believe it or not, it is possible to read the script for this, or a related one, online. The title of the online script is “Barney the Baron,” but it credits B. Williams as originating the role of Barney O’Toole, “an itinerant tinker from the Emerald Isle, seeking his fortune.” The author was Samuel Lover, the grandfather of Tin Pan Alley great Victor Herbert, and was, in his time, and accomplished novelist, songwriter, and playwright. The story tells of a tinker who becomes a baron when he wins a haunted German castle in a lottery, and there is a character called Edith in it, so I suspect B. Williams and his wife simple pared down the play to a two-person show in order to take it on the road.
There’s no overt indication in the text that O’Toole is meant to be understood to be a Traveller, but, then, the distinctions between the two groups may not have been settled — I find a story of Robin Hood published in the Penny Magazine from 1838 that uses the terms “Gypsy” and “tinker” interchangeably. The story describes the tinker as a “skulking adventurer,” and adds the following:
Such was the character of the tinker or gypsy then, and it is much the same still. These vagrants roam about–not, indeed, as they did a century ago, in bands of fifties and hundreds … — but in fives and sizes from hill to dale, and clout pans, mend kettles, repair china, rob hen roosts, and tell fortunes.
Which gives a sense of the sort of work a tinker did, and the sort of character he was seen as: Itinerant, criminal, offering to do odd jobs, particularly mending household utensils. O’Toole is itinerant — the word he uses for his traveling is “peregrinations” — and given to wild adventures, such as the one described in the play.
It’s important to note here that we now view Travellers as a distinct ethnic group, but the idea of ethnicity, as we now use it, is only about a hundred years old. Before then, an Irish tinker was an Irish tinker, and if he seemed to be of a different ethnic group, it was supposed maybe he was part Gypsy, and that was about the extent of that particular taxonomy. And so it gets a bit hard to discuss the subject in the 1800s, because they were imprecise in their own definitions.
Nonetheless, this gives us a chance to discuss the fact of tinkering. The profession, such as it was, was well-established by 1812, when the Edinburgh Annual Register ran a story about an Irish tinker in Scotland who was hired to build a still. In fact, we can go back much further than that: Robert Wodrow in 1830 wrote of an Irish tinker named Philip Garret who in 1677 had participated in an insurrection and gunfight in the Scottish West country.
We find the first clear definition of an Irish Tinker in John O’Brien’s 1832 book “An Irish-English Dictionary.” He writes, with some evident disapproval:
This Irish word ceard, signifying a tinker, a man in any base or low employ, is like a Latin ceardo, which means a cobbler, a currier, a tanner, a tinker, a smith, or like artisan, that uses a base trade for gain.
A decade later, in 1844, Johann Georg Kohl wrote a little of the life of the tinker in the spectacularly titled “Ireland: Dublin, the Shannon, Limerick, Cork, and the Kilkenny Races : the Round Towers, the Lakes of Killarney, the County of Wicklow, O’Connell and the Repeal Association, Belfast, and the Giant’s Causeway”:
The tinkers in Ireland, as elsewhere, are a nomadic race, but here they are always ragged and wretched-looking. “They are rowers, the tinkers,” say the Irish; and if you ask an explanation of the phrase, they answer “Rowers — that means they are always rambling about.” I suppose, therefore, that in Ireland the word “rower,” besides its common signification, is used to designate vagabonds or wanderers. The tinkers generally ramble about only during the summer, and are often accompanied by their families, like our gipsies. In the winter they inhabit little mud-cabins, upon some great bog, where fuel is to be had for little or nothing. Sometimes these mud-cabins stand empty on a bog for a number of summers; sometimes they are only built for the one winter, and fall to pieces when abandoned.
Mrs. S. C. Hall wrote of a particular tinker in Popular tales and sketches from 1856, Paddy the Tinker, who she encountered in a village in Surrey. It’s tempting to reproduce the entire story, but suffice it to say that he is at once treated as a picturesque character and as a disreputable one (“mend one big hole, make two little ones,” a local says with disgust.). But Hall offers this description of Paddy that is worth reproducing:
The first time I encountered my countryman was in the pretty village of Petersham. “Ould pots, pans, and kittles to mend! Ould pans wid the holes in ’em made betther than new! Ould irrons to sell!” The Munster brogue was so inveterate,the “oulds” so melodious, the “kittles” so Munsterish, that I rose from my work and saw “Paddy the Tinker” “streeling” onwards. The word I have used is awkward, but it is the only one I know that can express the leisurely way in which he drew his feet one after the other, not giving them the trouble to move up and down, but simply slide along, , as if he mistook the dusty hot Petersham road in June for the Serpentine in January. Paddy’s hat was of straw, and had once been white, but it was scorched brown; it turned up a little behind and at one side, and dropped considerably over one eye, so as to almost conceal an obliquity of vision that rendered the entire expression of his face very comical; his nose was a Muster nose to all intents and purposes–short, thick, and snubbish, the mouth altogether indescribable, and his figure and easy carriage conveyed at once the idea of a person who, though poor, was on excellent terms with fortune, and obliged the people he met to be on good terms with him; there was no mistaking his humour, as being good in more than one sense of the word; for his dress — it was unstudied; he had no two-wheeled furnace wherein to melt his solder, but his tools were ostentatiously displayed, hanging over and on his left arm, and strapped over his shoulder; along with a black or brown leather pouch, was a basket of the small-hamper species, covered over” the landlady said it looked like a small hamper of apples; but if it contained any eatables, I thought them most likely to be potatoes.
And so this is the sort of character Barney O’Toole, the main character in “Barney the Baron” or “The Irish Tinker” was. The play seems to have enjoyed occasional revivals in the United States: The Academy in Cleveland Ohio offered a production of “The Irish Tinker” in 1867 starring Dan Bryant, while Paddy McCarthy played “The Irish Tinker” in “The Irish Baron” in 1867 in New York. The play reclaims its original title, “Barney the Baron,” for a production in San Francisco later that same year, but then loses it in 1870, instead going under the name “The Irish Tinker, the Haunted Castle” in New York.
The last production of the show in America seems to have occurred in 1908, 56 years after the forst performance, when an excerpt from it was included as part of an “Irish minstrel show” at the Catholic Club in Jersey City. I can’t tell precisely what this is — it’s either a blackface show where everybody nonetheless performs Irish songs and sketches, or a show that uses the form of a minstrel show, including an interlocutor and two comedic end men, to offer an Irish variety show. Whatever it was, there were Irish-styled songs (“Is Your Mother In, Molly Malone?” and “Calligan, Calligan” are mentioned by the Jersey Journal), dancing, short comic scenes, and, of course, a sketch about an Irish tinker who inherits a German castle.
“I determined to make a start of it, and seek my fortune up the countrhy here,” Barney O’Toole says at one point in the play. I can’t image he, or anybody, expected the country would be America, and the fortune would last 56 years.