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.

Irish-American Crime Movies: Regeneration (1915)

Regeneration: Skinny is such a crumb!

Regeneration: Skinny is such a crumb!

Regeneration (1915)

Written by: Carl Harbaugh, Raoul Walsh
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Starring: Rockliffe Fellowes, Anna Q. Nilsson, James A. Marcus
Summary: Perhaps the earliest feature length gangster film ever made, but less about gangsters than poverty and abuse on the Bowery.

One of the first — possibly the first — feature-length gangster movies was about Irish gangsters in the Bowery. It’s called “Regeneration” and was lensed in 1915 by Raoul Walsh, the second film from the actor-turned-director. Walsh had recently appeared as an actor in “The Life of General Villa,” which was so true to the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa that it starred Pancho Villa as himself and was filmed during the Mexican Revolutionary War, incorporating real war footage into the film; Walsh played Villa as a young man.

I mention this because “Regeneration” has a similar sort of documentary sensibility. It’s based on a true story, a memoir called “My Mamie Rose” by Owen Frawley Kildare, an orphan who had fled an abusive foster parent in the Irish immigrant community in New York’s Bowery neighborhood, had spent his childhood as a homeless newsboy, had grown to be a boxer and a bouncer — in fact, he worked at a bar owned by Steve Brodie, a gambler who gained fame for supposedly leaping off the Brooklyn Bridge, and whose story Raoul Walsh would detail in a 1933 film titled “The Bowery.” At age 30, Kildare first learned to read from a school teacher he met, and, in less than a decade, he managed to turn himself into a newspaper reporter.

He filled out the cast and extras with real Bowery locals, many of whom, reportedly, were real gangsters and prostitutes.
Walsh’s film, based on a stage adaptation by Kildare and Walter C. Hackett, touches on Kildare’s troubled childhood, but focuses on the period in his life when he met the school teacher. It heightens Kildare’s criminal relationships, putting him in a charge of a gang, albeit one that spends most of their time gambling and “rushing the growler” — an image common in gangster films and almost incomprehensible now, in which children take buckets to a nearby saloon and return with it filled with beer. In the film, Kildare’s gang includes an especially scurrilous fellow named Skinny, who isn’t especially skinny and wears an eye-patch, so “one-eye” might have been a better name.

Except one gets the sense that there are already a lot of fellows named “one-eye.” Although Kildare’s story took place in the 1880s and 90s, Walsh made little attempt to place it in historical context, instead filming much of it on location in the then-current Bowery. He filled out the cast and extras with real Bowery locals, many of whom, reportedly, were real gangsters and prostitutes. A lot of the people have distorted bodies or features, including one significant minor character who is a genuine hunchback. In a fight scene at the docks, a man watches and laughs, and his nose is grotesque, bulbous and hugely overlarge, perhaps by rhinophyma exacerbated by alcoholism, perhaps by some other disease, but it is shocking. There are a lot of people in the film who are similarly damaged and shocking — even Skinny’s lost eye seems to be real, as, in one scene, he removes the patch and reveals an eyelid that has been sewn shut. The real life Pancho Villa has nothing on the Bowery denizens of the early 20th century.

And the children! There are so many, from flatcap wearing, shoeless street urchins running wild in the streets to babies just set on staircases, filthy and unattended. It’s something Kildare talked about in his memoir, mentioning that auto accidents were regularly killing kids when he was a boy, and there just didn’t seem to be any way to avoid it, because there were always great clumps of children just running around everywhere. They’re in the background of every shot, sometimes climbing on buildings like monkeys — in one scene, barely noticed, a child plummets off a building’s overhang in the background, a real-life version of the recurring falling child in the Yellow Kid comic.

Kildare is played by the elegantly named Rockliffe Fellowes, a minor film actor from Canada who had a handsome but weary face and deeply set, baggy eyes. His character has a streak of decency to him, interfering a few times when someone is bullied, and, although the film doesn’t make Kidlare’s background as a boxer and a bouncer explicit, it does show him as being pretty handy in a fight. Unfortunately, Skinny really is a louse — an early scene shows him casually throwing aside a match on a boat filled with revelers on a weekend dance, and moments later the boat is engulfed in flame. (This scene is echoed years later in the 2001 film “Made” to show that Vince Vaughn’s wanna-be gangster character is likewise a crumb, which is either a deliberate if obscure callback or filmmakers just see incautious smokers as villains.) Skinny kidnaps the film’s school teacher, played by a famously beautiful Swedish actress named Anna Q. Nilsson. Kildare goes to her rescue, leading to some impressively wild action scenes, including a massive brawl in a cavelike basement, Kildare leaping through a skylight like Batman, and Skinny attempting his escape by climbing along clothes lines that seem to be hundreds of feet in the air. Spoiler: He winds up like the falling child from The Yellow Kid.

As gangster films go, “Regeneration” is inchoate. There are the sorts of things you would see in later gangster films, such as a District Attorney declaring war on the mob (he doesn’t ever really get around to it) and battles between the police and gangsters (impressively, one stops an escape attempt by flinging his nightstick at a fleeing villain — Skinny, to be exact — knocking him down from a distance.) But “Regeneration’s” mobsters don’t seem especially organized, nor do they seem to commit any crimes, unless getting drunk and gambling was a crime in the Edwardian Bowery, which I doubt. No, they’re not so much a mob as they are a gang of friends, underemployed and morally underdeveloped, but without any criminal industry.

Kildare and his gang dress in ragged suits and mostly hang out in the streets or in dank basements, sometimes literally sitting side-by-side with fly-covered alcoholics.
It’s hardly surprising, as, in fact, Kildare didn’t have a lot of experience with that — as far as I can tell, the character Skinny and the melodramatic kidnapping were fabricated to add drama to the story. Additionally, considering the fact that this may be the first gangster film ever made, nobody had yet figured out that audiences like seeing gangsters gangster. So the film ignores the frisson of pleasure later crime films would mine by showing how criminals commit crimes, and spends most of its time showing Kildare and his men being layabouts and the school teacher helping people in need in the Bowery.

Additionally, the film barely hints at what later mob films would take great pains to stage: The idea that mobsters are comers, using their crimes to boost themselves beyond their station in life. Later gangsters would dress gaudily and travel through a gangster social circuit that seemed a parody of high society. Kildare and his gang dress in ragged suits and mostly hang out in the streets or in dank basements, sometimes literally sitting side-by-side with fly-covered alcoholics. They do enjoy a show, though: A long sequence has them attend a variety act in the Bowery, where they angrily fling rotten food at a performer they dislike; it’s hard not to wonder, as did the Penguin in “Batman Returns,” why there is always someone who brings eggs and tomatoes to a speech?

Nonetheless, this is a film that makes a case that socially minded gangster films would later take up: That people take the opportunities that are offered them. With no education and no responsible employment opportunities, people will find the sorts of jobs that the ignorant and irresponsible can do. Some of these will be brutal — Kildare’s career before he learned to read relied entirely on his ability to hurt others — and some will be criminal. And simply teaching somebody to read may not be a perfect answer, but it helps, and Kildare was proof of that, at least for a while.

The real Kildare proposed marriage to the schoolteacher who had educated him, and she accepted, and died of illness almost immediately afterward. Kildare was reportedly traumatized by her death, and further traumatized when his stage adaptation of his memoir failed to be a hit. He experienced a fast mental decline — some speculated it was the results of disease or injury from his early years — and he died in a mental asylum in 1911.

It’s a somber button to put on this story, and, although “Regeneration” includes the wife’s death (after a fashion), it ignores Kildare’s, who had just passed away a few years before filming began. It’s likely Raoul Walsh was attempting to keep the optimism of Kildare’s story, which the author saw as a miracle story, telling of his near-impossible rise from hopeless circumstances. And, for a while, it was. But life isn’t a simple morality tale, and learning to read may be able to get someone a better job, but it will not protect them from murderous heartbreak, or from the ravages of disease of the toll of physical abuse.

Kildare was briefly rescued from his circumstances — regenerated, as the title says — but in 1915, when the film was made, the same destructive slums that took its toll on Kildare still existed, the same casual criminality abounded, the same destructive alcoholism and degenerative diseases still abounded, the same masses of feral youth still roamed the street, and so Kildare’s escape from the slums was just a reprieve. This is all documented in the film — it is literally visible on the screen. His experience in the slums likely killed him, and they continued to kill, and they continued to breed lawlessness long after “Regeneration” was released. After all, the film was made in 1915. The Golden Age of the gangster, the 1920s, was still ahead.