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  • St. Patrick Meets St. Louis:The Display of the Irish at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair*
  • Jeffrey O'Leary (bio)

A short time after the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair opened, a controversy erupted within the Irish Industrial Exhibit, Ireland's showcase at this venue. Members of the Dublin-based Irish National Theatre, who crossed the Atlantic to perform the works of Irish writers, claimed that the leadership of the Irish exhibit permitted the use of the stage Irishman persona in order to boost ticket sales. These Irish actors asserted that they received assurances from exhibit organizers before their arrival that only "Irish classics" would grace the stage. When these actors objected to negative portrayals of the Irish and refused to participate in further productions until removal of this caricature occurred, they lost their jobs.1 After a series of reports and editorials in the press, the organizers of the Irish exhibit declared that they were "sufficiently qualified to judge of, and to maintain what is due to the respect and dignity of, the Irish character."2 The paradox [End Page 142] of this response was that the primary individuals with oversight of the Irish exhibit were St. Louis-based American Irish who argued that their agency regarding the display of Irishness on this fairground was supreme and criticism by outside voices, even Irish ones, were mistaken.3

This article investigates the presentation of Irishness at the St. Louis fair as a mechanism of influencing ethnic-identity construction within the transatlantic world and explores how this fairground emerged as a unique site to mediate memory and commodify Ireland's heritage within an expansive American marketplace. I argue that this world's fair permitted the American Irish community to engage in oversight and presentation of Irishness within the public sphere to increase the commercial visibility of Ireland, its people, and goods with the intent of bolstering investment in Ireland to revive a floundering economy. What differentiates the St. Louis fair from other world's fairs regarding an Irish display is that this event was the first in which a coordinated effort by prominent American Irish business and civic leaders through an enterprise based in the United States, known as the Irish Exhibit Company, worked with an entity of the British Parliament called the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland (DATII) to ensure that the Irish exhibit came to fruition. The DATII, created by an act of Parliament in 1899, became the primary British institution that assisted Irish farmers and workers in the resolution of agrarian- and industrial-oriented problems in Ireland. By the start of the twentieth century, the DATII became an important body in representing Ireland at international exhibitions.4 Although Irish workers and performers appeared within the Irish Industrial Exhibit at the St. Louis fair to provide an authentic experience for its visitors, planning and implementation of this project occurred under the auspices of Ireland's descendants in the United States. The Irish, in fact, had [End Page 143] limited agency in how their heritage appeared within the confines of this world's fair.

World's fairs are sites that reinforce or contest notions of identity. In particular, these international extravaganzas provided visitors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with myriad outlets to absorb numerous constructs of ethnicity, including Irishness, and became social texts that commodified ideas of self and portrayed a manufactured reality for fairground visitors. This process within the Irish Industrial Exhibit at St. Louis relied on "performing" Irishness for guests who purchased a ticket to "visit" Ireland without leaving the United States. The power to control these performances and determine the environment in which ethnic remembrance occurred in the Irish exhibit afforded the American Irish organizers enhanced agency over their Irish-born brethren. My examination of the display of Irishness at the 1904 St. Louis fair expands Jeffrey Alexander's work on cultural pragmatics, with its emphasis on social performance and power, as a means of analyzing authenticity "as an interpretive category" that allows for greater comprehension of the dissonance that resulted from contested interpretations of Irishness.5 The episode of the Irish actors who expressed extreme displeasure about...


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pp. 142-171
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