Times Past with Brian Gabriel Blarney & District Historical Society

Kissing Chicago’s Blarney Stone

The World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair), held at Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance in 1893, was a spectacular event, a celebration of America’s industrial achievements and her increasing global importance. There were over 250,000 displays. There was an eleven-ton cheese, a replica of the Venus de Milo made of chocolate, every industry imaginable and every new invention, powered by electricity. There were 21,480,141 paid admissions. Almost twenty six million persons attended. Forty-six nations participated. The Exposition cost $28,340,700 and it took the world’s first Ferris wheel to ensure that the Fair was saved from ultimate bankruptcy. In the midst of all, were two Irish Villages, a replica Blarney Castle, a half-sized Donegal Castle and the opportunity of kissing the Blarney Stone. The stone was the pièce de résistance, the main attraction of the Irish Industrial Village – a celebration of Irish art and industry which owed its place at the Fair to the enthusiasm of Lady Aberdeen, wife of a former Viceroy of Ireland (1886), John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon. She was Ishbel Marjoribanks, born in Scotland in 1857, author, philanthropist and advocate of woman’s interests. If the described representation of Blarney in Chicago seems tacky today, it must be remembered that the symbolic castles had been chosen over many possible options in order to sell Ireland to best advantage in the America of 1893. It follows that the representations were somewhat contrived. Fifteenth century Blarney Castle (the castle of the strong, the brave, Cormack McCarthy, built upon a spot where Druids made magic long before Saint Patrick’s time) was all about pageantry and, in this case, capitalism. The Fair’s portrayal of Blarney was the best fit for a financial niche in contemporary Chicago. The ‘Irish Industrial Village’ at the World’s Fair was by no means a first, nor would it be the last attempt to sell Ireland’s economic and tourist attractions abroad. The concept of an ‘Irish Village’ was born in an Irish Exhibition at London’s Olympia in 1888. Ireland’s position within the British Empire meant that Dublin had already imitated, in 1853, Britain’s Great Industrial Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in 1851. After the Chicago World’s Fair, Ireland would again display her wares with her own International Exhibition, the ‘Great White Fair’ in Herbert Park, Dublin in 1907. Approaching the Irish Industrial Village in Chicago, one entered a church-like doorway, a copy of that built on the Rock of Cashel by another Cormac MacCarthaigh, the twelfth century bishop, King of Munster. Through its panels, enriched with mouldings, and heads in low relief, the visitor reached the cloisters of a facsimile Muckross Abbey, the retreats of which were here designed for practicality rather than for prayer. Opening the door of the first apartment, the visitor met with a handsome turf fire over which a pot of wholesome potatoes boiled merrily. Roundabout, men carved furniture, trinkets and articles of church decoration. The visitor progressed through a number of other rooms or cottages in which various industries could be viewed in application. Lovely young ladies, hand-picked in Ireland, spun yarn and busied themselves with lace-making, Aran knitting and crochet work. There were exhibitions of embroidery and bog-oak carving of which there were many fine examples. There was singing, harping and poetry. Three young dairy-maids, namely Johanna Doherty, Kate Barry, and Maria Connolly, graduates of the Munster Dairy School, transported the attendant news reporters from this heartland of American industry to an imaginary Ireland as they cooked up a treat with deft fingers and modern kitchen utensils. Their Alma Mater was described for an American audience as ‘an excellent institution near Cork, where all branches of scientific agriculture are taught, to the great benefit of the people’. But most acclaimed was the three-story building, set apart from village labours. The replica Blarney Castle enjoyed wonderful success, albeit the Union Jack flying from the top was quickly torn down by a number of hefty Irish-Americans. Fathers and forefathers of so many, who flocked to see the exhibit, had left Ireland, directly or indirectly, as a result of Ireland’s Great Famine. The name of Ireland, and all that it stood for, continued to infuse them with intense emotion. This Irish village with its replica castle and Blarney stone were as near as most of them would ever be to touching the sod and discharging their pain. They entered by a winding staircase, from the top of which they crept onto the battlements, risking life and limb, to kiss the magical stone, their experience in no way diminished by the fact that the stone was constructed of plaster cast. The visitors looked down and saw beneath them, laid out in impressive fashion, a full view of Ireland in the form of a large relief map. Every kiss cost just 10c. It was reported that from $50 to $60 dollars/day was being taken by the boy in homespun who collected the coins. The ivy on the old castle walls could not, of course, be reproduced at short notice but, nevertheless, there was considerable justice done to the grand old edifice of Blarney. Had there been time to reproduce some greenery, the romance and pageantry of the occasion might have equalled if not surpassed a trip to dear old Ireland for those second generation Irish-Americans who came to kiss the Blarney Stone and took away its charm.

The above article written by Ms. Myra D. Kavanagh, MSc., and was published by Blarney and District Historical Society in ‘Old Blarney’ Journal Issue 10. She has a long standing interest in local history.  Studied local history at Maynooth University and holds an Advanced Diploma in Local History from the University of Cambridge. She has contributed to a number of Cork periodicals including the Mallow Field Club Journal.