11.00 Popular Heritage: The "Irish Village" at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1893 (cancelled)
“Its thatched cabins and rude village crosses framed in the setting of reproductions of structures statelier even in their ruins will recall earlier scenes to many Irish-Americans” (New York Times, 7 May 1893, 17).
This observation by the widely-circulated American newspaper encapsulates one aspect of the Donegal Industrial Fund’s Irish Village constructed to advertise and sell hand-crafted objects made by Irish women and men to visitors to the World’s Fair. Alice Rowland Hart (1848-1931) founded the Donegal Industrial Fund in 1883 “to revive the old Cottage Industries, and to develop and improve the ancient arts of spinning, weaving, knitting, sewing, and embroidery,” after she and her physician husband, Ernest Hart, had visited the Congested Districts in Donegal. The Fund was a non-profit organization that operated as what today would be called “fair trade” and promoted Ireland and Irish goods in large, important venues such as International Exhibitions and Arts and Crafts Exhibitions. The Irish village made for Chicago in 1893 combined rebuilt and reimagined elite structures with vernacular cottages in a multi-layered viewing space meant “to make prominent all that is picturesque in ancient or modern Ireland.” There were faux Druidical stones, Christian crosses, as well as a replicated “ruined” Donegal Castle all of which caught the attention of diasporic Irish in America. Hart’s selection of reproductions was popular and also layered with political and cultural significance: Donegal Castle, partially destroyed in the sixteenth century before it could fall into English hands; a large, bronzed statue of William Gladstone, the Home Rule prime minister; a model of Daniel O’Connell’s Memorial Chapel constructed in Dublin in the 1860s (this commemoration of an advocate for Catholic emancipation elicited unionist anger and caused serious rioting in Belfast); and, “splendid reproductions of ancient Celtic jewellery.”
Heritage, in this instance, reminded Irish Americans of their “roots” and brought together built reminders that spanned centuries of history. At a time of political turmoil and overt discrimination directed against the Irish in Ireland and England, the village elicited pride of accomplishment evidenced by the quality of the handcrafted objects, and evoked memories of a rich history embedded in remodeled monuments. Borrowing the concept of “popular heritage” from Raphael Samuel along with his assertion that the “built environment gives materiality to the idea of history,” this paper will contemplate the edifices and the crafted objects made for the Donegal Industrial Fund’s faux Irish Village at Chicago as reimagined history and as both popular and sustainable heritage.