How Irish convict won Strictly Come Jigging contest on South Sea island

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Ballycastle-man, travel writer and regular Roamer-contributor Mitchell Smyth is fascinated with the South Seas and the famous film and stage musical, based on James H. Michener’s book, that was set there - South Pacific.

Mitchell has been there many times and as well as going to some of the film locations he has discovered some curious local traditions….and some unusual Irish connections!

He has cooled in the shade of Bloody Mary’s huge banyan tree - film buffs will appreciate its significance - and he has visited the place where Nurse Nellie Forbush ‘washed that man right out of her hair’!

He has met island-folk who revere Prince Philip and Coca-Cola machines and has seen a cooking-pot dating back to the days of cannibalism.

Regarding South Sea island links with the Emerald Isle, Mitchell has been telling Roamer about two men from Tyrone and Monaghan who made their mark there, one as a tribal chief, the other as a king!

In the Village Hotel in Kolonia, the main town on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia, there’s a bar and restaurant called The Tattooed Irishman.

It’s named after Tyrone-man James O’Connell who was sentenced to transportation to the penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia.

It’s not known if he was freed or escaped, but around 1830 James was aboard a ship that was wrecked off Pohnpei.

Captured by the islanders, he assumed - incorrectly as it turned out - that they were cannibals and were heating the cooking pot for him!

Thinking quickly, O’Connell tore off his shirt and danced an Irish jig, the Garryowen.

His dancing impressed his captors and the tribal chief gave James his 14-year-old daughter as his wife, which made the Tyrone-man a ‘junior chief.’

O’Connell heartily embraced the popular Pohnpei tradition of tattooing and got his entire body and face tattooed.

After a few years he got bored with island life and when an American ship dropped anchor around 1835 he deserted his teenage wife and sailed away.

He landed in New York where his tattoos created a sensation. Newspapers reported that when he appeared shirtless in the streets women and children ran away screaming, and clergymen warned from the pulpit that viewing O’Connell’s tattoos would transfer the marks to a pregnant woman’s baby.

Then the famous showman P. T. Barnum contracted O’Connell to his aptly-named Freak Show.

The Tyrone-man regaled his audiences with tales of the eight-day-long tattooing process that he underwent in the South Seas and they loved his stories about being shipwrecked and captured, illustrated with the Garryowen!

O’Connell remained with Barnum till he died in 1845, and by his instructions the Garryowen was danced on his grave.

And now to Yap, another Micronesian island where Mitchell discovered more Irish connections.

On an atoll in the harbour at Colonia (not to be confused with Kolonia in Pohnpei) he found the ruins of the ‘palace’ of His Majesty O’Keefe.

The potato famine drove David O’Keefe to America from his home in County Monaghan in 1848. He became a sailor on the Hong Kong to America run, until a typhoon struck and he was washed up, half drowned, on the beach on Yap.

The natives nursed him back to health.

He married a local beauty - ‘forgetting’ that he had a wife in Savannah, Georgia - lazed around for a while, then discovered a way, literally, to make money.

Yap was, and still is, the ‘island of stone money’.

This is real currency, not just some quaint island legend.

The stone coins, called ‘rai’, some of them six feet across, are all over the place, in ‘banks’ at the roadside.

They are the measure of a person’s or an institution’s worth, changing hands in property transactions and used as collateral for a loan or providing a bride’s dowry.

And they’re never stolen as every rai is unique and well-known for its distinctive carvings.

The U.S. dollar is used for everyday transactions and in the tourist trade.

O’Keefe saw his chance when the island needed more rai but didn’t have any suitable quarries.

He knew that copra from coconuts could be sold for a good price, and he knew that the Chinese would pay top prices for sea slugs, a delicacy on their tables.

So he went to Hong Kong, bought a schooner and made a deal with the Yap chiefs - they’d get him copra and sea slugs and he’d get them stone money in distant Palau and transport it to Yap.

The agreement worked well and made him a fortune.

By all accounts he was a fair employer and the locals called him His Majesty O’Keefe.’’

But it appears his Irish temper got him into trouble.

His Majesty reportedly punched the German Colonial Administrator on the nose after refusing an order to fly the German flag on his schooner.

To escape arrest, O’Keefe and his native wife sped off in the schooner.

No one knows what happened to them; it is assumed they died in a typhoon that struck around that time.

If the story sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you’ve seen the 1953 movie His Majesty O’Keefe, starring Burt Lancaster at his swashbuckling best.

Mitchell added a footnote to his two Irishmen’s tales - strictly speaking, Micronesia isn’t in the South Pacific.

“It lies just north of the Equator,” he explained “but in every way it is redolent of the South Seas.”