This postcard is from the Franco-British Exhibition that opened in Shepherd’s Bush, London on 14 May 1908. In a “cosy corner” of “the big show” stood the radical Irish village of Ballymaclinton. This ten and a half acres of West London was complete with thatched cottages, a replica of a round tower from Old Kilcullen (Co. Kildare), a replica cross from Donaghmore (Co. Tyrone), an ogham stone, a Galway fisherman’s cottage, a village shop, a Post and Telegraph office, a forge, a laundry, a replica of the Blarney Stone (from Co. Cork), a restaurant, a sanatorium, a village hall, an industrial hall, and houses filled with ‘genuine colleens at work at lace, embroidery, carpets’.
The village organisers, brothers David and Robert Brown, took a strident stance against Home Rule, and used the exhibition village to champion Irish unionism to a broader British audience, while also promoting their family business. The Brown brothers owned a soap factory in Donaghmore, and were committed to the expansion of their company, which they believed would be best achieved under continued union with Britain.
In the vast and diverse British Empire, Irish membership of the Union relied on affirming a political whiteness, and demonstrating compatibility and suitability with English society and economy. Whiteness is a socially constructed and politically contested category with an ideological connection to those who we might recognise as ‘white’. In nineteenth and early twentieth-century Ireland, political whiteness was concerned with accessing the socio-economic privileges associated with British whiteness, privileges which could be refused based on a racialised discourse of civilisation that held the Irish to be backward and primitive in culture and industry.
The Browns are unique in London exhibition history as this was the first time that an exclusively Irish-based business organised its own display of Ireland for corporate profit. The family-owned soap company sought to increase its revenue by appealing to English and foreign markets and establishing soap as a viable international commodity associated with familiar Irish stereotypes. The feminised, white Irish brand had both commercial and political appeal in the imperial capital.
The Brown brothers populated their exhibition village with white Irish women who lived, worked and performed Unionism in Ballymaclinton. Their advertisements for ‘colleens’ to work in the village appeared in the Tyrone Courier, the Irish Independent, and the Waterford Standard, and assured prospective female employees that they ‘make no charge for space; we pay all expenses and take all risk’. The working schedule was ‘a healthy life […] eight hours sleep, eight hours work and eight hours play’. They also reassured the women that a ‘real home life’ waited for them in Ballymaclinton during their six-month emigration from Ireland, sold as a wonderful opportunity to live and work in London temporarily. The ‘colleens’ stayed in four-roomed cottages that each contained a kitchen, a sitting-room and two bedrooms.
It does not seem that actors were hired; instead, middle-class women and women who worked in rural industries were prioritised: ‘Girls of good social position are desired and those with distinctively Irish accents w[ere] preferred’, advertisements read. The workers sold the Browns’ soap, named ‘Colleen’s soaps’ after the women, and performed a white Irishness that amalgamated an Irish past rooted in history and tradition with an Irish present and future focused on industry and investment.
To the left of the postcard we can see a farmyard with a pig, Kerry cows, and various fowl. Men and women are busy working away in the village with a laundry line visible amidst the neat cottages. Well-dressed men and women are caught wandering through the village, indicative of a bustling atmosphere with visitors coming and going. Newly planted trees illustrate how the Browns tried to include a natural element in the exhibition village.
This picturesque rural idyll was created during a turbulent time in British-Irish relations. Decades of debate on Home Rule, and a growing more forceful Irish nationalism had called the Union into question. The Presbyterian Brown brothers were ardently against Home Rule and were committed Unionists. Their version of Ballymaclinton demonstrated a rural, peaceful, quaint Irish populace who were familiar and white like the British.
Ireland’s political whiteness was further performed by juxtaposing Ballymaclinton with other displays, such as that from the French colony of Senegal and the British colony of Ceylon. For example, the Ceylon Village composed of a ‘cluster of gaily coloured houses and huts’ with bazaars, a huge Pagoda, and a temple in the rocks. It too, was populated by indigenous inhabitants in the form of ‘Cingalee dancers, musicians, jugglers, and beautiful Nautch girls’. The Senegalese village contained huts ‘constructed in the most simple way’, a village school and over a hundred African men, women and children ‘living exactly as they d[id]’ in their native Africa. The Irish village’s whiteness was thereby regulated and underscored through other colonial representations in the 1908 Exhibition
The entire village enterprise hinged on convincing visitors that they were experiencing ‘real’ Ireland; authenticity was marked physically by the material buildings and also through the corporeal body of the female inhabitants. The exhibition’s Official Guide declared that the commercial village of Ballymaclinton had a popular appeal and ‘cannot fail both to interest and amuse’, ‘whatever [connection] one has in the Emerald Isle – by birth, friends, or visits’. The immersive sensory effect of the village was noted by many, with the London Daily News commenting on the ‘fresh young voices’ who sang the Irish songs, the ponies, and jaunting cars idling through the village, and the ‘veritable chatter of the women busy with their various handicrafts’. The Mid-Ulster Mail reported ‘dancing on the village green, hornpipes, jigs, reels […] fiddles, melodeons, and bagpipes’. The village sought, the monthly magazine Good Health wrote, to stimulate ‘actual contact with Irish life, its poetry and romance, its abounding joy and its deep pathos’ in the Brown’s effort to market their soaps and spread a political message.
Yet this was in many ways a fantasy of Ireland. Irish peasants in the early twentieth century did not wear the red and green costumes chosen for the “colleens”, nor indeed were these women ‘peasants’, but emigrant employees working for a wage. In a Freeman’s Journal article on ‘Ballymaclinton and its Critics’, Robert Brown was quoted veering into distinctly nationalist language to defend the stylised choices of clothing: ‘[It is] surely better to have Irish linen than the cheap finery (the cast off clothes of English swells, or the rubbish turned out by Whitechapel sweaters) which is so much worn in Ireland’.
Evidently, the Brown brothers married tradition and rurality with urban modernity to capitalise on their project. The Hall and Theatre Review reported that the profits made by Ballymaclinton were daily loaded onto a ‘sack and sl[u]ng across the back of a donkey, in the same way as Irish peasant women t[ook] their produce to market’. Postcards and photographs from the village were popular and there remains an international circulation of the Village’s paraphernalia, with postcards still widely available on eBay today.
Most of the village postcards were captioned: ‘the Irish colleens use this soap, note their beautiful complexions’. Good Health reported that the complexion of the Irish women is the ‘envy of [many …] fashionable ladies’. These “colleens” embodied good British citizens engaged in an affirmative political whiteness that respected the Union. ‘Colleen’s soaps’ main selling point was that one could be healthy, clean and beautiful with ease (even in the busy, polluted metropolis).
Images of the white “colleens” on donkeys reinforced Ireland’s dual colonial position rooted in the past, while Barbara O’Connor has argued that the symbolic importance of red home spun and home-dyed cloth of the women’s costumes comes from its associations with ‘indigenous authenticity and sexuality’. Irish women in such allegorical representations mediated the extremities of violence and political upheaval often associated with Irish men in the popular British press, encouraging attraction to, and the consumption of, Ireland, in a welcoming space.
As an advertising vehicle and political statement, the Browns offered what Paul Greenhalgh described as ‘a sleepy rurality, a vision free from violence, discord and threat to the English’ that appealed to Ballymaclinton’s more than two million visitors. The Browns created the most widespread images of Ireland in the first few decades of the twentieth century with its popular circulation of photographs, souvenirs and postcards. Ballymaclinton, ‘an Irish colony in London’, the Tyrone Courier reported, gave visitors ‘Ireland in a nutshell. Ireland in an English atmosphere, built upon English soil and in the centre of a London suburb’.
The village offered reductive narratives of becoming civilised (and white) in the early twentieth-century, with its focus on an accessible, familiar, and clean Ireland, in contrast with an inherent (perhaps internal) dirtiness elsewhere in the Empire. Ballymaclinton can advance discussion on Irish whiteness by considering its formation through capitalist structures and Irish women. It evidences that whiteness historically operated along a spectrum in terms of access to privilege that was itself gendered, sexualised and dependent on ethnicity. The “colleens” could exist as examfples of quaint, rustic, picturesque Irishness and as objects of sexual desire, all the while affirming Irish whiteness steeped in Protestant Unionism. These Irish women lived a radical Irish unionist politics on their bodies in the fairground.
Dr Shahmima Akhtar is a historian of race, migration and empire at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently working on a monograph: Exhibiting Irishness: Empire and Identity, 1851-1970 to be published with Manchester University Press in September 2022. Her research looks at Ireland’s display in world’s fairs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Britain and the United States, with a particular focus on whiteness and gender. You can follow her on Twitter @shahmima_akhtar.