P.T. Barnum and The Irish



P.T. Barnum; the name alone conjures ideas and imagination, preconceived notions of a man and philosophy.  Known to most of the world as the ‘Great American Showman‘, P.T. Barnum was so much more.  An entrepreneur, Bridgeport Mayor, Connecticut legislator, urban developer, community benefactor, philanthropist, emancipationist, lecturer, and author, Barnum was committed to the intellectual and cultural development of society and embraced the dream of a truly democratic nation.  In doing so, he inspired a new American society to reach beyond the limits of ordinary expectations, to see the world as a place of opportunity and wonder.

Barnum has an extraordinary history of supporting the Irish – from employing Irish men and women in his American Museum in New York City during the 1840s, to actively supporting Irish Home Rule.  Barnum championed Irish workers, and in his speech before the Connecticut State Legislature he declared, “I rejoice to see them rushing to this land of liberty and independence; and it is because I am their friend that I denounce the demagogues who attempt to blind and mislead them to vote in the interests of any party against the interests of humanity, and the principles of true democracy”. Mr. Barnum was a vocal and important voice in the fight for human equality.


Barnum made donations to numerous charities during the Irish Famine and actively supported Father Mathew Theobald, a lecturer on temperance in Ireland.  Barnum’s support of Father Mathew during his fundraising tour in New York was so notable that Barnum was presented with a gold engraved medal for his efforts in the temperance movement. Pictured above, this beautiful piece is now in the collection of Bridgeport’s Barnum Museum.

Unbeknownst to many, the infamous story of ‘this way to the Egress’ is actually a story of the Showman and the Irish. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1842, Mr. Barnum arrived at the museum only to find the building at capacity. He had been forewarned that the Irish, in celebration of the day, were planning to picnic in his American Museum. Walking through the museum Barnum did indeed find that families were sitting in the exhibit halls with lunches in hand.  Knowing that he couldn’t sell tickets if the museum remained full, Mr. Barnum pulled aside the nearest sign painter and had him paint a canvas reading “This way to the Egress” which he then nailed over the door to the back exit.  Believing it to be the newest exhibit in the museum, people followed one another out the door only to find themselves outside!  All in good fun, it was a St. Patrick’s Day that lives on in our hearts and minds today!

It is with much honor and joy that I, on behalf of the Barnum Museum, tip my hat to all who celebrate this grand day!

“The noblest art is that of making others happy!”  P.T. Barnum, 1886

Kathleen Maher, Executive Director March 17, 2016