Emigrants’ tin pot set for New York tea party
A replica of an emigrants’ tin teapot – which features in ‘A History of Ireland in 100 Objects’ – will be presented to the mayor of New York by Enda Kenny this St Patrick’s Day. Sylvia Thompson meets the man who is making it
Irish tea brands have been tapping into emigrants’ nostalgia for a cup of tea for years now, with sentimental television ads featuring misty-eyed young Irish people making tea after receiving packages of their favourite brew from home.
The tiny tin teapot used by earlier emigrants on the long boat journey to America in the 19th century probably had similar sentimental significance for those who travelled this sometimes treacherous route. And it was for this reason that the so-called emigrants’ teapot made it into Fintan O’Toole’s A History of Ireland in 100 Objects series in The Irish Times over the past two years.
Now, the emigrants’ teapot is set to become an international icon when Taoiseach Enda Kenny hands over a replica of the original hand-made pot, filled with shamrock, to mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York city during St Patrick’s Day celebrations next weekend.
The significance of making this teapot for such a public event is not lost on Maughan, a member of the Travelling community, who has been making things from tin since childhood.
“My father taught me how to make cans, buckets, churns and lanterns when I was 15. We went from door to door selling them,” he says. In the 20th century, the craft of tinsmithing was much in demand from farmers and the skills were handed down from father to son in the Travelling community.
“Plastic has taken over now,” says Maughan, who works mainly in copper these days.
“I recycle old hot water tanks which I get from plumbers to make coal buckets,” he says.
He made this new tin teapot (with tin imported from Wales) in the traditional way with a soldered spout, handle and lid.
“You can put tea, whiskey, Guinness or whatever you want in it and it won’t leak,” he says.
Aware of the demise of the craft of tinsmithing, Sligo historian Joe McGowan went in search of “tinkers” – as Travellers were known – to make a documentary about the craft.
“I couldn’t find a working tinker in Sligo so I found Ted Maughan in Ballyhaunis and we made a documentary in 2010 on his work called Ted Maughan: On the Road Again .
“I grew up with tinkers supplying and fixing cans and buckets. Their skills – which are quite intricate when you see it done – were welcomed in the farming community,” says McGowan.
With very few members of the Travelling community still working with tin, heritage days and the Ballinasloe Horse Fair are the only places where people can still see tinsmiths in action. Or, for those with a keen interest in the history of the craft, the National Museum of Ireland in Co Mayo has a documentary on tinsmithing.
While there, visitors can also see the emigrants’ teapot and ponder the sentiment which prompted a collector in the 1960s to commission Mike Maughan to make a replica of the 19th-century emigrants’ teapot. Little did he know how another tin pot would travel to the United States more than 50 years later for such an auspicious occasion.
A History of Ireland in 100 Objects (Royal Irish Academy ) by Fintan O’Toole will be published on March 11th, ¤30