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Travel and Adventure

Micronesia: a Polynesian bar named for a "rascal of paradise"

Meridian Writers' Group

POHNPEI, Micronesia-The pub sign shows a man dancing, surrounded by the words "the tattooed Irishman, James F. O'Connell."

Bob and Patti Arthur chose the name for the bar in their thatched-roof resort on this Pacific island after hearing the story of how O'Connell, a shipwrecked Irishman, once became a local chieftain.

"O'Connell was, by all accounts, one of the rascals of paradise," says Patti, who gave up a career in business in southern California to follow Bob's dream of building a resort in Micronesia. "He was a dedicated hedonist who didn't seem to care what happened to him as long as he had a good time, so we thought he deserved a bar named after him."

O'Connell would, no doubt, love the Village Hotel, which is what the Arthurs named their resort. It stands on a hillside overlooking what is perhaps the most beautiful section of Pohnpei's lagoon. Like a real village, it consists of bamboo chalets-20 in all-surrounding the central Long House, the reception-restaurant-bar area.

Everybody asks what the pub sign means and there's always someone ready to tell. It seems that O'Connell, thought to have been an Irish rebel who had been freed, or escaped, from a penal colony in Australia, came ashore after a shipwreck around 1830. Captured by the natives, he assumed (wrongly) that he was destined for the cooking pot.

How to get out of this pickle? O'Connell tore off his shirt and danced an Irish jig. He danced till he dropped, but by then he had so impressed the natives that they made him some sort of junior chief and gave him a 14-year-old island maiden for a wife.

O'Connell continued to entertain with his dancing and then-so the story goes-he embraced the South Seas custom of tattooing... embraced it so enthusiastically that soon his entire body was covered with designs.

That's the story visitors hear before they wander back to their bungalows, to sleep cooled by the Village's ceiling fans and natural air conditioning (meaning there's no window glass, just tropical breezes wafting through the screens.)

Thatched roofs and waterbeds keep the bungalows comfortable. The beds all have mosquito nets, but the Arthurs stress that this is mainly to give an additional touch of the exotic.

And what, you ask, happened to the tattooed Irishman? It seems he ditched his teen bride after a few years when an American ship dropped anchor in the lagoon. In 1835 he was in New York, where he signed with the great showman P. T. Barnum, who billed him as "the tattooed sailor of the South Seas."

O'Connell danced for Barnum's crowds, then told how the Pohnpeins took eight days to tattoo his face, arms, legs, back and stomach. He also published a memoir-possibly ghost-written-about his Pacific adventures.

It's said that when O'Connell appeared, shirtless, on the streets of New York, women and children ran away screaming. Clergy, who generally disapproved of Barnum's shows, reportedly warned from the pulpit that viewing O'Connell's tattoos would transfer the marks to a pregnant woman's baby.