This week it was announced that Connell’s chain, the piece of jewellery that shot to international fame after appearing in a tender TV love story, would be raffled to raise money for an Irish mental health charity. But how did one chain get so famous?
Connell’s chain is not the most important thing about Connell. In Sally Rooney’s phenomenally popular 2018 book Normal People, which has since been adapted into the phenomenally popular 2020 TV series, Connell’s chain is mentioned just once. About halfway through the book, when Connell turns up at Marianne’s house in Dublin having been beaten up, he is wearing the chain.
‘He’s wearing a black jacket over a stained white T-shirt, under which Marianne recognises the glimmer of an unadorned silver neckchain he’s had since school. Peggy once described the neckchain as ‘Argos chic’, which made Marianne cringe, though she couldn’t tell which friend she was cringing for.’
Peggy, Marianne’s university friend, is obnoxious and entitled. She’s a bit funny but not very funny – and only in a rude way. Connell is thoughtful and intelligent – but he’s awkward in company, especially around those from a different socioeconomic background. Peggy is a snob and Connell is from a working-class home. That’s what the chain is saying. And if you just read the book that’s the last you hear of it. The chain has done its job of subtly providing insight into two characters and the class structures that surround them. It may linger in your memory; you may think of the chain at later moments, during one of the sex scenes, say, but that’s between you and the chain.
Normal People confronted complex subjects like class, suicide and BDSM – but people mainly wanted to read about the chain.
In the TV adaptation of Normal People, the chain is more apparent. Connell wears the chain throughout. The chain is never mentioned but it’s there: in his little single bed in Sligo. In the swimming pool at the home of a wealthy university acquaintance. Glinting in the shower, when Connell arrives at the villa in the Italian countryside after interrailing around Europe. Wherever Connell goes, his chain goes, too.
Apparently, the actor who portrays Connell – the now internationally famous but previously unknown Paul Mescal – was instrumental in granting the chain screen time. Normal People’s costume designer, Lorna Mugan, told Irish Radio: ‘We knew [the chain] was there, we didn't think too much about it but Paul picked up on it straight away. After the first fitting, he said, “Can I get that chain?”
‘So we quickly went out, got a selection of chains, he picked that and then he put it on and that was it. He had it on for rehearsals, for the shoot. We never saw it again, it was just on him. It was very important to Paul … We credit him and we blame him for what's happened.’
It’s safe to assume that the costume designer did not anticipate the response to the chain when she was working on the show. She probably thought there would be more interest in Marianne’s (very lovely) earrings.
She could not have known that Normal People would arrive on television screens during a global pandemic. She could not have known that people would be stuck at home, forbidden to go outside except for essential business or to exercise once a day. She could not have known how scared and lonely and bored and horny people would be. She could not have known how much the world would come to love that chain.
Almost immediately after the show aired (all 12 episodes arrived on iPlayer on 26 April and it was shown on TV the next day), the chain was singled out for attention. On 30 April, Annie Lord wrote about the chain in Vice in piece titled ‘Why Are Those Little Neck Chains So Sexy?. Over several hundred words, Lord explored the sex appeal of Connell’s chain ultimately coming to the conclusion that ‘One does not want to over intellectualise the chain. It is just accidentally, indescribably hot. It has the same peculiar alchemy that makes women in oversized white shirts sexy.’
Connell’s chain had arrived. On 1 May, journalist Billie Bhatia started an Instagram dedicated entirely to Connell’s chain. In the first image, Connell leaned against the side of a swimming pool, looking up, almost expectantly, as sunlight hit his face, the chain around his neck. The Instagram account was covered in Grazia and other fashion magazines as well as in broadsheet newspapers. ASOS reported increased sales of men’s chains.
In late April and early May, features journalists and editors were keen to publish content that would amuse or encourage; the news was bleak and celebrity gossip and film reviews had pretty much become defunct. At this point, picnics weren’t even allowed. The chain stepped up to fill the gap for lifestyle pages and websites; articles about it proliferated. Very quickly, it crossed over from a niche internet joke to a mainstream concern. Normal People confronted complex subjects like class, suicide and BDSM – but people mainly wanted to read about the chain. The Connell’s chain Instagram amassed 165,000 followers in less than a month: that is the kind of growth social media managers can only dream of. Twitter created an emoji of Connell’s chain.
The chain served as a massive distraction during a time of almost unprecedented crisis.
Appearing on The Graham Norton Show in mid-May, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, the actor who plays Marianne, discussed the chain. Daisy Edgar-Jones presented the actual chain to viewers. There had been reports that she had lost the chain, but no, she told us, she had it.
Shortly afterwards, photos of Mescal jogging topless around London appeared online. He was not wearing the chain, i.e. Connell’s chain, but he was wearing a chain, from the British jewellery brand Otiumberg. He was also, it should be pointed out, wearing quite short shorts from an Irish sportswear brand O’Neill’s (not to be confused with the Californian surf brand O’Neill). Given Paul Mescal’s involvement in creating the cult of Connell’s chain in the first place, it’s safe to say this is man who knows how to put an iconic look together. One wonders if Paul’s shorts could soon have an Instagram account of their own.
Anyway, back to the chain. Now, Paul Mescal has donated Connell’s chain (or certainly a chain worn by the actor who plays Connell – the website says ‘one of Paul’s chains’) to Pieta, a charity that has seen its fundraising efforts severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. All of us are now in with a chance of owning the chain and all we have to do is buy raffle tickets before the deadline of 2pm on 8 June. It might not be the exact chain worn by Connell in the show – but then this was never really about the actual chain, was it? It was about what the chain meant.
The chain stood for a new, more vulnerable masculinity. The chain allowed us to examine our desire to sexually objectify fictional characters and the actors who portray them. The chain served as a massive distraction during a time of almost unprecedented crisis. The chain was the only good thing to come out of April 2020.
You can buy raffle tickets for ‘Paul’s chain’ here.
Read more about Paul Mescal here
Paul Mescal career timeline
Before his acting career took off, Paul played Gaelic football at a high level for Irish team Kildare GAA. Playing as a defender, Paul won a Leinster minor medal in 2013 and even went on to captain the team in 2014! A jaw injury, as well as a love for acting, put Paul's football career on the back burner, but he was able to revisit it playing the role of Connell in Normal People.
Fresh from graduating at The Lir Academy at Trinity College Dublin, Paul was offered the lead role in a theatre production of The Great Gatsby. As well as playing the lead role of Jay Gatsby, Paul went on to play the Prince in a theatre production of The Red Shoes at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. He has since appeared in a number of other theatre shows in Dublin, including The Plough and the Stars, Asking For It, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
In 2018 Paul starred in a brilliant advert for Irish sausage company Denny's sausages! The ad was titled 'Seize the Denny' and featured Paul tucking into some tasty looking sausages, before being inspired to go travelling by creator Henry Denny.
Paul got his big acting break in 2019 when it was announced he'd been cast as main character Connell Waldron in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's 2018 novel Normal People. Starring alongside English actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul plays the role of a college student, with the show following the will-they-won't-they relationship between the two lead characters.Since the show first aired in April 2020, Paul's been shot into the limelight, receiving a tonne of praise across the world for his acting skills.
After the success of Normal People not only in the UK, but around the globe, Paul appeared via video chat with his co-star Daisy Edgar-Jones, on The Late Late Show with James Corden. In what was his first ever late night talk show appearance, Paul spoke about the amazing response Normal People has received.
In May, Paul joined host Graham Norton for a chat over video call on The Graham Norton Show. As well as discussing the show, Paul found out just how much Normal People fans love Connell's chain.
Although it's not yet been released, Paul's name is also related to comedy series Bump.
In June 2020, Paul joined Save The Children's 'Save With Stories campaign' where he read out Elmer and Super El by author David McKee, a story about a friendship of two elephants.
Following his amazing performance in Normal People, Paul was nominated for and Emmy in the category 'Outstanding Lead Actor In A Limited Series Or Movie'. Paul's Normal People co-star Daisy Edgar-Jones congratulated her friend online, writing, 'I could not be more proud of these two utterly incredible people, working with you both has been one of the greatest joys of my life. Also huge congrats to @louisekielycasting, you're incredible, and also Sally and Alice and @element_pictures, we smashed it ud83dudca5.' (sic)
Paul teamed up with Irish singer Dermot Kennedy in July 2020, for a special gig at the Natural History Museum in London. Speaking about a potential collab between the pair in the future, Dermot said, "Who knows? I love the idea of Irish creatives looking out for each other and collaborating."
Paul is currently starring in four-part Channel 5 thriller The Deceived, playing the role of a volunteer firefighter called Sean. The actor stars alongside Hollyoaks and Peaky Blinders star Emmett J. Scanlan, Belgravia actress Emily Reid, and Derry Girls actor Ian McElhinney.