- Butte, Montana: Ireland's
- by George Everett
Butte, Montana is the
city the Irish would have built if the English had said build
a city of your own design and consider money to be no object.
To the curious visitor, Butte, Montana may seem somewhat exotic
and out of place, an industrial city past its prime with the
remnants of the nation's first skyscrapers in the middle of the
agricultural state of Montana. It's not possible to understand
Butte without first looking to Ireland.
Today, the descendants of Sullivans, Shannons, Harringtons, O'Neills
Lynchs, Sheas, Driscolls, Dolans, Duggans, and O'Briens still
inhabit this island city built on a hill surrounded by a sea
of mountains, rivers, and prairie under the big sky of Montana.
In a modern city of less than 40,000, more than a hundred years
later you can still find hundreds of Irish surnames in the local
phone book - about 100 Sullivan families, 43 listings for Sheas,
and 32 O'Neills.
learn step dancing at the Knights of Columbus Hall and show off
their skills in parades and performances accompanied by music
from local Irish musicians. Dublin Gulch is a trio - Tom Powers,
Mick Cavanaugh, and Kevin McGreevy named for a historic Butte
Irish neighborhood. They play in the bars on St. Patrick's Day
where the crowds are packed so tight they can barely dance. Later
in the evening, they perform at a local hotel to allow young
and old to listen and dance. They are joined there by John "The
Yank" Harrington and his button accordion.
"The Yank" will turn 98 this year around St. Patrick's
Day. At the age of 96, he released his first CD of traditional
Irish accordion tunes, A
Celtic Century. The tunes are culled from hundreds of
traditional Irish songs that he learned in Ireland and Butte
and in between.
well as being the patriarch of Butte's folk musicians, Harrington's
life also encapsulates the experience of Butte's Irish. John
Harrington came to Butte as a boy of eight, brought by his father
who came to work in the mines. Like many miners, Harrington's
father died young, in 1916 and his mother died soon after in
1918. A year later, the orphan was shipped east to Montreal to
catch a ship for Ireland where he lived with his grandmother
in County Cork to seven years. That's where he got his nickname.
He was an Irish American and everyone called him "The Yank."
In 1927, he returned to America by way of New York where he worked
as a laborer on roads and then the New York subways until 1932
when he finally returned to Butte.
Folklorist and storyteller Kevin Shannon recalls his own memories
of Butte as a young man and helps to preserve Butte's Irish character
through stories, songs, poems and jokes he has captured in his
Memories of a Mining Camp. Meanwhile, the documented
residue of Butte's history, Irish and otherwise, is gathered
and stored by his daughter Ellen who manages the Butte-Silver
several years away from Butte, Jerry Sullivan has returned to
his hometown to open the Granite Mountain Bank. Like other Irish
Americans in Butte over the years, he has looked back toward
Ireland and now dedicates time and energy to Project Children,
a program that brings Irish children of differing faiths to Montana.
The idea is to bring together Protestant and Catholic children
to show them how they can live together with their differences
and find common ground for the future once they return to Ireland.
This past autumn Project Children brought several Catholic and
Protestant Irish youths together in Butte to work on and finish
two new Habitat for Humanity homes in one of Butte's most troubled
Of course, the most obvious expression of Butte's Irishness is
the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration. Each March 17, about
30,000 revelers converge on Butte's historic Uptown District
to enjoy the parade led by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and
celebrate in bars such as Maloney's, the Silver Dollar Saloon,
the M&M Cigar Store, and The Irish Times Pub where
Thomas Wilde has created a love poem to Erin, complete with booths
made from church pews imported from Dublin. A stone at the main
door imported from County Clare allows visitors to literally
touch Irish soil (or stone to be exact) as they enter the pub.
A more significant celebration
for the Butte Irish however is the annual An Ri Ra held on the
second weekend in August. This is an event that emphasizes culture,
music and language while downplaying the role of alcohol that
has dominated St. Patrick's Day. For more information about what
has become one of the most popular Celtic celebrations of the
summer in the United States, visit www.mtgaelic.org.
Thousands attend the event from throughout the region to hear
some of the best Celtic bands and see displays of by such adept
dancers as the Trinity Dancers and the local Tiernan Dancers
led by Cindi Powers.
There is frequent traffic between Ireland and Butte and back
again as residents travel for vacations, honeymoons, and excursions
to renew family ties and to research ancestral lines. In the
other direction, Irish traveling to America travel to Butte to
visit a place that feels like home in the middle of the wilds
Butte is changing these days, like the rest of Montana, and like
the rest of the world but the influence of Ireland permeates
Butte's past and present and colors its future as well. The Irish
who built Butte, Montana all shared a longing for a homeland
that should have been. The difference from other places in the
world was that Irish were allowed to create a city from their
dreams of the Ireland they remembered about 5,000 miles from
In Butte, absurdly abundant mineral wealth developed and controlled
by Irish immigrants allowed those who came from all directions
to express that longing for home. In the process, they turned
a desolate, inhospitable crest beside the Continental Divide
into an industrial metropolis that grew into a city of nearly
Marcus Daly, born in 1841 and raised near Ballyjamesduff in County
Cavan, found in mining Butte's hill for silver and gold that
another metal, copper, was far more abundant. He convinced his
reluctant backers of the potential wealth below the ground in
the red ore in Butte and his persistence paid off when he drilled
deep enough to discover a massive vein of copper 50 feet wide
that flowed like a river through the middle of his Anaconda mine.
Daly soon found himself an owner of one of the largest copper
mines in the world just as the global demand for copper boomed.
It was not long before Daly found himself one of the wealthiest
men in the West. In the years that followed, he built one of
the world's largest ore smelters with a stack that was once the
tallest in the world. It remains intact today near Anaconda,
the town that Daly founded to be home to the Irish and others
he brought from around the world to refine and process his ore.
His interests drove the fortunes of the state of Montana, prodding
ventures in timber, newspapers, coal mines, railroads, and agriculture.
He built a lavish mansion in the Bitterroot Valley across the
mountains and away from the industrial chaos in Butte. When he
died in 1900 at the Hotel Netherlands in New York City, among
those at his bedside was Father Lavelle, the rector of St. Patrick's
In all of Daly's endeavors, his preference to hire fellow Irish
became widely known. Despite the bitterly cold winters and the
location's remoteness, there were jobs waiting for the able and
the ambitious and they heeded Daly's call.
- When they arrived, they found
that Butte had as much in common with West Ireland as did the
moon. Butte is situated high in the Northern Rockies beside the
Continental Divide, 600 miles from the coast, frozen in winter
by sub-zero temperatures and Arctic winds, and baked in summer
by withering heat with little rain. It was a hard life in a hard
land. But, they found one distinct similarity -- the people they
knew back home. Butte was fast filling with relatives from the
Beara Peninsula and they made their homes in neighborhoods close
to the mines named Corktown and Dublin Gulch.
The frigid weather of Butte was balmy compared to the chilly
welcome of the established societies in Boston, New York, Philadelphia
and New Orleans. Butte presented a rare opportunity, a place
to start new where work could be easily had at decent wages,
too. And the Irish, among the first to arrive, would shape the
city's destiny. Many of the new immigrants to Butte had been
wandering the country and the world since leaving Ireland and
they wasted no time in making the place their own. They would
be followed by other immigrants drawn by the promise of work
into a patchwork of every conceivable nationality but the Irish
came early and they were well settled in strong communities.
How important Irish roots became in Butte is illustrated by the
story of an Arab rug merchant named Mohammed Akara who changed
his last name in court to Murphy "for business reasons."
The Irish came to Butte by way of Nevada's Comstock Lode, the
coalfields of Pennsylvania, and the copper mines of Michigan.
Soon, they came directly from Ireland by way of Canada and New
York and Boston. As working Irish called for relatives to join
them in the prosperity of Butte's mines, Anaconda's smelter,
and the many businesses that supported them, many arrived with
the admonition, "Don't bother to tarry in America, go straight
Most of Butte's Irish came directly or indirectly from West Ireland,
predominately County Cork, but in large numbers from Mayo and
Donegal as well.
According to David Emmons in his book, The Butte Irish,
by 1900 Butte had 12,000 residents of Irish descent in a population
of 47,635. A quarter of the population was Irish, a higher percentage
than any other American city at the turn of the last century,
Of 1,700 people who left the parish of Eyeries in County Cork
to emigrate to America from 1870 to 1915, 1,138 ended up in Butte.
Members of 77 different families of Sullivans left Castletownbere
in Cork for Butte, which explains why in 1908 there were 1,200
Sullivans in Butte.
From the 1880s on, the Irish were represented in every level
of Butte's society. The Irish worked as miners and shift bosses,
boilermakers and hoist engineers, but they also filled the ranks
judges, doctors, priests, firemen, policemen, lawyers, newspaper
reporters, and editors.
"Con" Kelly was a brilliant lawyer who eventually led
the Anaconda Company and the Montana Power Company and lived
in an ornate Neoclassical mansion with Ionic columns built by
master builder William A. O'Brien. That mansion, built by and
for Irish Americans, stands well preserved on Butte's West Park
William McDowell came to Butte to manage the general office of
the Anaconda Company for Marcus Daly and was successful in state
politics, serving twice as the Speaker of the House and two terms
as Montana's Lt. Governor. He ended his career (and his life)
as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland in 1934 when
he died in Dublin within a month of taking his post there.
Jeremiah J. Lynch was a district court judge with the more important
role of leader of Butte's Irish community. Born in Ballycrovane
in County Cork, he came to Butte and worked a short while in
the mines and then as a bartender. He ran for and was elected
to serve as a judge in the state district court in 1906. During
his tenure,, he would often use his chambers to host committee
meetings of various Irish associations including The Ancient
Order of Hibernians, the Robert Emmett Literary Association,
the Irish National Alliance, the Gaelic Athletic Association
the Hibernian Rifles, the Friends of Irish Freedom, and the American
Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. In all
of these organizations, Lynch was a leading member. He was a
co-founder of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, a group that
still gathers each year around St. Patrick's Day to feast and
celebrate Irish roots.
The Irish brought along Catholicism and wore it proudly in Butte
as they do today.
In a city where, in the Irish mines, they referred to waste rock
as "Protestant ore," Butte once boasted seven parishes.
According to Ed Nicholls, who graduated from Bute Central in
1960, there were at least 10 Catholic churches and nine Catholic
grade schools in the 1950s. These were Sacred Heart on Park Street,
St. Patrick, St. Anne's, St. Lawrence O'Toole on North Main,
St. Mary's on North Main, Immaculate Conception on Caledonia
Street, St. John's, St. Joseph's on Arizona Street. Two more
churches in Meaderville shared one grade school.
Over the years, Butte has supplied the faith with more than its
share of priests and nuns from the city's youth. These Irish
associations and solidarity in the Catholic faith as well as
strong family ties were the cornerstones for building an enduring
community in what was ostensibly a boom camp that just wouldn't
For anyone, Irish or otherwise, interested in what has become
of Butte, they are welcome to spend some time visiting ButteAmerica.com.