Green beard and tux -- the proper attireButte, Montana: Ireland's Fifth Province
 
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.
Butte's fabled St. Patrick's Day paradeChildren 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.
 
"The Yank" as a wee lad with family"The Yank" as a young manAs 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 Bow Archives.

Jerry Sullivan's Granite Mountain BankAfter 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 Project Children Builds a Habitat Home in Buttetoward 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 neighborhoods.

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 of Montana.

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 Ireland's shores.

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 100,000 souls.

Marcus DalyHere, 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 Cathedral.

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 to Butte."

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, including Boston.

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 Kelley's homeCornelius "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 Street today.

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 The IC Churchtoday. 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 stop booming.

For anyone, Irish or otherwise, interested in what has become of Butte, they are welcome to spend some time visiting ButteAmerica.com.

Copyright © 2008 by George Everett. All rights reserved.
A variation of this story first appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of The World of Hibernia Magazine.


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