The most Irish town in America?
High in the US Rockies, the one-time mining town of Butte, Montana – Irish-American stronghold and home town of Evel Knievel – is revving up for its annual St Patrick’s Day parade, celebrating links with Cavan, Cork, Kerry and Mayo, writes FRANCIS CURRAN
THEY SAY that Butte, Montana, has the largest St Patrick’s Day parade in the Rockies, but I didn’t know whether it was going to be far removed from the reality of Ireland, a sort of disconnected theme parade. Was the Irishness of the participants merely an imaginary notion? Did they have any real contemporary connection, any awareness of what was going on in Ireland?
I had travelled to Butte from Salt Lake City, a 670km drive up through Utah, Idaho and some of Montana through the snow-capped Rockies to an elevation of 1,800m. (Carrauntoohil, by comparison, rises just over 1,000m above sea level.) Today Butte is a blue-collar industrial town with a colourful reputation, but back in the late 19th century it was a frontier mining town. It initially yielded gold and silver, but the advent of electricity saw Butte become the world’s largest copper-mining town by the early 20th century.
A natural bowl sitting high in the Rockies and straddling the Continental Divide, Butte soon became one of the most prosperous places in the US, “the richest hill on Earth”. The largest city for hundreds of kilometres, it attracted workers from Ireland, Wales, England, Lebanon, Canada, Finland, Austria, Serbia, Italy, China, Syria, Croatia, Montenegro, Mexico and all areas of the US. The no-smoking signs in the mines were translated into 12 languages.
Irish emigration to Butte dates back to 1882; by 1900 a quarter of the town’s residents were Irish. One of the three copper kings, as they were called, was Marcus Daly, who left Co Cavan for New York at the age of 15. He made his fortune from the huge Anaconda mine near Butte, which he bought in 1880 with money from backers who included George Hearst, father of William Randolph Hearst. Daly sent word that any Irishman could have a job in his mine; a huge wave of emigration followed, mainly from the Beara Peninsula, in Co Cork, which had a mining community at Allihies. The Irish population in Butte is made up mainly of descendants of people from counties Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Mayo, Cavan and Wexford.
Today most of the mines are closed. The Irish community among the 40,000 or so people of Butte is tight-knit and fiercely proud of the town and its history. They maintain their Irish heritage and links: Éamon de Valera visited Butte on his tours of the US, as did Douglas Hyde and, more recently, in 2006, President McAleese.
Although the Butte Irish are mainly fifth- generation Irish, and while I met some people who had been to Ireland a few times, many have never made the journey. Despite that, Irish culture is prevalent and ties are deep. Many people are in contact with relatives in Ireland, and they all know about their roots and how and when their relatives left home. Some people said they check the Irish Times website every week. They are knowledgeable about the Celtic Tiger and its demise, about Irish politics, about the state of our traditional culture and the influences on today’s Irish youth. There are Irish-language classes, an Irish-studies programme at the University of Montana in nearby Missoula, and the Tiernan Irish-dancing school, with more than 100 children learning their jigs and reels.
Butte hosts Irish festivals throughout the year, from this week’s St Patrick’s Day parade to An Rí Rá summer music celebration, which attracts traditional acts from Ireland each year.
There are also the annual Knievel Days, which attract more than 50,000 bikers and daredevils from across the world each summer in honour of Evel Knievel, who was from Butte.
The city’s St Patrick’s Day festivities are unique: on March 16th last year I attended the Gathering of the Clans, at the Knights of Columbus club, as well as the Friendly Sons of St Patrick banquet. The big day itself started with 8.30am Mass at St Patrick’s Church. Butte once had 11 Catholic parishes; now it has only one; yet the church was full with people of all ages, many in sashes of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and other greenery.
The parade didn’t disappoint, with marching bands from Calgary, in Canada, vintage cars covered in shamrocks, local dignitaries and community groups, and bikers with fluorescent green beards.
The locals, however, are less keen on the street drinking of students on their spring break. Butte is a rare US town in that it has an open-container policy, which means you can drink alcohol walking down the street. In fact a bar will give you a plastic “go cup” to bring your drink to the next bar. This law attracts students from all over Montana, so by late afternoon on St Patrick’s Day locals tend to head for the Handing Down the Heritage festival at the civic hall to see the Tiernan Irish Dancers and celebrate among themselves.
I was amazed to find a close-knit Irish community, independent and proud of its heritage, with a powerful history of survival and of overcoming adversity. There is a healthy mix of irreverence, a warm welcome and the love of life that we in Ireland take pride in and consider an integral part of our identity.
Butte Irish Voices and landmarks
BRENDAN McDONOUGHis heavily involved in traditional Irish music in Butte, organising An Rí Rá, a trad festival held every August. This year sees the Makem Brothers headline. Has McDonough ever been to Ireland, I ask him. “I haven’t been yet,” he says.
Butte is a couple of flights and at least 18 hours from Ireland, so the homeland is a bit more expensive and difficult for Montanans to reach than it is for New Yorkers or Bostonians. Still, I’m amazed by the number of people who are hugely engaged in Irish culture despite never having been to Ireland.
PAUL TANSEYis at the Silver Dollar Saloon to see the band Dublin Gulch. Named after one of the town’s Irish neighbourhoods, Dublin Gulch are a Butte institution. Paul Tansey has seen them about 150 times, and he’s not the only enthusiastic fan. The bar is full, and everyone has come along to watch the band play a set of well-known trad and folk with some drinking songs and ballads.
MONICA and JOHN CAVANAUGHsell Irish and “Butte Irish” goods in their shop in the town. It’s packed with everything from Barry’s Tea to Irish CDs and DVDs, books, Communion dresses, tweeds, T-shirts and every other staple of an Irish tourist shop.
Monica says that about 45 per cent of their sales are to people in Butte who like Irish tweed, crystal, music, food and so on but that most are to tourists who come to Butte to trace their roots. “Most Irish who made it west of the Rockies probably passed through Butte,” Monica says. “Today we get people looking for mugs, sweatshirts and all sorts of souvenirs with the words ‘Butte Irish’ on them.”
ST PATRICK’S CEMETERY, BUTTE, is about 6,750km from Ireland, but, what with the names on the headstones and the Celtic crosses, you could be in Co Cork: Sullivans, Crowleys, McCormicks, Keanes and Ryans, although the barren landscape and snow-capped hills hint at the difference in location. Closer inspection also reveals the sad tale of an Irish mining legacy: brothers, cousins, fathers and uncles lie side by side, and they often didn’t make it out of their 20s. The graves are well tended, and, as elsewhere in Butte, the strong sense is of a community that stuck together.