An Irishman's Diary


A small but interesting art exhibition in Kilkenny caught my eye recently. It carries the title “A Tribute to the Irish Community Butte Montana (1916-1919)”, which sounds somewhat sober. But this is misleading, because the paintings are in fact rather quirky and playful.

They depict historic scenes from the Rocky Mountain mining town in exaggerated, cartoonish detail. The 1919 visit of Éamon de Valera, for example, is witnessed as through the eyes of a child. And this is no accident, because artist Amanda Jane Graham is conveying memories heard at the knee of her grandmother, whose own early years were spent in Butte.

The stories from Montana became etched permanently on Amanda’s imagination. “I can still visualise my grandmother as a child enjoying cowboy shoot-outs, or enduring the overcrowding in cars as the community travelled vast distances to listen to De Valera,” she writes.

And many Irish people will have similar stories, handed down by the thousands of emigrants who trekked out west to Butte during its copper-mining heyday. But the bit about the cowboy shoot-outs had particular resonance for me.

I never heard any stories directly from my namesake grandfather, who spent time in America around the start of the last century. He died, aged 87, a decade before I was born. So I depended largely on the memories of his only son, my father, who as bad luck would have it, had himself post-dated the US adventures and knew very little about them.

Even so, I’ll always remember the day I asked him what Frank Snr had done in America way back then. At which point I heard, for the first time, that my grandfather had been a “deputy sheriff in Montana”.

Modest as this job description might be, there was something quite thrilling about it too. We were talking about the wild west, after all: the state wherein, when my grandfather was a child, General Custer was getting his comeuppance at the hands of Crazy Horse.

Although it had to have been the 1890s, at the earliest, before Frank Snr reached it, well, the west of Montana – including Butte – must still have been barely tamed.

Even into the 20th century, the state had many notorious outlaws, like Dutch Henry Jauch, a prolific horse thief who thrived until 1906, when a person or persons unknown retired him permanently. Such was the level of criminality locally, in fact, that the state’s early lawmen had faced very stiff competition from vigilantes.

I imagined my grandfather engaged in shoot-outs at corrals, winging the odd rogue cowboy, or – perhaps more heroically – saving one from a lynch-mob, while lecturing the vigilantes that their ways were outdated, that the rule of law would henceforth be observed, and that the accused was entitled to a fair trial before being hanged.

BUT WHEN I finally visited Montana some years ago, I found my ancestor as hard to track down as some of those horse rustlers must have been. The nearest I got to his trail was an 1897 census for Anaconda: the smelting town, built by and named after the copper mining company, 17 miles from Butte.

Among the listed residents of a boarding house was a Frank McNally and his two sisters, Annie and Mary: which, common as those names are, fits with family history. As for tracing his law career, the local police chief could only give me a list of former sheriffs.

Sheriffs had to run for election, and so were on the historical record. Whereas deputies were hand-picked, and went under the radar. Unless, that is, they distinguished themselves by getting shot: which as a local museum curator pointed out, many did. But I knew my grandfather had made it back to Ireland alive.

In fact, it was fairly typical of the Montana Irish experience that male emigrants returned home eventually, having saved enough money to set themselves up, whereas women stayed. So it was with both my grandfather’s sisters. And thanks to them, the search for Deputy McNally didn’t go completely unrewarded.

I knew I had a cousin in Butte: Rosie Garvey. In fact, not only does Rosie live in Butte, she lives in the old part: up on what was once the “richest hill on earth”, where the streets are still named after rocks and minerals, and where a few stately buildings hint at the greatness the town seemed bound for until copper prices collapsed after the first World War.

Rosie had mentioned an heirloom she wanted me to have: a souvenir of my grandfather’s time there. And some of me hoped it would be a Colt revolver or a Winchester rifle. But in the event, when I visited her home on Granite Street, what she gave me was a “night stick”: a lead-filled wooden baton.

Obviously, the wild west wasn’t quite what it had been by the time my grandfather arrived. Still, the baton was a fascinating piece of history, and clearly much used. Indeed, when I mentioned it to the museum curator, he coveted it for his collection. But it was already a prized possession by then, so I promised unconvincingly to leave it to him in my will.

In the meantime, there was the problem of getting it back to Ireland. And in this sense, it may be just as well it wasn’t a gun. My visit to Montana occurred not long after 9/11 when US airline security was still on high alert. Travelling with a lead-filled baton, however historical, might be misunderstood. So after much consideration, I sent it home separately, by registered post.

Amanda Jane Graham’s exhibition runs at the Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny, until August 3rd.