It is not known with any degree of certainty who were the first Europeans of the westward migration to settle in Montana, but it seems reasonable to state that the Irish, if not the first, were the group who came in the largest numbers and had the greatest impact on the history and culture of the state. Evidence of their presence is preserved to this day in the Native-American and European traditions of the state. The Méti people of Montana, a mixed-blood community who trace their ancestry back to the intermarriage of Indian and Irish-speaking settlers, celebrate a unique culture of music and dance that is unquestionably of Irish Gaelic provenance. The first governor of Montana Territory was Thomas Francis Meagher, veteran of the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848 in Ireland and the celebrated commander of the Fighting 69 th during the American Civil War. A statue of Meagher, with sword aloft, stands in bold defiance in front of the Capitol House in Helena to this very day. It seems that Montana of those earlier days held an attraction for the ‘fighting Irish.' Another celebrated soldier who is still spoken of is Captain Myles Keogh of Co. Carlow, Ireland. Keogh was born to be a warrior: he was awarded the Papal Medal for services to the Pope during the Risorgimento in Italy, he served with distinction during the American Civil War, and joined with General Custer as a captain in the ill-fated attack on Sitting Bull and the Indian confederation camped on the Little Big Horn, in June of 1876. Keogh's bravery so impressed his foes that they honored him by leaving his body untouched and his horse, Comanche, by his side - the only living thing on the battlefield. Legend has it that the Indians, believing the Papal medal to be a talisman, removed it and gave it to Sitting Bull. Later pictures of the great Sioux Chief show him with a crucifix and silver disk around his neck - Keogh's Papal Medal! This classic western theatre, however, serves as a backdrop for one of the most amazing stories of the Irish in America – the building of the city of Butte.
The city of Butte stands out like an independent state, a kind of oasis, if you will, where all that is diverse about America comes together. It was located in the bosom of the American west and yet it was a highly industrialized city. It was, as David Emmons pointed out in his seminal text The Butte Irish, the place where the culture of the eastern United States and the west converged. It was also a city unlike any other in the Irish experience; for where the Irish would come and accommodate to the great metropolises of the east coast like Boston and New York, the Irish in Montana would build the city of Butte from the ground up and shape its character to reflect their Irish, Catholic and Gaelic ethos and heritage. The Irish also controlled a large part of the mining industry from the top down. The great Irish Copper King was Marcus Daly, a native-Irish speaker from Co. Cavan who, unlike the other industry barons of this period, deported himself in the manner of an old Irish Gaelic Chieftain, and conceived of his employees in terms of clients on whom his economic and political success depended. He surrounded himself with fellow Irishmen and he paid his workers the best wages in the United States. While Daly and his successors ran the mines, Butte never went on strike. The merging of the mines into the Anaconda Company in 1917 also defined the relationship between employer and employee according to a new set of terms and this Irish town soon became the great battle ground in the history of American labour.
If Butte was making a name for itself for industrial unrest, it was also drawing the attention of the authorities for its intense Irish nationalism. The Butte Irish had quickly formed fraternal cultural and political organizations dedicated to the promotion of Ireland, her culture and political freedom. Irish miners had gone to South Africa during the Boer War to fight with the Boers against the English, and the onset of the First World War generated such anti-English and pro-German feeling that martial law had to be introduced in 1917. Butte's Irish nationalism didn't just express itself in protest, the cultural and political societies of the city contributed as much as New York and other big cities to the cause of preserving the Irish language and the attainment of Irish independence. In fact, the town became so influential that the great nationalist leaders of 20 th century Ireland, such as Douglas Hyde, Eamon de Valera, Mrs. Mary McSwiney and others, made it a point to come to Butte on their nationwide campaigns for assistance. When they arrived, they found a city where the Irish language was spoken, Irish dance and music were known to all, Irish Gaelic football was played competitively, and local papers reported tidings from Ireland as faithfully as local and national news.
Butte's muscular Irish identity began to shape the cultural, political and civic institutions of the State of Montana also. It was Butte and the neighbouring city of Anaconda (where the smelter was located) that produced the priests and clergy who built the Catholic Church in Montana. They created and staffed the education system which in turn graduated a new and educated generation of Irish who would use their education to move up the legal and judicial system and establish a powerful presence in all the professions. The struggle to secure a just wage saw Irishmen emerge as the great union and political leaders in the state. These young Irish-Americans spread throughout the state so that today the Irish are found in large numbers in all the cities of Montana and identified through their pride in their Irish heritage. This pride is seen in their loyalty to one another and in the proliferation of Irish societies throughout Montana. The Irish Catholic fraternal group, The Ancient Order of Hibernians, has seven vibrant chapters in the state; Irish dance schools are found in every major town; Irish pipers and piping bands are commonplace; and the Irish language is studied by numerous groups statewide. In 1997 a new organization, The Montana Gaelic Cultural Society, was established to coordinate activities and to establish a more organized approach to the teaching of the Irish language and the promotion of Irish Gaelic culture. This group began to organize immersion weekends and brought teachers in from Ireland to provide language instruction. Their vision inspired faculty at The University of Montana to collaborate in designing an Irish Studies program that allied rigorous academic research to the commitment to the preservation of the ancient Irish Gaelic language and culture. Students study Irish literature and history, learn of Ireland's unique contribution to western civilization, the role of the Irish in America, and, in particular, the much neglected but extremely important contribution of Irish America to the evolution of politics, culture and society in Ireland. The cultural dimension of the program aims to teach students to speak Irish fluently, acquire modern teaching methods to pass the language on to others, learn and participate in Irish music, dance, theatre and film.
In 2006, her Excellency, Mrs. Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, officially launched this program and reminded those present that those ‘who draw the water should not forget those who dug the wells.' Those who dug the wells were the early immigrants from Ireland who worked and sacrificed to pass on their faith, culture and heritage. The Irish Studies program is a continuation of that work, part of a legacy or tradition inherited from an earlier generation with all the obligations such entails. One obligation is to make this culture accessible to all, not just in Montana but throughout the nation. The Irish of Montana do not see themselves as a people apart; rather, they look upon themselves as an integral part of Irish America, a community of common descent that traces its heritage back to the people and island of Ireland. Therefore, their Irish Studies program is one they wish to share with the greater Irish American community in a united effort to preserve their unique identity. Anyone interested in learning more about Irish Studies should contact The University of Montana at http://www.cas.umt.edu/irishstudies. This is a state institution and, as such, has low tuition costs. Faculty at The University of Montana also remains committed to working with local Irish societies in their efforts to preserve the culture in their respective communities. This summer an immersion week in Irish language, dance and history will be offered for the first time in Butte, Montana and all are invited to participate.
The purpose of this page is to keep the community of Montana and Irish America informed of all activities of shared interest. It is also designed to disseminate knowledge of Montana's rich Irish heritage and to facilitate the creation, re-forging and strengthening of relationships between Montana and the greater Irish community.