HELENA — Montana and Irish-American history are closely woven together, with the state seeing a large influx of Irish immigrants during the last four decades of the 19th century. The travel website AFAR noted: "According to the most recent U.S. Census, Butte is the most Irish city in the union per capita; almost a full quarter of its residents are of Irish descent."
"We know that a lot of the Irish that came to Montana came from the Western Seaboard of Ireland, and we know that for the most part were Irish speakers, so they were post-famine immigrants that left Ireland, so when they came here to Montana, they came steeped into Irish Tradition," said Ciara Ryan with the Montana History Foundation.
She added that it was common to hear Gaelic being spoken in Montana a century ago, more specifically in the Butte area. The Irish also brought other traditions from the Emerald Isle through sports. Gaelic football - similar to rugby but with a spherical ball - was popular with teams appearing in Montana around the time of 1880s and 1890s.
David Emmons, a professor at the University of Montana who researches and teaches modern American history on immigration, ethnicity, and labor, says Helena also had a connection. "Helena, because of Carroll College, also became a pretty prominent [Irish] establishment and still is. It still has an Ancient Order of the Hibernians and still has the wonderful statue of Thomas Meager on the Capitol grounds," Emmons said.
During the late 1800s, Irish and Catholics sometimes faced discrimination in the eastern parts of the United States. Montana - Butte and Anaconda in particular - was lauded as a place Irish could go to be free from persecution and make an honest wage for a day’s work. "They did face significant discrimination in the 1850s and again in the 1890s," said Emmons. Signs were posted outside of businesses back east that read, "Irish need not apply." Emmons believes that could have enticed many Irish Americans to head west to Montana.
Irish businessmen gained control of the hard rock mining industry and controlled a large portion of the state’s wealth. Another way Irish Americans showed their strength against the discrimination was by planning and celebrating the Saint Patrick's Day Parade. "It started in New York in 1852, because the Irish were saying we are here," Emmons said.
The website Irish Central noted: "By 1900, half of Butte’s 30,000 population were Irish; Butte’s, suburbs were named Hungry Hill, Dublin Gulch, and Cork Town. Irish societies flourished too, with the Clann na Gaels, the Gaelic League, the Parnell Guard, the Emmet Guard, Daughters of Erin, the Robert Emmet Literary Association, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians."
However, originally Saint Patrick's Day wasn’t traditionally celebrated with a large party that many see now. "Until the 1970s, that was a day if you went to church, you got together with your family and friends and had dinner," Ryan said.
Although many Montanans of Irish ancestry have never been to their ancestor’s homeland, the spirit and traditions of the Emerald Isle are well preserved in the Treasure State.