HELENA — People packed the Montana State Capitol Friday morning to celebrate the state’s Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day.
For 39 years, the Irish tricolor flag has been raised outside the Capitol. Gov. Greg Gianforte continued that tradition this year. The celebration then moved inside to the rotunda, where state and local leaders read proclamations in honor of Irish heritage, and those in attendance enjoyed performances by the Pipes and Drums of the Black Devils and the Tiernan Irish Dancers.
The green-white-orange tricolor has a special connection with Montana. It was first flown 175 years ago, March 1848, in Waterford, Ireland, by Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher was at that time a prominent Irish nationalist. After being arrested and forced to leave the island, he came to the United States, where he eventually became a Union general during the Civil War – and eventually acting governor of Montana Territory. Meagher was last seen in Fort Benton in 1867, disappearing under mysterious circumstances. Today, he’s honored with a statue on the front lawn of the Capitol, which is decorated with tricolor wrapping every year on St. Patrick’s Day.
Patrick Flaherty is the president of the Thomas Francis Meagher Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Helena chapter of an Irish Catholic fraternal organization. He said the flag raised Friday had a special significance. Mark Daly, chair of the Senate of Ireland, recently raised it in Waterford, at the same spot as Meagher did. Daly then sent that flag to Sen. Shannon O’Brien, co-chair of the Montana Legislature’s new Irish-American Caucus.
Flaherty says Irish heritage remains very alive across Montana – not only in places like Butte and Helena, but in every part of the state.
“It’s very gratifying to see the support and to realize that that people do remember their Irish heritage and remember the Irish heritage of the state,” he said. “The cultural events that we do – the Tiernan Irish dancers, St. Patrick's Day Mass – all of that flows into what it means to be Irish, but also, more importantly to us, what it means to be Montanans.”
Aug. 3, 2023 will also mark the 200th anniversary of Thomas Meagher’s birth.