St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. Time for everyone, Irish or not, to put an O’ in front of your name and get your Irish on.
Of course, if the director of Irish Studies at the University of Montana did so it’d be a wee case of overkill.
He’d become Traolach O’O’Riordain.
When “Terry” O’Riordain first started teaching an Irish language class as UM began a minor in Irish Studies in 2005-06, 13 students registered for it.
Today, more than 400 study Irish history, culture, literature, dance, drama and music at UM – with more than 200 of them enrolled in the language classes alone.
“We don’t have the staff to keep up with the interest,” O’Riordain says.
The popularity of the classes speaks, says Pat Byrne, to the important role Irish immigrants played in the history of Montana, not to mention the role they played in the history of their native land.
Byrne, a member of the Friends of Irish Studies, which helps provide support for UM’s program, recalls Ireland President Mary McAleese’s visit to Missoula in 2006.
McAleese came bearing a check from the Irish government for $43,000 to help launch UM’s minor in Irish studies.
“She talked about the time of Irish survival and the War of Independence, when Montana stood alongside New York as one of the great contributors to the effort,” Byrne says. “She quoted an old Chinese proverb, that ‘Those who draw the water should not forget those who dug the well.’ ”
“It goes back 150 years,” O’Riordain says, “to the time Irish immigrants made Montana their home, but held Ireland in their hearts.”
Most came to Butte to work the mines for one of their own, County Cavan-born and Montana Copper King Marcus Daly, who recruited them and provided good-paying jobs in an America where “No Irish Need Apply” signs were otherwise commonplace.
“Out here in the mountains of Montana they built their own town,” O’Riordain says. Daly “comported himself like a Gaelic chieftain who paid good wages and got loyalty in return. It’s inspiring, because the kids of those miners became doctors, lawyers and politicians in this state.”
Irishmen such as Daly and Thomas Francis Meagher – an important figure in the fight for Irish independence, who somehow wound up thousands of miles from home as territorial governor of Montana – left the state with much stronger ties to Ireland than any of our neighbors.
When Gerry Staunton, the Irish Consul General, visited Montana in 2009, he certainly picked up on it.
“Oh, and they treated him like a lord,” O’Riordain says. “Gave him a parade in Butte, raised the tricolour (the Irish flag) over the Capitol in Helena, handed out whiskey to toast Thomas Francis Meagher and stuffed him with prime rib at O’Malley’s up at Canyon Ferry.”
As he swung through five Montana cities, Staunton met so many people of Irish descent and heard so many stories on how their families had come to land in Montana that he announced, “This stuff has to be recorded.”
Ireland, he promised, would help fund such a project.
“The Gathering: Collected Oral Histories of the Irish in Montana” – the only project of its kind in America – is the ongoing result.
In three years more than 140 Irish Montanans, such as Elizabeth McNamer of Billings, born in County Tipperary, and Johanna Prindiville of Bozeman, born in County Cork, have told their stories to researchers from UM.
“The stories we have collected so far are remarkable,” says Bernadette Sweeney, a UM assistant professor who helped launch the project. “Stories of miners, mothers, ranchers, politicians, people who raised large families on barely anything at all, people who changed laws, educated, nursed, brawled, people who made fortunes and lost them.”
The oral histories, which can be accessed online through the project’s website, mtirishgathering.org, are also a part of an exhibition currently up at the Mansfield Library on the UM campus, which houses the collection.
“There’s a lot of pride in being Irish,” says Bob Whaley of Lolo, one of the participants.
The same goes for Americans of many descents, be they Italian, German, Swedish, Norwegian or something else, Whaley adds.
“If you’re fortunate enough to have enough of a country’s blood in your background … there’s an interest there if you want to take it,” he says. “We’re all mongrels to a large degree, but if you can break out the thoroughbred and put your money on that, then why not?”
O’Riordain is almost as Irish as they come, save for the fact that he was born in New York.
Before he was 2 years old, his immigrant parents had moved the family back to Ireland, in 1966.
“Things were starting to improve in Ireland,” O’Riordain says. “We lived in an Irish area of the Bronx, but my father was a farm boy. He wanted to go home, so home is where we went.”
O’Riordain grew up speaking both Irish and English, double-majored in Irish language and history in college, and earned his doctorate in Irish culture nationalism from University College Cork.
That landed him a job in the United States … working construction.
“You could have opened an academy with all the PhD’s mixing concrete,” O’Riordain says.
O’Riordain returned to Ireland in 1999 to publish his thesis, and was working there – “Driving truck for my brother,” he says with a laugh – when a friend told him people were looking for an Irish teacher in Montana.
Montana Gaelic Cultural Society co-founders Tom Sullivan and Richard Newman, O’Riordain says, had gotten the Irish language ball rolling in Montana with Irish language immersion programs. In 2001, it was arranged to offer the classes through UM.
O’Riordain arrived to teach it for a semester, and except for a year spent at the University of Notre Dame, has been in Missoula since.
He returns to Ireland every summer for two months, leading a 10-day tour that changes every year and draws many repeat customers. When it’s done, he and his family head for the Gaeltact, one of the areas in Ireland where Irish remains the primary language.
It’s a challenging language to learn, O’Rioradin says, but a beautiful and precise one.
“Very user-friendly,” he says. “In the English language we love everything – we love our wife, we love our dog, we love spaghetti. In Irish, you make distinctions between them. The Bible in Irish is probably the most poetic thing you’ll ever read.”
O’Riordain speaks only Irish at home to his three young children, who know both English and Irish. The kids, and his wife, accompany him to Ireland each summer, and last year he wound up in a humorous exchange with the head of a nursery school he was trying to get his now 5-year-old daughter Roisin in while they were there.
It was no place for a child from Montana, O’Riordain was told. The children who attend speak no language except Irish.
“Ta Gaolainn liofa ag Roisin,” O’Riordain told her, assuring her Roisin spoke fluent Irish.
“Ta gach dabht. Na fuil Gaolainn liofa ages nah heinne i Montana!” came the reply, which essentially means that of course all young girls in Montana are fluent in the Irish language.
Well, at least one is.
And other Montanans are learning the language, and dance, and music. They’re sponsoring multiple Irish festivals in the summertime, bringing in Irish musicians year-round, and recording their family histories and connections to Eire.
“When you talk Irish studies, the roots are already here in the community,” O’Riordain says. “The culture is not something you take out and do an autopsy on. It’s a living thing.”
There are people, he admits, for which St. Patrick’s Day “is a day to drink beer and wear green hats.”
“But for many people here,” O’Riordain adds, “it’s far richer, and goes far deeper.”