It's a long way from Tipperary to Helmville. Sometime in the 1860s, William Laherty completed the journey.

The Gearys filtered into the valley too, and the Coughlins, the McCormicks, the Lynches - native Irish all - years before Marcus Daly fired up his prolific Irish copper mines in Butte.

Why there? Why then?

"Gold," said Billy McCormick, a descendant of the valley's earliest settlers. "Most of them went to Blackfoot City (west of Avon) first, then they came to Helmville and started farming."

"I think probably some came in the beginning for the gold, but then found the land was the important thing," said McCormick's cousin, Mary Ann McKee. "When they got to Helmville and settled here, it became a little like Ireland."

Helmville's not alone. Irish roots are scattered across the Montana landscape, and the influence of the Emerald Isle is tangible in such unexpected places as Plentywood, Shonkin, the Boulder River Valley and the Flathead Indian Reservation.

"St. Patrick's Day is not just a Butte holiday," said David Emmons, a longtime University of Montana history professor. "Montana has a disproportionate share of Irish almost from one end of the state to the other, from Sheridan County to Hamilton."

Emmons, who has taught Irish history and culture at UM for years, wrote "The Butte Irish" in the 1980s. He said Montana's Irish Catholic influence is hard to understate.

In 1910, some 77 percent of the state's churchgoers claimed to be Catholic. That was second only to New Mexico, which was at 95 percent "obviously owing to the Spanish indigenous population."

"Montana was not as easily explained," said Emmons. "We're talking about a pretty obvious and clear Irish presence, plus the French-Canadians and some Italians, and some Croatians. But it's mostly an Irish phenomenon."

As late as 1971, 31 of Montana's 56 counties were predominantly Catholic.

Butte was the most Irish town in America in its mining heyday, with more Irish Catholics per capita than Boston or San Francisco. It remains Montana's acknowledged Irish center, especially on St. Patrick's Day and the Irish festival An Ri Ra, which drew some 14,000 to the Mining City last August.

"Butte still plays a very important part, historically, in the Irish imagination," said Terry O'Riordain, adjunct professor of modern Irish language and literature at UM.

But later generations of the original community of Butte Irish Catholics have spread out throughout the state, he said.

Other cities, such as Missoula, heartily embrace their Irishness these days. Helmville is reviving its St. Patrick's Day parade on Saturday, along with a potluck meal and dance.

When Ireland's president, Mary McAleese, visited Montana last May, she spoke of the "complex relationship between the Irish and the Native American people."

That relationship was spotlighted a few years ago, when an Irish delegation in Missoula was treated to a Metis musical performance. The similarities were unmistakable.

"Their jaws just dropped," said O'Riordain. "All these kids playing Irish jigs. You couldn't distinguish between Metis music and the music from back home."

We say we're all Irish on St. Patrick's Day. But those words might have got you a poke in the nose, or worse, a century and more ago.

Ethnic and religious tensions helped define the territorial and early statehood days of Montana, and Irish Catholics were right in the middle of the fracas.

Thomas F. Meagher, Irish revolutionary and Civil War general, was acting governor of Montana Territory when he set out to launch an Irish Catholic colonization movement.

Pugnacious, charismatic and Irish to the core, Meagher was a burr under the saddles of the Masonic Lodge, a strong and strongly anti-Catholic order. Most of Montana's first Vigilance Committee were Masons, led by Wilbur Fisk Sanders.

"No question Meagher did antagonize some very, very powerful Republican forces and Masonic forces in Virginia City," Emmons said.

Whether that led to Meagher's disappearance over the railing of a steamboat at Fort Benton in 1867 is one of Montana's great mysteries.

"I'm not suggesting he was shoved," said Emmons, who did point out that Sanders was also in Fort Benton at the time.

Much of Meagher's colonization work ended with his death. But by the mid-1880s, Irish workers were pouring into Butte to work in Daly's Anaconda Copper Co. mines.

Four mines were almost totally worked by Irish Catholics, and they provided the backdrop for Daly's explosive feud with another mining magnate. William Andrews Clark was a Protestant and Mason from Northern Ireland.

That feud, said Emmons, "was not unlike the troubles of modern Ireland."

The battle raged from 1888 until Daly's death in 1900.

"Daly-Clark had, I think, absolutely nothing to do with business rivalry. I think it had absolutely nothing to do with who was going to be president in 1888," Emmons said. "I think it had everything to do with the tension between the Irish-Catholic and the Ulster-Scotch, Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian, whatever you want to call them."

Those factors, he said, played into the Capital Fight of 1894. Anaconda, Daly's town, was largely Catholic. Clark argued Helena was a Protestant town, though it really wasn't, Emmons said.

Helena won, and Daly had an in-your-face answer. He collected money from his miners in Butte to erect a statue of Meagher, his fellow Irish revolutionary, who had been dead for more than a quarter century.

The statue sits in front of the Capitol in Helena today.

"If you look at pictures of the Capitol before the vegetation grew up, the statue's almost bigger than the building," Emmons said. "In a sense, Meagher's statue is a great big middle-digit finger thrown up by Irish Catholics who said: 'Look at this every day.' Daly said as much."

When the Flathead Reservation was opened for settlement in 1910, Irish Catholic families fled the Butte mines and snapped up farmland northwest of St. Ignatius. The one-room Catholic church they built in 1916, recently refurbished, is about all that remains of the town of D'aste, on Dublin Gulch Road.

One of Missoula's colorful ties to Ireland was "Baron" Cornelius O'Keefe, great-grandfather of former Mayor John Toole and historian K. Ross Toole.

Like Meagher, O'Keefe was a Young Irelander, a nationalist revolutionary who wound up working on Lt. John Mullan's road crew in America. When Mullan reached the Missoula Valley in the spring of 1860, O'Keefe knew he'd found what he was looking for.

"Farming was what he had in mind, and he found a place he could do it," said Missoula attorney Howard Toole, a son of the late John Toole.

The Baron took up housekeeping on 1,500 acres at the bottom of Evaro Hill. Now heavily housed-over, O'Keefe Meadows remained his home until he died in 1893.

In those years, the Baron saw and helped Montana cut her teeth, always remaining fiercely Irish. He received an appointment from Meagher to be the first Missoula County commissioner and spent two terms in the Territorial Legislature.

Howard Toole's sister, Edith Oberley of Madison, Wisc., researched the Baron's life. John Toole incorporated Oberley's story in his book, "The Baron, The Logger, The Miner, and Me."

Oberley told a version of the first trial in Montana, when O'Keefe defended himself against accusations by a Frenchman named Tin Cup Joe that he killed Tin Cup's horse.

The trial took place in a saloon at Hellgate, west of present-day Missoula, in the winter of 1862. It ended in a melee, shortly after Frank Woody, acting either as judge or prosecutor, asked to see O'Keefe's credentials as a defense attorney.

O'Keefe's reply, said Oberley: "You really want to see my credentials?"

When Woody said yes, "the Baron's fist shot forward, striking that distinguished attorney between the eyes," she reported.

"They made a play out of it when I was growing up and I got to play the Baron," Howard Toole remembered.

There were no on-stage punches, however.

"The line that we came up with was, I raised my fist and said, 'These are my credentials,' " Toole said.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at

A bit o' green

The 27th annual St. Paddy's Day Parade begins at 2 p.m. Saturday at the XXXs on North Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula and continues south on Higgins to the intersection of Beckwith and Hill.

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