An exhibit depicting Irish immigration to Montana opened this month half a world away at the University of College Cork in Ireland, with nearly 200 people attending the opening reception.
Bernadette Sweeney, an Irish native and assistant professor of theater and dance at the University of Montana, attended the opening, accompanied by Cork Deputy Mayor John Collins and University of College Cork President Michael Murphy.
The shindig in that faraway land marks a celebration of Irish immigration to Montana and is part of a larger project here at home known simply as “The Gathering.”
The project looks to collect and archive the oral histories of Irish Americans living in Montana. The interviews will be held in perpetuity at the Mansfield Library at UM and a catalogue of interviews, published in December, will be available Saturday at the Celtic Festival in Missoula.
“Those who use The Gathering collection can listen to the voices of each participant, hear their inflections, accents and idioms,” Sweeney said. “Our ultimate aim is to make these voices and stories available worldwide through the Internet.”
The idea behind The Gathering and its various spin-off programs, including the exhibit in Ireland, “From Rocky Shores to the Rocky Mountains: The Irish in Montana,” started in 2009.
Back then, Traolach O’Riordain, the current director of Irish Studies at UM, and former director Katie Kane, met with the Irish Consul General to discuss the history of Irish America and the need to preserve it.
Sweeney got involved shortly after moving to Montana from County Clare, Ireland, with her husband, a Butte native of Irish descent. The Gathering Project was born and Sweeney’s team set out to collect the stories.
“A lot of our interest comes from Anaconda and Butte, but we’ve gotten interest from across Montana, including Hardin and West Yellowstone,” Sweeney said. “We’ve also gotten interviews in Ireland.”
Speaking by Skype from Ireland on Wednesday, Sweeney spoke of the project’s participants, like Pat Sweeney, whose grandfather, a Corkoran, left Ireland for Butte with his three brothers in the 1890s.
There’s Celine Maloney, who grew up in County Kerry on Valentia Island before moving to Butte after hearing Bruce Springsteen on the radio. And Sarah O’Donnell, who left Montana when her mother died and was raised on a farm in Carndonagh.
The Gathering team has collected more than 100 such interviews so far, plus 40 on video. In a way, Sweeney said, the stories are something of a time capsule serving as a snapshot of Irish Americans living in contemporary Montana.
“In 100 years time, it’ll be really remarkable to the people who listen to these stories,” Sweeney said. “We have a lot of stories about family heritage, but the experience of being an Irish American in the context of living in contemporary America is an interesting thing.”
Sweeney said many of the interviewees have shared memories of their Irish parents and grandparents who came to work in Butte. There are ranchers, too, and other trades found in Montana’s early industrial days.
“The main story is just sheer determination in the face of real hardship,” Sweeney said. “A lot of people left Ireland under extreme cases of poverty or political pressure of some kind.”
Most immigrants to Montana came from West Cork, though nearly all Irish counties are represented in The Gathering, Sweeney said. Even Kay Schweitzer, mother of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, was interviewed about her own parent’s immigration from Ireland before her passing.
“No two interviews are the same, even if they reference the same historical moment, person or tradition,” Sweeney said. “One of our interviewees finished with, ‘That’s it, and most of it’s true.’ That’s my favorite. I keep coming back to it again and again.”
The project is funded by the Irish government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and UM, along with the Butte Silver-Bow Archive, the Montana Historical Society, Humanities Montana and others.