BUTTE – A new documentary series called “Her Exiled Children” will bring to light an almost forgotten figure in Irish American history – and he happens to be from Butte.
As part of an ongoing project spearheaded by the University of Montana and director of Irish Studies Traolach O'Riordáin, the series will feature three notable Irish Montanans: Copper King Marcus Daly, former acting Montana territorial governor Thomas Francis Meagher, and Sean O’Sullivan of Butte.
According to Irish Studies Ph.D. student Ciara Ni Riain, O’Sullivan is an unsung hero who made an important contribution to the 1916 Easter Rising.
Ni Riain – who’s writing her dissertation on O’Sullivan – described the Butte resident as a self-educated poet and scholar who followed his family from Ireland to the United States with only a grade-school education.
Ni Riain said O’Sullivan’s lack of education is something that always bothered him, so when we he came to the Mining City in 1905 he spent a majority of his evenings studying in the public library.
“He taught himself when he came to Butte, Montana,” said Ni Riain.
While his nights were spent in quiet, patient study, O’Sullivan’s days were filled with a working-class life.
Throughout his time in Butte he held a variety of jobs, including as a miner, stationary engineer, day laborer and janitor at Butte Central High School.
Of the subjects O’Sullivan studied, the one he was perhaps most passionate about was Irish culture.
A fluent speaker of Irish and English, he wrote poems in both languages and catalogued Irish folk songs from memory, writing them down in his many notebooks and earning a reputation as a “prominent” Irish scholar, Ni Riain said.
Today O Sullivan’s notebooks are housed in the “Father Sarsfield O Sullivan Collection” in the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, 17 W. Quartz St.
“It’s a massive collection,” said Ni Riain, who said over 40 boxes in the archive are filled with O’Sullivan’s writings, correspondences and poems.
However, O’Sullivan wasn’t just a self-made scholar and folklorist – “he was also a fierce Irish nationalist,” Ni Rian said.
O’Sullivan was a member of several nationalist organizations, such as the Robert Emmet Literary Association, Sarsfield Social Club and Thomas Ashe Council and helped raised funds for the Irish rebellion effort, which eventually gave rise to the Easter Rising.
O’Sullivan was also a close personal friend of Eamon de Valera, an Irish politician, and housed leading nationalists who came through Butte.
As for the documentary series, O’Sullivan’s portion will be the third and last film in the sequence, O'Riordáin said. Up first will be a film on Thomas Francis Meagher.
O'Riordáin said the idea for the documentary series rose out of a proposal the Irish Studies Department submitted to the American Conference for Irish Studies last year and which brought the conference to the University of Montana in October.
The point of the project, O'Riordáin said, is to commemorate the Easter Rising and highlight the role that Butte and Anaconda played, which is often underrepresented.
“(We want to) focus national and international attention on the critical role that the Irish of Montana, particularly Butte and Anaconda, played in the movement that culminated in rebellion and, ultimately, the independence of Ireland,” O'Riordáin said in an email to The Montana Standard.
O'Riordáin said he and others involved in the project are currently raising money for the series through grants and an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign; ultimately they want to distribute copies of the documentary series to every library and school in the state.
Should everything go according to plan, O'Riordáin said, the Meagher film will be completed in Fall 2017.