I have always been fascinated by the whole idea of Irish America.
It was a term I first heard used at home in Ireland by returned immigrants speaking of their time in the United States. It was clear from the way they spoke that this was a real place, possessing a spiritual and physical dimension. It was inhabited by a people who traced their ancestry back to Ireland and whose distinct Irish culture united them into a self-identifying group. I first entered this world in New York and came to know it as a place of welcome and support. The Irish Americans went way beyond the call of duty to help the newly arrived Irish of my generation. They perceived us as poor immigrants like their forefathers who needed their help; we called them "Here-borns," Irish born here, a term that clearly stated that these American-born Irish were our people. As part of this community, our New York was like a little Ireland, a home from home. I soon came to discover that this little Ireland extended way beyond New York: it was in Boston; it was in San Francisco; and it was in Montana.
I came to Montana in the 1990s to visit Butte, a place I had heard about growing up in Cork. Butte is unique in the Irish-American world. It is a city that the Irish built from the ground up; it reflected their heritage and their identity; it embodied their culture. It was this culture that struck me when I first arrived. A culture leaves its mark, not in the physical sense or biological sense; it does not change our appearance or affect our DNA; it leaves its imprint on the soul of a people. There is a spirit or a soul in Butte that is profoundly Irish and reaches out to touch visitors from the homeland. Butte is Irish in both the spiritual and physical sense, it is a city that could be transported to Ireland and not be out of place. I'm reminded of my late father's observation that Butte is a town where "the golden age may have passed, but the spirit is still alive, the voices of past generations echo on every street."
Any time an Irishman speaks of "voices of past generations" he is referring to tradition. Tradition in the Irish sense is something that exists outside of time, impervious to the progress of time and its index of change. It refers to what remains constant, immutable; it is the ancestral voice telling us who we are, where we come from and what we stand for. Butte has been shaped by this tradition: Butte is why Montana is Irish; Butte is why Montana is an integral part of the Irish American world; Butte is why there is an Irish Studies program at the University of Montana.
The Irish Studies program in Missoula is unique in uniting academic research with a commitment to preserving the living traditions of language, music and dance. Without this commitment Irish Studies would be a program without a soul; a lifeless thing or corpse to be dissected and analyzed by professors and students. Traditions cannot be handed down in a university alone, however; they are transmitted by communities.
The Irish who set about reclaiming their Gaelic patrimony in the early 1900s recognized this as they abandoned universities and colleges to spend their summers in traditional communities along the western seaboard of Ireland. Here professors and students joined with the custodians of Ireland's Gaelic culture to establish immersion camps in language, music and dance, the precursors to the Irish language summer colleges that were central to the Irish revival. Interestingly, these summer colleges were funded primarily by money from America with Butte and New York, the two most generous donors.
With such a history, it is not surprising that of only two week-long immersion courses offered nationally, one should be in Butte, Montana. Commencing July 19 and concluding July 26, this course is particularly noteworthy for the richness and diversity of its program. There are over five hours of language instruction each day, two hours of instruction in Ceili; (traditional dance) and Set-dancing, and evening lectures and video presentations on Irish history and literature. Drawing on the scholarship of the University of Montana and the support of the community, this immersion camp marks an important step forward in making Montana a national center of Irish and Irish Gaelic Studies. For more details, please contact www.irishmontana.com.
Traolach O Riordain is a professor of Irish language and Irish literature the University of Montana.