Butte was a hard-edged, dirty, dangerous town on the crest of the Continental Divide, and if a single man lived to his 30th birthday he was considered lucky. Yet entire parishes left the emerald desperation of County Cork for the copper mines of Butte, fleeing a land where British occupiers had once refused to let mothers educate their children, and where famine had killed a million people in seven years’ time.
We are about to enter a long weekend of blarney and excess in celebration of all things Irish. The diaspora is remarkable, in part, for its numbers: a tiny island nation with a population now of 4 million has produced the second-largest ethnic group in the United States — 36 million who trace their primary ancestry to the old sod, according to a 2006 Census report. Both Senators Barack Obama (or is it O’Bama?) and John McCain have some Irish in them, each from his mother’s side.
But before too many pints of Guinness are drained on behalf of a leprechaun-lite version of Ireland’s legacy in the New World, it’s worth remembering an Irish verity from a long-forgotten place like Butte.
It is a city looking for a tomorrow, with too many poor and old, a city of memories, once the biggest between Minneapolis and Seattle. In Butte, you find people on St. Patrick’s Day who remind you that “Danny Boy” was written by an Englishman who most likely never set foot in Ireland. And more than once you will hear this Irish saying: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at who he gives it to.”
I heard something in a graveyard there about 10 years ago, and it has stayed with me, particularly when the Paddy hoo-rah kicks into high gear. I was strolling through St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Butte, looking for family clues. My grandmother had lived in that part of Montana for a spell, and she didn’t miss it — the winter days of 20 below zero, the air so full of grime that the streetlights were turned on at midday. Among the rows of Dalys and McGees, and Grogans and O’Farrells — many having died young, in their teens and 20s — I started up a conversation with a man who was tending the tombstones.
“The thing about the Irish,” he said, “is that we have always been there for the little guy. We go through life as underdogs. We die as underdogs. There is no other way for the Irish.”
Every family, every ethnic group, every country needs a guiding narrative — sometimes more mythic than real. For the Irish, misery is our currency, and the key to all Irish story-telling. Thus we love the book about the most wretched Irish Catholic childhood — Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” — because it solidifies our identity.
It is only when the Irish forget about the underdog, as the keeper of the graves said, that they stray. In the 1930s, there was Father Charles Coughlin, a virulent anti-Semite who had a radio audience larger than that of Rush Limbaugh’s today. He used his microphone for hate. In the 1950s, another man with a link to Ireland, Senator Joseph McCarthy, twined ignorance and fear to make a mockery of congressional inquiry. Today, there are television bullies with Irish surnames on Fox, backing more tax cuts for hedge fund managers, and doing everything they can to keep the poorest of Americans from getting health care.
I’d rather think of Grace Kelly, or George M. Cohan, or Bill Murray, or Bing Crosby (briefly, a college roommate of my grandfather’s at Gonzaga in Spokane). Or John F. Kennedy, despite his many demons. Like many Irish-Americans of my age, I grew up in classrooms with just two pictures on the wall: the Pope, and President Kennedy.
But the glamour Gaelics, much as we love to talk about them, are not what resonates deep in the Irish-American soul. For that, you have to go to the famine — or the Great Hunger, as it was called. A wet summer allowed a potato blight to spread, killing the crop on which so many poor Irish subsisted. Between 1845 and 1851, a million people died, and another million left — a human rights tragedy on a scale of Darfur today. In some counties, one in four people starved to death.
Listless, their bellies bloated before death, many Irish were reduced to foraging in fields; contemporary accounts mentioned the green stains on their teeth from eating grass. Herman Melville wrote of “endless vistas of want and woe staggering arm-in-arm.” And the Choctaw Indian Nation sent cash for relief.
Butte, Montana, was built on the backs of the famine Irish and their children. In another half-century, I fear, Butte may end up a ghost town. But as long as there are Irish who remember where they came from, this city will always be a part of the Irish-American character.