Throughout its relatively short history, Montana has had a close tie with Ireland, even predating the territory’s first governor, Thomas Meagher.
As Montana was settled, Irish came to work the mines, farm the plains and cut the logs. They came from places like County Donegal, County Clare and County Galway and ended up in places like Missoula, Anaconda and Madison County, said Gary Forney, Ennis author and historian who wrote a biography on Meagher.
The celebration of Madison County’s Irish heritage is planned for June 10 –11 in Virginia City with the second annual Irish Weekend. The festival will include Irish music and dancing, a parade and lectures about the Irish heritage in Montana.
“There were a significant number of Irish that came through Madison County and Virginia City in particular,” Forney said.
Though many of the miners from Virginia City moved on to gold strikes in Helena and Butte, many ranchers stayed and settled in both the Ruby and Madison Valley. William Ennis, founder of the town that bears his name, was from Ireland.
“There still are, particularly in the Ruby Valley, families that have the original connection to Irish families that came out here,” he said.
The Irish Weekend festival celebrates that connection and heritage, said Joe Calnan, organizer of the festival and member of the Thomas Francis Meagher chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Helena. The Ancient Order of Hibernians is an Irish fraternal Catholic men’s organization.
For about 20 years, Calnan’s group has been making an annual pilgrimage to Virginia City each June to keep up on Meagher’s old cabin that still sits on Idaho Street. About three years ago the group decided to try and make a bigger impact on their trips and began organizing the festival.
“What we’re trying to do is have a fun time for families and other people and at the same time have some cultural events,” Calnan said.
Last year’s festival was held mostly on Saturday, but this year things will kick off Friday evening with the painting of a green stripe down Wallace Street, followed by a panel discussion on Irish history and culture at the Elling House. Saturday will begin with Irish flag raising at the Madison County courthouse and conclude with Irish and Celtic music at the Bale of Hay Saloon and Elks Lodge. The weekend concludes with Sunday Mass at 11 a.m.
The entire weekend will be a very family-friendly atmosphere, Calnan said.
“Anything we’re doing you’ll be able to bring kids in there and feel comfortable,” he said.
Included in this year’s event is also a presentation by Bernadette Sweeney, research director for The Gathering, a project at the University of Montana to gather oral histories about the Irish in Montana. She’ll be presenting her project Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Elling House.
Sweeney is from Ireland and moved with her husband, who is from an Irish family in Butte, to Missoula a few years ago.
The idea behind the project, which is principally funded by the UM and Irish government, is to document the Irish impact and story in Montana. The goal isn’t only to interview Irish immigrants, but people who identify with their Irish heritage and who live in Montana. The project has recorded 107 oral histories to date.
Most people in Montana are familiar with the Irish heritage in Butte, but Irish immigrants and families settled land and communities all across the state, Sweeney said.
“There is evidence of immigration to Montana from I’d say every county in Ireland at this point,” she said. “There were a lot of people who came out to work in the support industries that mining generated.”
Many of the Irish immigrants were from rural communities and identified with the frontier way of life and, in later years, with the rural way of life. Many of the early immigrants would work to help pay for the immigration to Montana by friends and relatives, Sweeney said.
“A lot of Irish people came out and then they sent money home for siblings and their cousins and neighbors … you had large populations coming out because those who came before them enabled them to follow,” she said.
In gathering oral histories for The Gathering, Sweeney has yet to roundup stories from people in Madison County and she’s hoping that will change with her visit to Virginia City.
“We’ve got a fairly strong presence across the state now, but that’s one area where we have none,” she said.
Beyond it being a heritage project, The Gathering is also a project to look at how people identify with their Irish heritage, even though it may be buried deep in their past, or to gather stories about modern Irish immigrants.
“It’s very much a heritage project, but it’s not solely that,” she said.
For more information on the Irish Weekend in Viriginia City, visit the Virginia City Chamber’s website at www.virginiacity.com.