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Mar thosach, bamhaith le GaeilThírnaSpéireMóirebeannachtaí ó chroí a bhreithdárgcairdeuilearfudna Rockies agus go mórmhór do luchtléiteannuachtáinsaoithiúilseo. Translated into the finest Cork English this reads ‘To begin, the Irish of Big Sky Country would like to extend their best wishes to all our friends throughout the Rockies and especially to the readers of this learned newspaper.’ This column marks the first of a number we plan to write telling of the goings-on of the Irish in Montana. As many of you already know, Montana is a very Irish state, home to a people whose historical experience is very unique. Unlike the Irish emigrants in other parts of the United States, the Irish of Montana didn’t come to an existing city; they didn’t have to accommodate to entrenched civic, economic, and political hierarchies; they came to a hill and built a city that reflected their culture, their faith, and their heritage. That city was Butte.
In the early 1900s Butte was home to 100,000 people and a very vibrant Irish culture. The Irish language was a spoken language in the town, Irish music and Irish dance provided much of the popular entertainment, and a very competitive Gaelic Football championship survived down to World War II. In the heyday of the mining industry, Butte was a major contributor to the Irish Revival, the Home Rule movement, and the struggle for independence. Most of the great Irish leaders of the time, from Douglas Hyde to Eamon de Valera, visited Butte and established lifelong friendships with the people there.
Many of the descendants of the original emigrants to Butte have since moved to other parts of Montana and the United States, their love and attachment to Irish culture still animating and defining who they are. Today, Montana is home to seven active divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, numerous music and dance classes, Irish language groups and three distinct Irish festivals: The Celtic Festival in Missoula; An RíRá in Butte; and the Scottish/Irish Festival in the Bitterroot. Montana is also home to the largest and most comprehensive Irish Studies program west of the Mississippi.
The Irish Studies Program at the University of Montana [UM], Missoula, is a product of a collaboration between the community, faculty at UM, and the Irish Consulate in San Francisco. A community organization, The Montana Gaelic Cultural Society, was established in 1997 to teach the Irish language and to promote Irish Gaelic culture in the state. In 2001, this group succeeded in having Irish taught at the University of Montana, and, in 2003, they invited the then Consul-General, Dónal Denham, to visit the university and to assist in advancing their proposal to create an Irish Studies program. Mr. Denham’s visit was very successful and a program was founded in 2005 and officially launched by the President of Ireland, Mrs. Mary McAleese, in May 2006.
The Irish Studies program at UM is an inter-disciplinary and inter-collegiate collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Visual and Performing Arts. It unites a rigorous academic study of the culture to a commitment to preserving and promoting the living culture of language, music and dance. The curriculum includes courses in Irish language, literature, history, music, dance, and drama to ensure that students receive a unique in-depth understanding and training in Irish Studies as well as a broad-based exposure to that vibrant and imaginative culture that continues to unite and inspire the people of the United States and Ireland. It also sets the University of Montana apart as the only university to unite the academic and the artistic in the treatment of Irish culture.
The program offers an 18-credit minor with an emphasis on the Irish language and Irish Gaelic culture. The emphasis on the Irish language places UM alongside Notre Dame, Indiana, as the only two universities in the United States to offer such an Irish Studies minor. The growth of the program has exceeded all expectations: The dance and music classes fill to capacity every year; and the Irish language program has grown from two courses to five and from 13 students in 2005 to nearly 200 this year. On a final note, the Irish Studies program at UM in conjunction with the Irish Government also hosts the Gathering, a project designed to collect the oral histories of the Irish of Montana as well as many of the existing written and visual records going back to the time of the first emigrants.
The success of the program is due in no small way to the contribution of the Irish Government, in particular An RoinnEalaíon, Oidhreachtaagus Gaeltachta; the Fulbright Organization; Mr. Gerry Staunton and all the staff at the Irish Consulate in San Francisco; Humanities Montana; and the Friends of Irish Studies. The Friends are worthy of a special mention. This non-profit 501c3 corporation was established to secure funding for the development of the program and to provide the community with access to the resources of Irish Studies. Their members come from all over the United States, from Boston to LA and from Seattle to Florida. They have helped to fund the Irish history program, Irish language, music and dance programs; they have sponsored Irish musicians and community concerts in Butte, Missoula, and Bozeman; they organize Irish language and history classes in the community; and they run the Irish language immersion week in Butte every summer as well as the annual guided tour to Ireland. Some of their activities are listed in the ad on this page. If you are interested in participating in any of these events or helping the Friends to bring Irish culture to the Irish of the Rockies, please contact Clair Leonard at or the Friends at The Friends are particularly committed to helping students of the Irish language, so if you’re struggling with learning the language get in touch.
This is where we finally sign off, thank God say you! We’ll be back next month with more news from the north. We also plan to add some basic Irish conversation in our next column. If there is anything that is of particular interest to you, please let us know. In the meantime, guimidgachrath ort [we wish you all the best].
Traolach O’Roirdain, The Irish Studies Program at the University of Montana, Missoula

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