Butte, Ireland’s Fifth Province

Did any of your Irish immigrant ancestors work in American mines? Perhaps the coalfields of Pennsylvania, the copper mines in Michigan, or the gold mines of California or Alaska? Even more likely, they may have been drawn to the silver and copper mines in Butte, Montana.

In an article written for ButteAmerica.com, George Everett suggests that Butte could be called Ireland’s fifth province. (For newbies to Irish geography, the first four provinces are Connacht, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster…)

Butte was once known as ‘The Richest Hill on Earth’, and thousands of new immigrants (Irish, in particular) brought their mining experience and ambition to this remote area. An oft-told story is about the advice given to those contemplating emigration from Ireland, “Don’t tarry in America, go straight to Butte!”

Butte was a unique city with a special connection to Ireland. Cavan-born, Gaelic-speaking Marcus Daly became “Copper King” when he anticipated the demand for copper as the electrical age dawned. Daly saw the potential for mining the big veins of copper found in silver lodes and surrounded himself with fellow Irishmen. His Anaconda copper mine paid the best wages in the entire U.S.

Many Irish came to Butte, mostly from Counties Cork, Mayo and Donegal. As David Emmons wrote in his book Butte Irish, by 1900 one-quarter of the Butte population was Irish, a bigger percentage than any city in the United States including Boston. Of the 1700 people who emigrated to America from the parish of Eyeries in County Cork between 1870 and 1915, 1138 ended up in Butte. About 77 different Sullivan families came from Castletownbere, Cork; by the early twentieth century there were 1200 Sullivans in Butte.

Because it was a new city, Butte had no pre-existing community of middle class Americans. The Irish newcomers were able to take places at every level of Butte society. Their politics and religious views prevailed. It’s been reported there were as many as ten Catholic churches and nine Catholic grade schools in the 1950s. Supposedly Irish-Catholic miners referred to waste rock as “Protestant ore.”

If you have extended family members who ventured to Butte, there are a number of good sources for research. Here’s a partial list:

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