I don’t watch much television. Mainly because, despite the hundreds of channels, the menu is mostly repeats. Every so often, however, something extraordinary airs and I become (dare I admit it?) a Fan.
So it was with the now defunct HBO series Deadwood, which depicted the wild and wooly 19th-century Gold Rush days of the Montana Territory. The show regularly drew harsh criticism for its raw scripting. It offered more bawdy behavior and explosive expletives than an x-rated ﬁlm. More murder and mayhem than The Sopranos. More political pandering and turncoat backstabbing than the nightly news.
Being a gal who can contentedly watch innocent capering on the Disney Channel, this was not the type of programming I would normally view. Being a historian on a continual quest for factual nuggets from the past, I was completely hooked by the ﬁrst few frames of the initial episode. Despite its veneer of blood and blasphemy, Deadwood reeked of authenticity.
During the final season’s exposé of miners being robbed of their gold claims in a ruthless corporate take-over, the ﬂeeting mention of a few murdered men’s names caught my attention. They were all Irish. A little digging unearthed a motherlode of Montanan Irish-American info.
Prior to the mid-1800s, Montana was mainly populated by Northern Plains Native American tribes who followed the seasonal migrations of the vast buffalo herds. In 1858, a few shiny yellow nuggets were discovered by a trio of prospectors at a place known ever after as Gold Creek, and The Rush was on. Mining camps sprang up across the Territory, some morphing into towns overnight, but in only six years the placer deposits began to run out and it seemed that Boom would certainly switch to Bust.
The tide turned in 1875-76 when rich silver deposits were discovered in Butte, and Marcus Daly, a 35-year-old miner from Ballyjamesduff, County Cavan, purchased his first claim. As the plucky immigrant’s fortunes grew, he bought more small silver mines, securing his place in history in 1881 when he acquired the Anaconda Mine and persuaded George Hearst (the nasty claim-grabbing corporate bully in HBO’s Deadwood and the true-life father of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst) to expand the Anaconda’s operation into deep-digging for copper, discovering in the process a 50-foot-wide vein of the red ore that ﬂowed like a river through the Anaconda claim.
The canny Irishman’s timing was spot on. Copper was a key component of Thomas Edison’s newfangled invention: the electric light. The Anaconda Mine quickly became one of the world’s largest copper producers, earning Daly the title “Copper King of America” and enabling him to branch out into other ventures including timber, newspapers, coal, railroads, and agriculture.
For all his endeavors, Daly preferred hiring fellow Irishmen. Families fleeing Ireland’s famines came in droves, mainly from Cork and the Beara Peninsula, but also from Donegal and Mayo. Advised “Don’t tarry in America, go straight to Butte” they heeded the call, founding settlements with names like Corktown and Dublin Gulch, and soon numbered more than 25% of the region’s population.
The immigrants quickly discovered that life at a 5,500-foot elevation on a shelf of the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains of the American West was a far cry from the balmy low rolling green hills of Ireland. In 2002, the PBS series Frontier House offered a glimpse of the rigors they faced. Three modern families spent six months living the frontier life of 1883.
About the experience, Adrienne Clune, Arklow-born mother of the six-person Irish household, says, “Living as I would have in 19th-century Montana empowered me. It made me proud of my Irish survival traits.” Having been raised on a farm, Adrienne (who now teaches Irish cuisine in Malibu, CA) was no foreigner to such tasks as tending a kitchen garden, churning butter, and baking bread. “I found the lack of modern gadgetry liberating,” she says. “We’re enslaved by the abundance of today’s society.”
Even so, feeding a family of six frontier-style for six months was grueling work. “I spent most of my time either cooking or preparing to cook,” says Adrienne. “Just keeping the wood stove at the ready was a challenge, and in the beginning, I cooked outdoors on an iron griddle over an open ﬁre – the smoke gave my bread a delicious ﬂavor.” The Clune garden provided vegetables and greens; fresh fruits were foraged. The family had a milk cow; hens laid eggs. Any surplus was bartered with the other families or at the ‘mercantile’ store that was open once a month. The show’s producers supplied ﬂour, oats, sugar, spices, dried fruit, hams, and a small stock of canned peaches. “We ate many Irish breakfasts,” says Adrienne. “I became adept at devising ways to use ham with potatoes from our garden. Peach crumbles ﬂavored with hand-grated cinnamon and nutmeg were our special treats. When our neighbor’s daughter got married, I made the wedding cake, which was particularly challenging as I had to pound our sugar into powder to make the icing – but it was really delicious!”
These days mining is no longer the primary industry in Butte, but the Irish still make up the largest population percentage. Sullivans, Sheas, Driscolls, O’Neills, Lynchs, Harringtons, Shannons, Dolans, Duggans, and O’Briens ﬁll the phone book. Children learn step-dancing at an early age and show off their skills accompanied by local musicians. The Hibernian Society sponsors Gaelic classes. Pubs are regularly packed and so jammed on St. Pat’s Day there’s scarce room to dance. Irish pride runs as deep and wide as the vein of copper ore in the old Anaconda mine.
If you’re longing to tap your toes to jigs and reels, palaver with ﬁne fellows and fair colleens, and just can’t wait until March 17th to strut your Irish, Butte will celebrate its Gaelic heritage for the eighth year, August 10-12, 2007, at the annual An Ri Ra Montana Irish Festival (info at: http://mtgaelic.org/festival1.html). And should you be hankering for a peek at what life was like for the Irish Montanans of the 19th century, schedule a few days to visit the Gold Rush towns of Virginia City and Nevada City (www.virginiacity.com). Go West, Big Fan, Go West! Sláinte!
ADRIENNE’S OATMEAL COUNTRY LOAF
2 cups fine pinhead oatmeal
1 cup wholemeal (whole-wheat) flour
1 cup plain flour
2 tablespoons rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup cold butter, cut in small pieces
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 beaten eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425 F. Grease a large griddle (cast iron is best) or a baking sheet. Mix together the oatmeal and flour. Rub the butter pieces into the flour mixture with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the remaining dry ingredients and mix well. Make a well in the center of the mixture and add the eggs, saving back a little to brush on top of the bread before baking. Add the buttermilk slowly, mixing to an almost sticky dough. The dough should come away from the sides of the bowl, but not be too dry or crumbly. Turn out onto a floured board. Knead lightly for one minute. Pat into a circle about 1 1/2 inches thick. Place on the griddle. Cut a deep cross in the top, almost to the bottom of the skillet, with a floured knife. Brush the top of the bread with beaten egg. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 400. Bake for another 35 minutes. If the bread is getting too brown, cover it with foil. The bread should bake for about 45 minutes total and be golden brown. Turn upside down and knock on the back of the bread. The bread will sound hollow if done. Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 1 loaf.
HAM & POTATO SOUP
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced
6 cups chicken stock
sea salt and ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 ham bone
2 sprigs of thyme and parsley
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup cooked ham, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 tablespoons cream
chopped fresh chives or parsley to garnish
Melt the butter in a large heavy pan and add the onions. Cover and leave to sweat over low heat for 5-10 minutes. Add the potatoes. Season well, cover, and cook over low heat for about ten minutes. Add the stock, ham bone, and herbs. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 20-30 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Remove the ham bone and the herbs. Sieve or puree the soup in a food processor. Put back in the pan and add the ham pieces and the milk. Reheat and adjust the seasoning. Add more milk if the soup seems too thick. Before serving, add the cream. Serve hot, sprinkled with chopped chives or parsley. Serves 6-8.
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 cup ground oatmeal
pinch sea salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 level teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
11/2 lbs fresh peaches, blanched, peeled, and sliced 1/2 inch.
1/2 cup sugar (if using canned peaches, reduce sugar to 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter a 9-inch pie dish. In a large bowl, mix the first seven ingredients together. With your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles moist breadcrumbs; set aside. In another bowl, toss the peaches with the remaining ingredients. Place the fruit mixture in the pie dish. Sprinkle the crumble mixture on the fruit. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the crumble is browned and the fruit is cooked. Cover with foil if crumble is getting too dark. Serve warm. ♦