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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Butte Irish and World War I


The Richest Hill on Earth

      Butte, Montana, had the largest concentrated population of Irish west of New York City at the time my novel takes place. Hard rock miners. The Butte Irish were American patriots, many enlisting when the United States entered World War I in April, 1917, or  willingly going into uniform when they were drafted.  But some remained what Teddy Roosevelt termed "hyphenated Americans," with a strong loyalty to Ireland, struggling to free itself from Great Britain.  The Butte Irish had protested the draft, not wanting their sons to fight on the side of Great Britain.

               A few years before the war, under the guise of the Robert Emmett Literary Association, a faction of Butte Irish took advantage of the federal government's offer to give surplus Springfield rifles to hunting clubs. After acquiring their share, they formed Company A of the Irish Volunteers of America.  Even Father Michael Hannan, originally from Limerick and pastor of the miners' church, St. Mary's, went out on maneuvers with them as they prepared for the day when they'd return to Ireland to fight for its independence.

               So, when in the summer of 1917, the copper miners of Butte went out on strike for better working conditions and pay, the federal government imagined German and Wobbly influence, one in the same to government agents, stirring Butte's waters.  Federal troops were sent in to patrol its streets.

                In my unpublished manuscript, Marble Creek, in August, 1917, a week after Wobbly Frank Little is lynched in Butte, my character, Malachi O'Neill, arrives to offer his services to the Pearse-Connolly Club at Finlander Hall, where radical elements of Butte hang out. Its members have a plan to help Ireland, which they reveal to O'Neill.

          “Ireland can’t get guns from Germany with the war on.  She needs a new source.  We think we’ve found it.”  He spoke of the Canadian Ross rifle, how the mud in France jammed it so it wouldn't fire and a loose collar caused the bayonets to fall out during charges across no man’s land.  “The Canadian soldiers had enough of it.  They’re using Enfields now.  But it’s a good rifle at long-range, very accurate for snipers. The New York Guard is negotiating with the Canadian government now to buy surplus Rosses for training.  A man in that guard told a Pearce-Connolly member in New York, who sent word here.  Catch my drift, O’Neill?”
        He replied, “Mind, I'll be up and gone if ye tell me ye're plannin' to steal 'em from the New York Guard."
       "Ah, none of that. There's no shipping guns to Ireland from the east coast with all the ports being watched.  Every boat is searched twice - the Americans looking for German spies, the English hunting contraband shipped to Ireland.  The Royal Navy boards ships soon as they enter international waters.  If Canada has surplus guns for the New York Guard, we're betting they’ll have surplus for the Montana Guard to purchase.  We’ve got friends in the guard here willing to make up purchase orders for us.  We’ll bring the guns across the Canadian border, all legal like, but they won't be going to Helena and the guard armory.  We’ll bring 'em here, then transport 'em to the West Coast and contract a boat there.”

I just had to have this old Ross bayonet I purchased on eBay. It plays a part in my novel.
Plans are made.  

      More beer was poured and they toasted.  “To the harp of Ireland.  May it never lack for a string as long as there’s a gut in an Englishman.”  It had a satisfying ring.
And the song that remains with O'Neill through the rest of the story is HERE

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea about any of this. I just love the way you are taking me to new times and places, Why I love historic novels. Cool bayonet!