Helena Gaels – Local Irish Characters

Guest Blog by Ciara Ryan, Montana History Foundation

Thanksgiving Day, 1910, is when one of Helena’s most historic football games was played. Two Montana teams – The Wolfe Tones of Butte and the Mount St. Charles football team – took to the field in competition. However, this wasn’t the type of football you’re probably thinking about – this was a Gaelic Football contest!

Bishop Carroll’s photo of a Gaelic Football Team

Although Irish immigrants would settle primarily in Butte and its surroundings, they also made homes in various towns throughout the state and worked in a variety of Montana’s major industries. The background, occupation, and cultural activities of the Irish in these towns and ranches differed significantly from their compatriots who settled in Butte. Their lives highlight that no experience of the Irish in Montana was, or could have been, typical!   

Bishop John P. Carroll

Helena has many of these stories. For example, one of Helena’s earliest and most celebrated (if not also controversial) Irish immigrants was Thomas Francis Meagher. Hailing from Waterford, he is best known here for his military record.  But Meagher also played a major role in the Young Ireland political movement in Ireland and made a lasting impact on Montana’s Irish community. Meagher’s vision of a nation with its own language and culture was a source of inspiration for Montana’s Irish-speaking immigrants at a pivotal moment in their home country’s history in the early 1900s. He inspired a flourishing Irish language and identity in Montana at the turn of the 20th century. His legacy lives on in the form of an impressive statue of the rebel commander that stands on the north lawn of the Capitol building.

Thomas Francis Meagher

Another Irish immigrant to Helena was Bishop John P. Carroll.  Bishop Carroll was a prominent supporter of the blossoming of Irish culture in the early 20th century. He attended Irish cultural events throughout the state and championed the preservation of the Irish language in Ireland and America as seen in the following quote from Irish newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light) in 1906:

“The Gaelic League aims at securing the real national independence of Ireland – independence of thought, action, and initiative.”
– Bishop Carroll of Helena, U.S.A. (Image provided by Montana History Foundation)

In fact, Bishop Carroll and one of his Irish clergymen at Mount St. Charles, Fr Michael Hannan, were the driving forces behind the Thanksgiving Gaelic Football tournament in Helena in 1910. It was around this time that Bishop Carroll envisioned a beautiful cathedral for Helena patterned after the impressive Votive Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. With the financial resources of another notable Irish character, Thomas Cruse, that dream became a reality.  Today, the St. Helena Cathedral is one of the town’s most prominent landmarks. When you visit, make sure to look for the statue of Ireland’s “Emancipator” – Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell!

Mary Welch “Chicago Joe”

Irish women also made Helena their home and have contributed significantly to her colorful history. Mary Welch, otherwise known as “Chicago Joe”, left Ireland in 1858 and became queen of Helena’s historic red-light district. With her flowing robes of heavy velvet and pink-lined magnificent Elizabethan collar, she was a glamorous and dominant presence in town. She was also one of the most astute business people of her time, so much so that her real estate holdings left her regularly paying some of the highest property taxes in Helena in the late 1800s!

James McKelvey

There have been thousands of Irish who have quietly and determinedly left a lasting imprint on the Helena community. Hiking in the Dump Gulch area, you will encounter McKelvey Trail. The name James McKelvey may not be as recognizable as his Irish counterparts mentioned here but James was as instrumental to the Helena community.  McKelvey traveled from Donegal to Helena in the late 1800s and operated the lime kilns on Grizzly Gulch (the remnants of which can still be seen). He and his family lived on West Main Street and were regarded as experts in lime production. Their hard work and knowledge helped create beautiful and lasting architecture.

The legacy of Irish culture continues to thrive among Helena’s active Irish organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and The Thomas Francis Meagher Association. The traditional dances and music Irish immigrants brought across the ocean to Helena have been passed down and embraced by the young generation of Tiernan dancers. The cúpla focal (a couple of words) can still be heard in the vibrant conversation groups and Irish language classes held in our city. Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig daoibh uilig – St. Patrick’s Day blessings to all!

To learn more about the characters and the stories shared here, make sure to take one of the Montana History Foundation’s Helena History Hikes & Walks this summer!

Details coming soon on: Helena History Hikes & Walks