Forging new ties to Irish roots and renewing Butte pride

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

BUTTE (AP) — “Make no mistake. The genes we’re born with carry memory. They carry knowledge we’ve never learned, talents we’ve never studied, even fears of things that have never frightened us . But someone, some time, in our bloodlines, had these memories. Yes, you might say that all of us are haunted to some degree. You might very well say that.”

I have read the above quote hundreds of times.

It is prominently displayed in a family photo album belonging to my mother.

Within the album are photos of ancestors long gone — ancestors I never knew. Yet the stories shared of their triumphs and tragedies are as much a part of me as their DNA.

Yes, I am the grandchild of immigrants. In Butte, that’s certainly not news. Residents here proudly boast about their heritage and rightfully view their ethnicities as badges of honor.

I am no different.

It was no secret to family and friends that my lifelong dream was to visit my ancestral home, Ireland.

My dream became a reality this past summer as my daughter and I journeyed across the ocean. My daughter Kylah Balcer (who along with her husband, Bobby) gifted me this trip.

My wish was to somehow feel a connection to the grandparents I never knew. The trip far surpassed my expectations.

What I didn’t expect to feel, though, more than 5,000 miles away, was a renewed love and sense of pride for my lifelong home, Butte.

Across the pond

Mother and daughter landed in Dublin early in the morning and after a brief nap, we eagerly set off to see the sights.

One of our first stops was the historic O’Connell Street. I stood at the statue of James Larkin, Irish labor leader and a familiar figure in Butte’s labor history.

Larkin spoke more than once in Butte about union rights.

Nearby is the General Post Office, where, shortly before the 1916 Easter Rising, Patrick Pearse stood outside its doors and read the impassioned Proclamation of the Irish Republic. His mother, Margaret Pearse, would later visit Butte.

Thoughts then turned to one-time Mining City resident Thomas Byrne, who was among those bravely fighting for Irish freedom.

We arrived on hallowed ground the following day, as we toured Kilmainham Gaol, where many of the Easter Rising participants were imprisoned. Fourteen of the 16 freedom fighters were sentenced to death and executed here.

The first to be executed was Patrick Pearse, and the last was a gravely wounded James Connolly, who had to be tied to a chair to be shot.

Standing near the spot Connolly was executed, I thought back to a 1910 article I had read about his Butte visit. Six years before his death, the Irish patriot told a Butte audience he “wanted to see Ireland owned by the people, and not by the landlords.”

Many of the men and women of the Easter Rising, including Eamon de Valera, Liam Meadows, Countess Constance Markievicz, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Linda Mary Kearns, and Kathleen Boland, would later make their way to Butte.

While Kylah and I visited the typical tourist destinations — Trinity College, the Guinness Brewery and numerous cathedrals (I lost count), it was the following day, as we traveled to the Beara Peninsula, that would bring both laughter and tears to our eyes.

Feeling family ties

The peninsula, which includes the villages of Eyeries, Allihies and Castletownbere, is where many of Butte’s Irish immigrants were born.

“Do you know John and Peggy Paull?” asked the owner, Kathleen Twomey, as we sat in the Castletownbere tavern, Twomey’s.

I couldn’t help but laugh and think what a small world it is as the Butte residents are family friends, and Kylah attended school with their daughters, Erin and Kelli.

It was on the outskirts of Eyeries where Kylah and I would lose our composure, as we would see my maternal grandmother’s home for the first time. It was a moment I hope never to forget.

Kylah and I, with tears filling, walked into this one-room stone cottage and my first thought was, “How did they do it?”

Oddly enough, as I walked outside my grandmother’s home and looked across the valley, my mind quickly wandered to, of all things, the popular bestseller from a few years back, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and thinking right here is “Fifty Shades of Green.”

We then headed to Allihies, to tour the Allihies Copper Mine Museum, where two walls are dedicated to, you guessed it, Butte.

Even more exciting was finding my great-greatgreat-grandfather’s name, Darby Mor O’Sullivan, listed among the miners.

Later, as we walked around taking in the sights, Veronica and Nealie O’Sullivan, proprietors of a bed and breakfast, came out to greet us.

“Do you know Monica Cavanaugh?” Nealie asked. (Monica is the owner of Butte’s Irish store, Cavanaugh’s County Celtic.)

I laughed and said, “Of course I do.”

“Wonderful woman,” Veronica said, “wonderful.”

Small world indeed.

Butte connections

I will cherish so many memories during this trip. The places we visited were as numerous as they were beautiful — the Cliffs of Kilkee, Kylemore Abbey, Blarney Castle, St. Colman’s Cathedral . the list is endless.

But at the top of that list would be the seaside town of Cobh. It was here, more than anyplace that I felt that Butte connection, and I barely talked to a soul.

I stood looking out at the vast Irish coast and found myself mesmerized.

Later, I would stare in wonder at the monument commemorating the lives lost aboard the Lusitania.

It was near Cobh that in 1915 the luxury ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. It had a crew and passenger list of 1,962, including 12 people from Butte. The death toll was 1,198, including four from Butte. Two of the victims had once lived in my Butte neighborhood of Corktown.

As I looked around at the sights, my eyes rested on the waterfront and the old wooden platform that passengers once used to board the ships. I came to the realization that Cobh is where my ancestors and many more of Butte’s immigrants last stood on Irish soil.

In fact, it is estimated 2.5 million of Ireland’s population from 1848 to 1950 embarked from Cobh.

How hard it must have been for these immigrants to leave not just their homeland but family as well. For most, it would be the last they would see of both.

As we made the long journey home, I kept reliving the trip in my mind.

Butte is interwoven into the tapestry of Ireland, and that is all thanks to its Irish immigrant population that included my great-grandparents, Jeremiah and Kate Sullivan, and grandparents, Julia Sullivan, Michael Egan, Mary McConologue and Michael Thornton.

I can’t imagine what it was like leaving the beauty that is Ireland, to cross the Atlantic, and set down roots in an unknown land. I am in awe of their bravery, and applaud their tenacity.

As the plane headed toward Denver, thoughts turned to my parents, Ann and Emmett Thornton.

As first-generation Americans, they, too, sacrificed to give their children a better life. And along the way, they instilled in their kids a fervent pride in our ancestry.

I will be forever grateful.