Cork village forges links with US mining towns

Connections between the Beara Peninsula and the American mining towns of Butte and Leadville date back centuries. DAVID FORSYTHE finds out about a recent Cork expedition to the towns that aimed to forge twinning links with them - and reveals how one Beara man found a long lost cousin while in the States!
Cork village forges links with US mining towns

The Cork visitors with Butte locals during the St Patrick’s Day weekend. Back, from left, Tadhg O’Sullivan, Luke Finken, James Walsh, Lily Walsh. Front, Anne McNally, Niall O’Sullivan, Kathleen Fitzsimmons, Tara Hanley, Mayor Greg Labbe.

THE strong ties between the Beara Peninsula and two former mining communities in the USA were made official during the recent St Patrick’s Day weekend.

A delegation from the Allihies Copper Mine Museum in West Cork travelled to Butte, Montana, and Leadville, Colorado, to formally establish twinning arrangements.

The Allihies group of Tadhg O’Sullivan, Anne McNally, Niall O’Sullivan and Tara Hanley visited the historic mining city of Butte where they took part in its St Patrick’s Day parade. They then headed south to Leadville in the Rocky Mountains, once a silver mining boomtown, where many Beara immigrants tried their luck at the end of the 19th century.

The purpose of the trip was to formalise twinning arrangements between Allihies, Butte and Leadville and to help establish educational, research and tourism links between the communities.

Copper mining was huge in Allihies in the 19th century, employing 1,500 people at its peak, but when the industry fell on hard times, many emigrated to Butte to mine copper and silver there.

Tadgh O’Sullivan, chairperson of the Allihies Copper Mine Museum, said the trip is one the delegates won’t forget and will help further strengthen relationships between Ireland and America.

“We had been planning to do it last September, but then Covid came along and we had to postpone it, but it turned out very well in the end as you couldn’t really pick a better time to visit than at St Patrick’s Day,” he said.

Butte sits at the heart of what was one of the largest copper mining areas in America and attracted thousands of Irish emigrants, including many from Cork and Beara afrer the Famine at the end of the 19th century. Their impact was so great that today Butte has one of the largest per-capita Irish-American populations in the USA.

The Cork quartet of Niall O’Sullivan, Anne McNally, Tara Hanley, Tadhg O’Sullivan in Butte.
The Cork quartet of Niall O’Sullivan, Anne McNally, Tara Hanley, Tadhg O’Sullivan in Butte.

“Growing up, the first place we heard of in America was Butte,” said Tadgh, “when people emigrated to America from this part of Ireland, they were told ‘Keep going until you reach Butte, Montana’.”

With Beara’s own copper mining history and the promise of plentiful work from Irish mining magnate Marcus Daly, it is little wonder so many emigrants from Beara made the long journey to Montana.

“We made the trip in a single day,” said Tadgh, “but back then it would have taken six or seven weeks to get from Ireland to Butte, it was a serious journey and it’s a huge story of Irish emigration.”

The connection between Butte and Beara is well established and features prominently in the work of the Allihies Copper Mine museum. On the trip, the group were able to visit the extensive local archives, where Tadgh made a surprising discovery.

“My grandfather and his three brothers were among those who came out to Butte,” he said.

“When their sister got married back in Ireland, they all went home for the wedding and my grandfather and his brother decided to stay and the other two brothers went back to Montana.

“So while we were at the archives, a man working there approached me and said, ‘I think we are cousins’, and it turned out he was right!”

One aspect of the trip that really impressed Tadgh was the warm welcome they received from the people in Butte and Leadville.

“Everywhere we went, people could not have been friendlier, they really had a warm welcome for us.

“There were thousands of people at the St Patrick’s Day parade in Butte, it’s really a major event there, and the welcome was just the same in Leadville; the people are very friendly and not a million miles away from the people here in Beara.”

Leadville is a small former silver mining town high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The connection between Leadville and Beara has only emerged relatively recently, thanks to the research of local man Jim Walsh, but is equally strong.

“I wasn’t aware of the Leadville connection,” said Tadgh, “until Jim visited us at the Copper Mine Museum and showed us some of the research he had been doing, which is really very interesting indeed.”

Jim, a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, believes up to 70% of the immigrants to Leadville came from the Beara Peninsula.

In Leadville last month, the Cork group made an emotional visit to a burial ground outside the town, where work is underway to open a memorial to those Irish immigrants next year.

“It was very moving to visit the graveyard,” said Tadgh. 

“There are probably 1,300 people buried there, the vast majority Irish. Among them are around 100 babies, it’s hard not to be moved by it.

“Many of these people would have left Ireland and never been heard from again, but it’s wonderful that they will finally be remembered.”

Once the silver boom in Leadville had run its course, many of the miners would have moved on to other parts of America, and Tadgh believes that many of the Beara contingent would have made the journey north to Butte.

After a hectic few days, Tadgh and the group returned to Cork, having made many new friends and with visits to Ireland now in planning from the American side.

Relationships between schools in Beara and America have now been firmly established, with weekly contact between the two, and a major genealogy project is underway at the Copper Mines Museum to help Beara’s American cousins discover their Irish ancestry.

Tadgh said: “The trip has created huge awareness out there and we met so many people who are now keener to ever to visit Ireland themselves. This it not a once off but the beginning of stronger relationships.

“There is huge potential to develop things further now in education, heritage, history and tourism. There is a real connection between people and that’s something you can build on.”

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