Soft-spoken Joe Calnan became emotional when unveiling a portrait of his grandparents, who emigrated from Ireland.
“Celebrate your Irishness,” Calnan reminded the panel and a rapt audience of 25 who gathered to listen to story after personal story.
He joined nine other handpicked, diverse panel members with strong Irish roots to discuss their family histories and unique identities at the Butte Archives on opening day of the An Ri Ra Irish Festival on Friday.
The Gathering: Collected Oral Histories of the Irish in Montana is the brainchild of director Bob O’Boyle, who grew up in Great Falls but who has Butte Irish relatives.
Calling himself “a late-bloomer Hibernian,” Calnan, 72, doggedly retraces his family roots. He has a ship manifest and his grandparents’ blown-up photographic portrait to show for it.
Born and raised in Anaconda, Calnan is the oldest of seven children. His emotions rise to the surface whenever he speaks of his parents and earlier ancestors.
The black-and-white portrait of his grandparents portrays a dignified couple, John Cullinane and Ellen Kearney (“Or maybe Kaerney,” said Calnan) posing stoically in front of a louvered window.
Although Gaelic was spoken in his Anaconda household, Calnan doesn’t remember the emphasis on cultural identity that prevails today.
“My family never really cultivated our Irishness except on St. Paddy’s Day,” he said.
An active member of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians in Helena, Calnan “advocates, pushes it and passes it on” in order to help raise the consciousness of the Irish.
It’s much more difficult to recruit the younger, technology-obsessed generation to join traditional groups like the Hibernians, but Calnan refuses to give up. He hopes to recruit a Carroll College graduate student to create a marketing plan to boost recruitment and preserve vital Irish histories.
“We need to learn how to make them think about giving something back,” said Calnan. “The generation we’re in right now doesn’t think that way.”
The Gathering, an ongoing project, is funded by the Irish government and partners with the Irish studies program at UM with the express purpose of building community. O’Boyle and his group interview anyone throughout Montana who wants to discuss their Irish roots and family genealogy.
“I’m happy to help people who are interested in the process,” said Boyle. For instance, if someone needs help interviewing an older relative to elicit family facts, then his crew can advise.
John Conlan and Lorraine Rowe-Conlan traveled from Stevensville to take part in An Ri Ra festivities Friday. The Gathering folks interviewed both of them for their family histories.
“We came for the music,” said John Conlan, whose grandparents and great aunts hailed from County Claire. “But what ties us to the stories are the personal interviews.” Rowe-Conlan’s grandfather came from County Kilkenny in Ireland.
Other panel members who spoke to their unique family history were Julie Crowley, Pat Byrne, Bobo Kelly, Jack Kelly, Mike O’Connor and Erin Duffy Osswald.
Transcriptionist Mike Emmons of Missoula has the pleasure of hearing intimate family stories while transcribing for The Gathering.
He is the son of Dave Emmons, noted UM Irish historian who wrote “The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875-1925” (Statue of Liberty Ellis Island) and “Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910.’’
Overwhelmingly, in every interview he transcribes, Mike Emmons said he’s struck by the pattern of Irish pride, resilience and good humor in the face of tragedy.
Boyle said there’s a common thread that never fails.
“Like all Irish families in Montana, it always comes back to Butte,” he said.
— Reach reporter Renata Birkenbuel at Renata.email@example.com and 406-496-5512.