Worden Thane Irish Heritage Spotlight: William McCarthy

I cannot believe they asked a bunch of Irish people to talk about being Irish, because giving a painfully long response is actually the story of the Irish.

The story is the story.

And if I do this correctly, the story is long!  And with no urgency is part of the story.  There is always a story – years ago my Dad told me this story about a TV show in Britain that was very similar to the Johnny Carson Show. The host would interview a guest, take a commercial break and then interview another guest, and so on.  After the first guest was interviewed they would move down the couch and still be present when the second guest got interviewed. On this particular episode of the show, the first guest to be interviewed was a famous Irishman whose name currently escapes me.  The second guest was the famous Spanish singer Julio Iglesias.  The first guest, the Irishman, sat next to Iglesias during his interview.  While Iglesias was being interviewed he kept using the word ‘mañana’ in a couple of different contexts.  The British host was a bit confused by his usage of the word and finally asked him to explain what the term ‘mañana’ meant.  Iglesias replied that the term ‘mañana’ refers to a relaxed Spanish measurement of time and he said it means “maybe the job will be done tomorrow, maybe the next day, maybe the day after that, perhaps next week, next month, next year. Who cares?”   The British host seemed satisfied with that answer and then turned to the Irishman sitting next to Iglesias and asked him if there was an equivalent term in Irish.  After thinking in silence for a moment the Irishman finally shook his head and said . . . “No . . .   in Ireland we don’t have a word to describe such a degree of urgency.”  Very fitting as this is going to take a while  – again with no urgency.

There is always a story – and we are only getting started.

There is always a story – seven of my eight great-grandparents’ parents (McCarthy, Downey, Murphy, Mullane, Malvey, Sullivan, and Sheehan) hailed from in County Cork, Ireland. And one grandparent, my paternal grandfather’s mother was born in Butte, Montana, raised from age 7 to 17 in Ireland, then came back to Butte for the remainder of her lifetime.

On my father’s side, my family comes from Knockanabrocka, Kilkatherine, Eyeries Parish, County Cork, Ireland and Stuake, Donoughmore, County Cork, Ireland.

On my mother’s side, my family comes from Canfie East and Ardroom, Eyeries Parish, County Cork, Ireland.

There is always a story – Nearly 50% of the people in the area died from the Irish potato famine (and famine-related disease, e.g cholera) and, thankfully, my family survived.  However, the lingering effects of the famine, British oppressive rule, and opportunity and friends/family in America, were just too much to pass on.  They made a huge sacrifice that undoubtedly was in the best interests of their future generations.

There is always a story – The origin of the name “McCarthy” begins with Carthach, an Irish King.  “Mac” was the title assumed by your sons – so his sons were called “Mac Carthaigh.” One of his sons became the first king of Desmond, comprising parts of the modern counties of Cork and Kerry. For almost five centuries MacCarthy’s dominated much of Munster (the Southern province of Ireland), with four major branches: those led by the MacCarthy Mór (Great MacCarthy), the nominal head of all the MacCarthys, who ruled over much of south Kerry, the Duhallow MacCarthys, who controlled northwest Cork; MacCarthy Reagh or Riabhach (‘grey’) based in the Barony of Carbery in southwest Cork; and MacCarthy Muskerry, on the Cork / Kerry border.  Each of these families continued resistance to Norman and English encroachment up to the seventeenth century when, like virtually all the Irish/Gaelic aristocracy, they lost almost everything to the Normans and English, except fight!

There is always a story – of note, the Muskerry McCarthy’s historical seat is Blarney Castle in County Cork. Legend has it that the Blarney Stone was given as a gift to Cormac MacCarthy, King of Desmond, from king Robert the Bruce of Scotland, who presented the ‘magical’ stone in gratitude for his assistance in the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The third castle built on the site (the castle which stands to this day) was built by another McCarthy descendant, Dermot McCarthy, in 1446. Dermot was known for his eloquence and stories, hence the Blarney Stone’s reputation for imparting the gift of the gab upon those who kiss it.  When asked if he ever kissed the Blarney stone, my Dad would say “What is the point – my lips and tongue are already of direct genetic descent of the Stone’s owner and there are no more hours in the day to tell more stories than I already am.” When my Dad passed away, the Montana Standard, reflecting on my dad’s life, wrote in the Butte newspaper . . . “And man, could he tell stories!”   That is the story  – the ability to tell a story – and also my story.  And my Irish gift.

McCarthy’s have been very prominent among the many distinguished men of the name in Irish military, political and cultural history and they love to keep those rebellious traditions alive. And the greatest part of being Irish is being an Irish-American.  The story of Ireland has a lot of despair and was ruled by others from Vikings, to Normans and the British.  A free Ireland was the dream of the Irish for centuries. It is because of the Irish-Americans that really freed Ireland from the rule of others that the Irish endured for centuries.  More on that later, because a good story always needs a digression.

There is always a story – St. Patrick’s Day was traditionally a religious holiday (not so much today) in Ireland. Irish legend has it that on St. Patrick’s Day an Angel of the Lord granted three requests to St. Patrick in order to bring eternal happiness and hope to Ireland. The first request of St. Patrick was that on St. Patrick’s Day the weather in Ireland should always be fair enough to allow the Catholic faithful to attend church. St. Patrick’s second request to the Angel of the Lord was that on every Thursday and Saturday, twelve Irish souls should be freed from the pains of Hell.  And his third request, that no outlander should ever rule over Ireland. Again, it was religious.

There is always a story – But the gregarious St. Patty’s Day holiday is to me really an Irish-American holiday to celebrate the Irish immigrants’ role in giving the Irish liberty and freedom under their own self-governance, and to celebrate our fun-loving crazy and independent side.  Independence is actually a fairly recent way of life for the Irish. One of the largest factors in Ireland gaining its freedom was the role of Irish-Americans.  I do not mean to take anything away from the people in Ireland that fought for centuries and endured so much abuse to gain their independence.  However, there is also no doubt that a ton of credit also goes to all of our families that came to the United States from Ireland.  Once the Irish had enough influence in the US, Great Britain was at a very serious disadvantage over the Irish.  In fact, the only rebel not executed by the English after the Easter Rising of 1916 was Eamon “Amon” de Valera because he was born in the United States and there was no way the English were executing an American citizen.  Eamon de Valera became the first president of the Irish Free State, led the writing of the Irish Constitution, and served at the very top of the Irish government for the better part of the 20th Century.  Again, modern Ireland was led by an Irish-American who was as familiar in Butte as he was in Dublin.

There is always a story – The power of the United States through Irish-Americans from places like Butte, MT was instrumental in that freedom.  One famous Irish patriot, Robert Emmet, led the 1803 rebellion against British rule and was tried and hanged.  Before he was hanged, he gave his famous “Speech from the Dock” where he said, “Let no man write my epitaph  . . . until Ireland takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not until then, let my epitaph be written.” Emmet became a heroic figure in Irish and American history as it was during a time when America was also still fighting British rule. In Butte, in the early 1900s, they had an almost revolutionary group called the “Robert Emmet Literary Society” where they, under the guise of being a book club, held meetings and raised funds for Irish Independence.  My great-grandfather was something like Brother #6 when the secret records were uncovered in Butte in the 1990s.  My older brother’s middle name is “Robert” and my middle name is “Emmet” in honor of the Irish patriot.  I suppose my Dad always hoped we would join the Irish Brigade or start a riot for independence in order to honor our roots, and he reminded us on several occasions that he “wasn’t raising sparrows, but Irishmen in Butte.”  And the list of Irish rebels and patriots I am related to is exhaustive, including famed rebel Michael Collins.

There is always a story – Harry Truman used to say that if you didn’t have enough people joining the military, set a Hibernian’s meeting at the battlefronts and every Irish-American within 1,000 miles will show up.  And one of my favorite American history stories of all time is what occurred on December 13, 1862, at Fredericksburg, Virginia where thousands of men fought and died on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the American Civil War.  One of the most brilliant stories of that day was written by a band of 1200 men of the 69th New York Infantry, or the “Fighting 69th”, of course know to us as the famed Irish Brigade. The battle cry of the 69th was always yelled in Irish as “Faugh a Ballagh” and when translated into English, means “clear the way.”  General Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Southern Confederate forces who were the opposing side to the Irish Brigade, said: “The gallant stand which this bold brigade made on the heights of Fredericksburg is well known. Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that desperate occasion. Their brilliant, though hopeless, assaults on our lines excited the hearty applause of our officers and soldiers.”  Of the 1200 men who took part in that assault, 280 survived the battle. The Irish Brigade was led into battle on that occasion by Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher, who had participated in the unsuccessful Irish uprising of 1848, was captured by the British, and sent in a prison ship to Australia, from where he finally came to America and later served as the territorial governor of Montana.  In the fall of 1862, after serving with distinction and gallantry in some of the toughest fighting of this most bloody struggle, the Irish Brigade was presented with a new set of flags because their old ones had been torn to shreds by bullets in previous battles.  In the ceremony they were given the motto, “The Union, our Country, and Ireland Forever.”  Their first battle with their new flags was the Battle of Fredericksburg.

On June 28, 1963, in recognition of what those gallant Irishmen and what millions of other Irish have done for the United States and Ireland, and through the generosity of the “Fighting 69th,” John F. Kennedy, as President of the United States, presented one of these flags used at Fredericksburg to the Irish Parliament as a gift to the people of Ireland for giving both countries the gift of the Irish courage and freedom.  That flag still hangs in the Irish Parliament today. After the death of JFK, his predecessor Lyndon Johnson mentioned that he inherited a White House full of Irishmen.  He said there were so many Irish in his administration that daily staff meetings quickly turned into Hibernian and Friendly Sons meetings and Johnson later said he became an Irishman by osmosis.  He also said during those meetings he learned that “While the English claim excellence in the parliamentary system, there is no doubt in my mind that no government could have existed until the Irish invented politics.”  As the Irish know, politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies, all while looking forward to eating dinner with the person you love to hate.  With that, Johnson said he never could figure out if his Irish staff members hated each other or loved each other, or both.  He mentioned he would often have to talk to Montana Senator Mike Mansfield to help him figure out what made the Irish staff tick.  After Kennedy’s death, Johnson would frequently mention to his closest staff that he was able to get so much done for two reasons.  One, the tragic death of JFK bonded the country together to see Kennedy’s Irish freedom and people-first based proposals become legacies.  And two, because of the political abilities of the Irish staff.  He said Mansfield once gave him the advice to periodically argue with his Irish staff and, by doing so, they would always stay loyal to him.

There is always a story – We operate in clans, which provide all our basic human needs, the most important being the need to protect and fight for others, and these are the reasons why Irish-Americans are such great public servants and attorneys.

There is always a story – My favorite tradition is corn beef and cabbage for reasons that are unique.  It is because my grandparents believed non-Irish-Americans were making fun of the Irish by eating it.  A traditional Irish St. Paddy’s Day dinner was boiled bacon – the finest of their meals.  But the Irish immigrants were too poor to afford the high price of pork and bacon products. Instead, they turned to the cheapest cut of meat available: beef brisket. The poor Irish immigrants adopted cooking methods from other cultures while in the US, especially brining which was a technique of the Eastern Europeans, and a cheap way to preserve meat.  Thus, corn beef and cabbage to my grandparents was making fun of them just like they were friends with Leprechauns.  I enjoy that it made them crazy and think of it often – and I am thankful they made such a huge sacrifice for their descendants that I get to be an Irish-American from Butte, Montana – which has the per capita Irish population outside of Ireland!

Back to telling stories.  Because that is the story!  There is always a story – Butte, Montana is known as the Richest Hill on Earth for its mining history that the Irish are the central figure in.  And my Irish-American parents raised us in hopes that we would become the greatest miners in the history of the best mining town in the world.  My siblings and I are descendants of miners, were raised as miners, live as Butte-Irish miners and each hope our tombstones read: “Here Lies a Butte Miner.”  It would make our Irish ancestors oh so proud.  And what I mean by that is they wanted us to be able to mine history, books, a person, a map, a picture, or a detail better than anyone else.  Just like a miner with a pickax and a shovel, they taught us how to move away from all the slag and find the precious metals that make great stories, and share the wealth of a good story with others.  We learned when someone else has a great story, treasure it.  Remember it.  Tell their story.  And be ready to share one with them.  And never get out-mined on the detail needed for a good story.  And may you be so lucky to tell enough stories that god will grace you with silver hair and a heart of gold as they are the treasure every good miner seeks.

The story is always the story of the Irish.  I practice it all day every day.

I am proud of my Irish roots.  But I am more proud to be an American with Irish ancestors.

Lastly, the Butte St. Patrick’s Day Parade is one of the biggest and wildest in the world.  There is always a story – and there is a classic story about Butte-Irish parades that deals with this Irish virtue of sharing, freedom, independence, and fighting.  My Dad used to tell this story and it was a play-off of a story he said Franklin Roosevelt used to tell when he was the President and how Roosevelt would explain the Irish mentality to others.   My dad’s version involved two feuding Butte-Irish societies who each had two principal goals in life.  One was to hold as many parades as possible.  The second was to fight with the other group and break up the other group’s parades.  Each of these two groups spent their lives planning parades, putting on parades and celebrations, or trying to destroy the other’s parades. That was it. They essentially had no other purpose in life but to plan a good time and fight with anyone who might infringe on their good time.

The prime instrument of the parade in those days was a big drum. By sheer good fortune, one of the societies got a wealthy member who helped them acquire a beautiful new drum.  It was bigger and better than anything that they had ever seen, even in old Ireland.  He said the wealthy group had a parade each week to show off the new drum.  When it came time for the poorer Butte-Irish group to hold a parade they were in pure envy of the other group’s new drum and knew they had finally been out-matched.

Now, and to the point of the story, Irishmen  – especially Butte Irishmen – are generous – even when feuding – and even when feuding they still expect, and receive, some generosity and forgiveness from each other.   As I describe that scenario, my brain says “that doesn’t make any sense.”  However, my gut is in full agreement.  It sums up the Irish very well.

So not knowing what to do, the leader of the poor society went to the wealthier group and told them the sad story of how they need a big drum, but just didn’t have the funds, and how the rivalry really wasn’t fair anymore, etc.  So he asked for the loan of the great big drum for a parade they were having the next week.

After some thought, the leader of the group with the drum said he could have it on one condition.  He said, “Now listen, Pat, you are welcome to the drum, but it cost us a lot of money and we could never replace it.  So we decided we will only lend it to you on your personal honor that you take it out of the parade before you reach the corner of Park and Main in uptown Butte.”  The leader of the poor group asked, “And why is that?”  To which the other Butte Irish guy said, “Because that is where we are planning on beating the hell out of youz guys, and we would hate to ruin our new drum.”

The story is the story… and there is always a story…

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