Irish heritage in Montana is so rich and vast. When I arrived here I was delighted to find there was not one but two thriving hurling teams in Missoula; the University team, the Griz, and the Thomas Francis Meagher hurling club. However, I was surprised that there is no Gaelic football team. I did my research and discovered that this was not always the case. Before there was hurling it was in fact Gaelic football that roamed the State of Montana, like a black shambling bear.
Any man or woman versed in athleticism would appreciate the Irish sport, Gaelic football, as a fast-paced, hard-hitting and skillful sport. A few general points should be made here about the sport’s history. The game of Gaelic football is of ancient Irish origin. Historians write that it was played on the plains of Tara in pre-Christian days in the presence of a large crowd as well as the Kings and Chieftans. The Irish name for Gaelic football is ‘Peil Ghaelach’ and the name for the ball is ‘liathróid’ or in old Irish ‘liagh roid” which derived from ‘rock on the road’, as no matter where there is a rock or any small obstacle on the road, an Irishman is sure to kick it to one side.
It is played between two teams of 15 players on a rectangular grass pitch. During the game both teams try to score on each others goals. They can kick it over the bar for one point or kick it into the net for a goal which will earn you three points. There is an offence and a defence. The ball can be advanced towards the goals by the use of feet or hands as you can run up the pitch hopping and soloing the ball, or by kicking it or handpassing it to your teammates. The whole frame is working while playing, and your eye must be keen and active both on the ball and on your opposition.
Today hundreds of GAA clubs flourish in every county in Ireland. Men, women and children of all ages play for their own local club and compete within different divisions, futhermore, the best are chosen to play at county level. The All-Ireland Championship is the major competition between the county teams. The final is played in September in Croke Park and attracts over 80,000 fans.
I took some time to look back on newspaper archives to see if there was any evidence of the sport existing here in Montana, and indeed, it is clear from these newspaper records that the game enjoyed big support here in Montana back in the day.
The Montana Standard, Butte, May 29th 1933
According to these sources Montana first opened her arms to the sport in 1895. The first Gaelic football game was played in Montana in Washoe Park on July 4th 1895, between two teams representing Butte and Anaconda. These two towns each fielded Gaelic football teams for decades. Butte eventually had three teams; The Wolfe Tones; Shamrocks and Emmetts who played at Colombia Garden. Anaconda’s club Emeralds played either at Anaconda’s race track or BA&P Mountain View Park, ten miles west of the town.
On the day of that first inter-city game the Butte team was composed of miners and the Anaconda team of smeltermen. It is fair to say that both teams sound hard as nails and so one could assume that the match was a tough one. It is recorded that the game ended in a draw and after 60 minutes of intense physcial and mental strain for these splendid sportsmen, the prize, which was a bottle of champagne had barely popped before it was guzzled down by the perspiring players.
It is not surprising that Anaconda and Butte had the most accomplished football teams in Montana. The community in Butte was built by the Irish. As David M. Emmons points out in his book ‘The Butte Irish’ unlike those other cities where the Irish settled such as New York, Boston and San Francisco “[n]ot only did they encounter no hostile or entrenched society on their arrival [to Montana], they encountered no society at all.’ So they found themselves having an almost blank canvas to design a community which suited them. They could handpick elements from home to bring to the West with them, of course Irish sports such as Gaelic football and handball played a big part in establishing Irish identity and a sense of community. Typically, the matches took place at The Miner’s Union or Irish society picnics, where lots food and other friendly competitions such as tug of war took place.
Butte’s Irish community was fully formed by the 1900’s which is when you see a real push forward in the realm of Irish sports and the GAA. In 1913 Butte formed it’s own branch of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The Association brought organisation to the football clubs and structure to the season by sponsoring a successful league which lasted until 1926.
The Anaconda Standard Tuesday morning, July 11th 1911
These GAA games were far from insignificant. The GAA is the pulse of my community back home and I have no doubt it pumped similar life into Butte and Anaconda. The games were a big deal in other ways too. During those times purses were tight and as the GAA became more established the prize money became substantial. Some of the games had prize money of between $250-$400.
It seems there were also football teams in Missoula and Helena at one point, as the article accompanying the photograph below, which captures the Wolfe Tones as winners of the State Championship in 1911 states that: “[they] had been victors against Butte, Helena, Missoula and Anaconda that year.”
From my research football in Montana was definitely alive and kicking up until WW2 and after this time it’s popularity apparently dropped until eventually the light the sport brought to those early Irish-Americans went out.
The Anaconda Standard: Saturday morning, April 19th 1913
I did get one opportunity to play football but not here in Montana, during the Grit City Opener hurling blitz in Tacoma, Washington. The Seattle Gaels football team were kind enough to ask myself and two of the other girls from the Thomas Francis Meagher hurling team to play for them on the day. If you asked me how I played on the day I would say I was only delighted to be a part of it, still, as the famous playwright from my home town of listowel, John B. Keane remarked “A Kerry footballer with an inferiority complex is one who thinks he’s just as good as everybody else.” I’ll say no more!
The Seattle Gaels (plus a few new friends) at the Grit City Opener in Tacoma, April 1st 2017
I hope that one day Gaelic Football will return to Montana. You see for a Kerrywoman football is not looked upon as a hobby, it has been elevated to the status of a craft. What more, a football club can be very influential within the community and the uniqueness of the game is an important part of Irish consciousness.