This past month, John “Skeff” Sheehy, former Montana Supreme Court Justice, passed away on Friday, 7th April 2017. He was 99 years old. His life can be distinguished by his memorable character and outstanding legal career spanning several deacades, what more, the aspect of his life that really draws me to his story is his Irish heritage!
John Sheehy was born in 1918 of Irish parents who emmigrated to Butte in the 1840s, the first period of Irish emmigration boom to the United States. In fact, with rumours of the money and success that the mines of the west had to offer travelling accross the salty Atlantic winds to Ireland Butte, America became a real destination for the Irish. Many a man listened to the whispers of the Atlantic and by 1900, half of Butte’s 30,000 population were Irish; Butte’s suburbs were called Dublin Gulch, and Cork Town. While everyone knows the Irish came in droves to the East coast, and in essence ‘built New York’ city, and San Francisco had the largest Irish population, it was Butte that had the most Irish emmigrated to in terms of the percentage the Irish made up of the population.
John was raised in Uptown Butte, his family home surrounded by the Original, Stewart, and Anselmo mines. He describes its importance in an interview he gave in Helena, Mont., Nov. 17, 2009. He speaks of the sights and sounds of the mines that colored his childhood world: the whirring and rattling of sheave wheels up and down the shafts, the rumble of the trains and the lonely men walking back from the depths of the pit after the 4:30 day shift to buy a paper from Sheehy or one of the other kids and return home to a one bedroom flat.
Growing up in Butte Sheehy was exposed to a unique political sphere. His father became coroner when he was twenty but when he was growing up his father was a hard rock miner, who worked six days a week, living from Saturday to Saturday, which was their pay day. He experienced the economic issues of blue collar people in the mining city.
Sheehy recalled in his interview with Bob Brown:
“There was a strike about every three or four years, on top of the other problems they had. The miners in the 1934 strike, their wage for that day was 3.25 dollars for an eight hour day. Then they had their strike and they won that strike in ’34 and their pay was increased to 5.25 dollars a day, with an agreement that whenever the price of copper raised, a penny a pound, they’d get an additional 25 cents a day. They tied it to the price of copper.”
Sheehy had been set to follow his Father’s footsteps and also work in the mines. However, when he was 18 he was hit by a drunk driver which injured his hand. It was a blessing in disguise. His parents sent him to University. Sheehy graduated with a law degree from the University of Montana in 1943 and moved to Billings, where he practiced law for the next 35 years.
It’s funny how things work out in this life. Something you initially thought would hold you back, like Sheehy’s hand injury, can send you in a different direction, for Sheehy this was the direction of the Supreme Court. He was a Montana Supreme Court Justice from 1978 to 1991.
Sheehy was a vocal supporter of the bill to abolish the death penalty in the State of Montana. As a former Justice who participated in death penalty cases in his early career, McKenzie and Coleman cases respectively, later with experience under his belt he came to oppose it. It was the opinion of Sheehy that the death penalty was too harsh a punishment in any justice system and other states that had rejected it had not suffered any adverse harm.
Within his life one can see clearly the initial clash of culture of the humble Irish-American immigrant who over the generations transforms into a main character in society. His is the history of Ireland, of Butte, America and the history of the State of Montana.