By Vince Devlin
The story behind the establishment of a visiting professorship with the University of Montana’s Irish Studies Program is “a series of serendipitous accidents,” according to the man it will be named for.
The short version of the story is pretty simple. Whitefish resident Sam Baldridge – a former student of UM history professor David Emmons – and his wife Julie are funding the establishment of the visiting professorship in Emmons’ name.
The Dr. David Emmons Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies will teach various courses on Irish and Irish-American history each year.
A slightly longer version would note that Sam Baldridge, a 1978 UM graduate, one day picked up a book written by his former college professor called “The Butte Irish: Class and Ethnicity in an American Mining Town, 1875-1925.”
“I read the book with the attitude that so much has already been written about Butte in its heyday, that maybe there’s nothing more to learn,” Baldridge said. “I was amazed at the depth, the scholarship involved. The research was incredible.”
The whole story behind a book that helped play a part in the establishment of the visiting professorship winds its way across an ocean, and into a Montana barn.
Emmons, now 76 and retired, says the “serendipitous accidents” began in 1977, when the late UM History Department chairman Robert Lindsay arranged for Emmons to spend a year teaching in London and Avignon, France.
Emmons took his daughters, then 14 and 10, with him. They had three weeks between the teaching assignments, and chose to spend them in Ireland – partially because it was the cheapest option, and partially because Emmons says the nicest people they met in England had been Irish.
Their mailman was from Ireland. A fellow London commuter Emmons saw most every day on the bus was from County Mayo.
“We figured if all the Irish were as nice as these guys, Ireland might be a good place to visit, and that’s sort of where it all started,” Emmons says. “We had three wonderful weeks there.”
When they returned to Missoula, the history department happened to receive an inquiry about graduate school from a woman at University College Dublin. Having recently been in Ireland, Emmons asked if he could interview Catherine Dowling.
Dowling came to UM to pursue a master’s degree. She knew of the large Irish presence in Butte, and soon traveled to the Mining City to check it out.
“She went to the World Museum of Mining while she was there,” Emmons says, “and discovered this huge collection of records from the two largest Irish organizations in Butte. They showed her some of the records that had been thrown into a box and were hidden under a table.”
Still more – far more – were in a warehouse, leatherbound books from the Robert Emmet Literary Association, also known as Clan-na Gael, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
“Clan-na Gael was very radical,” Emmons says, the equivalent of the Irish Republican Army, and the second-largest such organization in the United States. The Hibernians are an Irish Catholic fraternal organization, but both met once a week in Butte’s Hibernia Hall starting in 1882.
There were decades of records of the Butte Irish.
“There’s more material on the Irish in Butte than there is for any other American city,” Emmons says. “Boston and New York can’t even come close.”
And here it sat in a cold, dry warehouse heated by a wood-burning stove, Emmons says – and it’s fortunate it was there at all.
They’d “tumbled out” of the Hibernia Hall when it was demolished decades ago, and were carted off to a barn up in the Basin-Boulder area north of Butte. After who knows how long, the barn owner contacted the World Museum of Mining and asked if it wanted the records.
Years later, Dowling returned to Missoula and told Emmons about this treasure trove of material she'd found. The museum allowed Emmons to borrow them and transfer the material to microfilm – a 10-year project that produced 12,000 frames on 12 reels.
It also formed the research for “The Butte Irish.”
If he hadn’t gone to London to teach, he might never have visited Ireland, Emmons says. Had he not visited Ireland, he might not have volunteered to interview Catherine Dowling. Had Dowling not come to UM to study, he might never have known about the records she stumbled on.
Had the records been tossed when Hibernia Hall was demolished, had the barn owner hauled them to the dump, had the World Museum of Mining not been interested in taking them – there are just so many ways “The Butte Irish” might never have been written.
And then Sam Baldridge couldn’t have read it, which helped lead to the establishment of not only the visiting Irish Studies professorship, but of the Irish Studies Program – the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi – itself.
“Dave Emmons’ scholarship constituted a critical intervention in the field of Irish studies and laid the intellectual foundation on which UM’s Irish Studies Program is built,” says its director, Traolach O’Riordain. “This gift solidifies the foundations of the Irish Studies Program, providing the resources to develop UM into a nationally recognized center of Irish and Irish Gaelic studies.”
Emmons agrees. The program, which offers a minor, has classes in the Irish language, Irish dance, Irish music, Irish literature – but, since Emmons retired, has been hit-and-miss in its history offerings.
“It’s been catch-as-catch-can with history,” Emmons says. “But no more.”
In addition to his or her teaching duties, the visiting scholar will conduct lectures around the state, UM says.
Emmons – a skier who spends winters in Whitefish – has kept in touch with Sam Baldridge, but was still surprised when the Baldridges announced their plans to fund the visiting professorship.
For one thing, Emmons says they aren’t of Irish heritage.
“Nor am I, really,” Emmons adds. “I refer to us as the adopted children of Gael.”