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Friday 18 April 2014

Irish cowboys who tamed the West

How the Irish Won the West By Myles Dungan New Island, ?24.95 Brian Kelly Most of the million or so Irish who emigrated to America in the 1800s settled in the Eastern Seaboard conurbations of New York and Boston. Their story is well known. There, among the teeming masses, they overcame nativist prejudice and rose from the urban squalor to become prosperous citizens of

How the Irish Won the West By Myles Dungan New Island, ?24.95 Brian Kelly Most of the million or so Irish who emigrated to America in the 1800s settled in the Eastern Seaboard conurbations of New York and Boston. Their story is well known. There, among the teeming masses, they overcame nativist prejudice and rose from the urban squalor to become prosperous citizens of the republic.

But many immigrants, as Myles Dungan reveals in his fascinating new book, looked to the West for a better life.

Mostly, they toiled anonymously as farmers, miners and railroad labourers and thus did their part to settle the vast expanse of America. Others who went west - though they failed to get the Hollywood treatment afforded to Billy the Kid, Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp - led more colourful lives.

One such man was Thomas Fitzpatrick. The Cavan native was one of the first white men to venture into the great uncharted territory west of the Missouri River. As a fur trader he discovered the South Pass through the Rockies, and became famous as a Mountain Man who guided settlers and missionaries (though he hadn't much time for the latter) through hostile Indian territory into new settlements west of the Great Divide.

His reputation for fair dealing spread to the powers in Washington and eventually he became an Indian agent and brokered a peace treaty between the Plains peoples and the US government. He also made a tidy fortune.

All Irishmen did not curry such friendly relations with the natives. Another fur trader, James Kirker from Co Antrim, led a paramilitary force against the pesky Apaches in the mid-1840s and claimed the scalps of 500 warriors at a dividend of $200 a head (the bounty was $50 for a woman's and $25 for a child). If there is a fault with Myles Dungan's book it is that it is too broad in scope. For example, many of the adventurous women who made the journey west to seek their fortune deserve a book of their own.

Nellie Cashman from Midelton, Co Cork, made a fortune providing 'bed, board and booze' to the gold and silver miners of Tombstone, Arizona, and later in the Yukon. She earned the nickname 'The Angel of Cassiar' after heroically organising a rescue mission to save hundreds of prospectors cut off from civilisation by a fierce winter storm. This doughty old dame spent her final years staking out claims near the Arctic Circle when she was in her 70s.

Belinda Mulrooney, known affectionately as 'Queen of the Klondike', earned enough money selling hot-water bottles to freezing miners to build a luxurious hotel in Dawson City complete with steam heated rooms, electric lights and a dining room with linen table cloths, sterling silver cutlery and bone china. Working the bar of her hotel, she was able to buy a number of highly profitable mines by listening to the gossip of inebriated miners.

Sligo gal Lola Montez (nee Eliza Rosanna Gilbert) became one of the most sought-after courtesans of her era. She was famous far and wide in the West for her 'Tarantula Dance' in which the discovery of a spider in her corset would necessitate the removing of much of her clothing. Alas, her routine became a bit passe in the dance halls of California and she died destitute in a rundown boarding house in New York in 1861.

Irishmen Dolan, Murphy, Riley and Brady played starring roles in the notorious Lincoln County War. When it was all over in 1881, 63 men had been gunned down, including one William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid.

Irish toffs, too, were aplenty in the Wild West. Sir George Gore, a Dubliner who had succeeded to a hereditary title in Donegal, left behind a massive pile of rotting carcasses in his three seasons of hunting anything that moved in the wilderness of what is now Colorado. In one summer he is said to have personally killed 105 bears and some 2,000 buffalo, elk and deer.

Oscar Wilde, of course, made a celebrated tour of the capitals of the West to lecture the locals on the decorative arts. He was a big hit with the great unwashed, who were more impressed with his drinking prowess in the saloons than his treatise on domestic aesthetics.

They are all here in this highly entertaining book: heroes, crooks, railway workers, cowboys, hookers, trappers, miners, farmers, madams, ranchers, Indian fighters, soldiers, sheriffs and outlaws - the Irish men and women who dreamed of bigger things and found them in the Wild West of America.

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