The Harp Without the Crown – Father Patrick Brosnan


“I just received an appointment to St. Mary’s…. a very good church at 625 Main St…. I got a great parish, the best I could possibly get for right in the heart of Butte city….seven parishes, all Irish.” Quotation taken from the letters of Father Patrick Brosnan written to his mother in County Kerry, Ireland during the years 1916 to 1918.

Hello, this is John Conlan, host of The Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF, and welcome to this episode of the Harp Without the Crown where I will be discussing Father Parick Brosnan’s “Letters to Ireland” written while he was parish priest at Butte’s St. Mary’s Church. These letters held at the Butte Silver Bow Public Archives cover many topics: Butte environmental, social and political issues, as well as Irish immigration. His detailed accounts offer an excellent picture of the Butte community one hundred years ago as well as the joys and hardships faced by Father Brosnan while in America.

Father Brosnan, educated and ordained a priest in Ireland, was a parish priest at St. Mary’s Church from 1916 to 1918. He was under the supervision of Father Michael Hannan, a fierce proponent of Irish independence, who referred to Father Brosnan as a “saint.” Father Brosnan found Father Hannan to be a “big hearted man and good natured but is a great Irishman and talks or thinks of nothing else but the old land.”

He came to Butte when the community was experiencing labor strife, World War One and the Spanish Flu. Arriving from a temperate climate in Ireland made it difficult for Father Brosnan to adapt to the harsh Butte climate. He noted that Butte has a “cold climate, dry and healthy …but is a very dreary place to look at, the mountains with barren hills on every side…the beauty is underground, with silver and copper.” He also noted “Butte has a good climate in general but up here in Butte it is easy to destroy the air…there is not a tree nor a shrub nor a blade of grass, but all the wealth is underground.”

During his time in America Father Brosnan made astute observations about Irish America and the Butte Irish community noting “the people work hard here in this country and get fairly good wages but live hand to mouth and the poor Irish are very decent but not trained to any trade when they come here so they have hard knocks.” Pointedly, he remarked that the Irish either “get jobs or become tramps, work is hard and housing is bad in the cities…I have never seen poverty until I came to this country.” He also correctly noted that Irish immigrants “settled in the cities near friends and where they can have weddings and wakes and there are “small amounts of Irish Catholics in the country (Montana)…and full of cowboys.”

Also, he saw alcohol abuse as a severe societal problem, noting that immigrants just “four to five years from Ireland are already tramps in and out of jail…there are hundreds raised decent who stand and beg for ten cents for a drink.” Specifically he pointed out, a man (in Butte) will always die after ten years in the mines and that copper dust eats up their lungs. However, he acknowledged that Butte is “a great mining town with 100,000 people and the highest wages in the world.”

Although living in Butte, Father Brosnan never lost his love of Ireland and missed it dearly. He acknowledged “it was a long way back to (County) Tipperary but continued to correspond regularly with his Irish family and always inquired about old friends and neighbors.” I hope the Kings are well… is Jerry Sheehan and Danny Buckley getting on well…what about the Walshes?” He viewed “Ireland as the best country in the world and much better than any other civilized country.” He issued a warning to potential immigrants “if the young fellows in the old country saw the way their brothers and sisters work in America they would think before they came over… but a man in good health and sensible can rise in this town.” He regularly sent money back to his Irish family to save for him upon his permanent return to his homeland.

Father Brosnan lamented about the diminishing political and social strength of the Butte Irish community just prior to 1920 which he felt was due to falling Irish immigation numbers and the increased size of other ethnic populations, such as the French, Italians, Germans and Eastern Europeans. This shift in political and societal power in Butte caused the “Irish to lose elections” and this tension led him to express derogatory comments concerning other ethnic groups. The Italians…”they stab each other” and the Finns and Swedes “are vicious people fond of blowing things up.” Despite this shift in power, Father Brosnan thought “things are going nicely in Butte and wages are good…boys are coming from the west (of Ireland) to work in the mines with 2,000 Irish boys coming within the last few months.”

During Father Brosnan’s stay in Butte he witnessed the Speculator Mine disaster and the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. The Mine disaster claimed the lives of 169 miners. He performed ten funerals at St. Mary’s alone. The disaster led Father Brosnan to view the mining “companies as hopeless tyrants.” Father Brosnan faced the Spanish flu and its impact in Butte first hand. The Butte papers reported that the Spanish Flu hit Butte like a “wildfire.” The epidemic took the lives of 50 million worldwide, 5,000 in Montana and 1,000 in Butte. In one week alone there were 370 cases reported in Butte. There were so many fatalities that death notices replaced full obituaries in the local newspapers. The Butte Health Board passed several measures by closing schools, churches, theaters and dance halls. Washington School became a makeshift hospital.

During the epidemic Father Brosnan continued to interact and serve his parishioners and the Butte community. Sadly, it was in this capacity that he contracted the Spanish Flu by carrying the sacraments of communion and the last rites to the dying of his parish. He was advised to “take to his bed immediately” but he chose to continue his ministerial duties and died from complications due to pneumonia at the age of 26 on November 10, 1918. Near the end of his life he hinted of his regret “not to die in Ireland.” Observing a traditional Irish burial custom, he was carried in his casket on the shoulders of his pallbearers to his burial site. His obituary cited Father Brosnan as a “noble soul and of saintly character” and was “tireless in his efforts to ease the sufferings of its numerous victims” from the Spanish Flu.

Father Brosnan was not an outspoken proponent of Irish independence like most Irish activists profiled in this series. However, he shared many characteristics with these Irish activists, such as a commitment to public service and a desire for the Irish community to be successful in Butte and Ireland. He was a man who worked behind the scenes for the Butte Irish community as it adapted to the realities of a new land and culture.

This is John Conlan and thanks for listening to this episode of the Harp Without the Crown.