Let’s just call this a St. Patrick’s Day story.
It’s grand, listening to Celine Maloney relate how she, a girl born and raised on a small island off the coast of Ireland, wound up making a life in Montana.
Her story is filled with happenstance, starting with a chance encounter with the music of Bruce Springsteen that put America on her mind, and told in an Irish accent she never left behind.
“One day in Dublin I came walking up over the Portobello Bridge and there was this second-hand record store,” Maloney says. “I thought I’d go in to have a look.”
Up to then, she says, America was “just someplace over there. I never took too much notice about it.”
But in the record store, she heard Springsteen for the first time. His “Born to Run” album was playing in the shop.
“I thought, ‘What is that?’ ” Maloney says.
“ ‘I’ve never heard anything as exciting sounding before. Where did he come from? How come I haven’t heard about him before?’ ”
So she went looking, and “found out that he was an American. That was the start of my seed that there must be something good over there, ya know?”
Maloney, who grew up on Valentia Island off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula – the scenic peninsula on the southwest coast is best known for its Ring of Kerry tourist trail – was a university student at the time she first heard Springsteen. After being licensed as a pharmacist’s assistant, she worked in West Cork for a year, saving her money.
At the age of 24 she booked a flight from Shannon to New York, with only vague plans of what to do once she got there, and – after paying for her airline ticket – only $500 left to do it with.
But coming to America she was, with the intention of staying the entire six months allowed by her visa.
Maloney’s is a modern-day version of millions of stories of Irish who came to America, and thousands who wound up in Butte.
“The people who came long ago were fabulous people,” she says. “You can’t compare the likes of me to them. They had nothing, and came all the way out here and worked hard and had their families and made great success stories.
“I came on TWA with 500 bucks. I was like a millionaire compared to most of those people.”
One of the coolest parts of Celine Maloney’s story is that it’s just one of more than 140 that have been collected through an ongoing project called “The Gathering: Collected Oral Histories of the Irish in Montana.”
It’s the only project of its kind in the United States, spurred in part by a visit to Montana by Irish Consul General Gerry Staunton in 2009.
Staunton reportedly met so many people from Ireland, or of Irish descent, while touring five Montana cities that he announced someone ought to be recording their stories for posterity.
The Irish government would help finance such an effort, he promised, and its Department of Foreign Affairs Emigrant Support Program did so.
In the three years since, interviewers have fanned out across the state to record the stories of Irish Montanans who volunteered to tell them – both ones like Maloney, who was born in Ireland, and others whose parents or grandparents or great-grandparents crossed the Atlantic to get here.
The interviewers have been to every corner of the state to do so, but of course landed in Butte – where thousands of Irish came to work the mines owned by one of their own, County Cavan-born Marcus Daly – multiple times. Butte has, on occasion, been referred to as “the fifth province of Ireland.”
The oral histories are woven into an exhibit called “From Rocky Shores to the Rocky Mountains: The Irish in Montana.” It’s been displayed from Butte to County Cork, and is currently up at the Mansfield Library on the campus of the University of Montana.
In the interview, conducted by University of Montana assistant professor Bernadette Sweeney, who was one of the project’s organizers, Celine Maloney talks about growing up in Ireland.
She was delivered during a “mad gale” in her parents’ home on the island, where her father, Des Lavelle, worked as an electrician for the Transatlantic Cable Co. owned by Western Union.
Talk about a technological advance. When the undersea cable was first connected between Valentia Island and Newfoundland in 1858, the cable reduced the time it took a message to travel from Europe to North America from 10 days – the time it took a ship to sail the ocean – to mere minutes.
The Lavelles lived in one of 23 company-owned houses on the island – “No. 15,” says Maloney, who in the interview shows a charming ability to remember street addresses of just about everyplace she’s ever lived or worked in both Ireland and America – and the house came with two things.
There was a magnificent view of Dingle Bay and the Blasket Islands, and also – because it was needed to operate the cable – the 23 houses at the cable station had electricity that all their neighbors lacked.
“The electrification of rural Ireland didn’t happen until the late 1950s,” Maloney says. “Electricity came to the rest of the island in 1959, but the cable station had had it since the 1880s.”
By 1965, the transatlantic cable was obsolete and the Valentia station shut down. While other employees transferred to jobs in London or the Azores, Des and Patricia Lavelle bought the home they had previously rented from the company. She turned it into a bed-and-breakfast, and he opened a scuba diving/boat tour business.
Their daughter tells stories of being educated by nuns, the regatta season on Dingle Bay, the construction of a bridge that connected the island to the mainland in 1969, and how her father spent a winter working on the film crew making the movie “Ryan’s Daughter.”
Her parents were out of the country for a month when Celine Lavelle – Maloney is her married name – bought her one-way ticket to New York.
“I didn’t even have a lift to Shannon (the airport) from Valentia,” she says. “Everybody in Ireland hitched at that time, so I went up to the top of the village. I only had a small suitcase with me. Paddy Dailey stopped, he was a farmer from up the road, and he said, ‘Where are ya goin’?’
“I said, ‘I’m goin’ to America, Paddy,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’ll take ya as far as Killorgin,’ which was 13 miles up the road, and so that was the start.”
According to Maloney, her only plan once she arrived was to head for someplace with an ocean.
“Because I’m from an island,” she explains. “I’ll have to get someplace near the water.”
She sort of narrowed her choices to Boston, because of its Irish population, and California.
But when Maloney narrowed it down from there, “I came in the wintertime and someone said that, gosh, it’ll be all snowy and cold in Boston, and I said, ‘I couldn’t stand that.’ ”
She laughs, and adds, “And then I ended up in Montana!”
Montana was a few years away, however.
In the months before she left Ireland, Maloney met a tourist from San Francisco who told her if she ever came to America and landed in his city, to look up Norman Hobday. Hobday would surely give Celine a job working in his bar, the man said.
In the little village of Barleycove that summer, Maloney also met some Irish lads who had immigrated to San Francisco but were home for a visit. When she said she was saving up to visit America, one gave her his phone number and said if she made it to San Francisco to look them up.
“I put the number in my book, and didn’t think more about it,” Maloney says. “When I got to New York I was thinking, ‘I better call that crowd in San Francisco. Maybe they’ll pick me up.’ ”
Well, she had a terrible time figuring out American payphones and American change at the New York airport, and when she moved to Plan B and tried calling collect – “That’s from the movies, I knew about that,” Maloney says – whoever answered refused to accept the charges.
“I said, ‘I’m really in a pickle now, you know,’ ” she says. “I called the operator a third time and said, ‘Say I’m from Ireland and I’m calling collect.’ It was your man’s brother (who answered) and he knew nothing about me, of course. I said, ‘I’m Celine Lavelle and I’m from County Kerry and I’m going to be in San Francisco in five hours. I need somebody to pick me up. I have no place to stay or anything. Where’s your man, your brother? I met your brother six months ago.’ ”
“Oh,” the man answered, “it’s Thanksgiving around here. He hasn’t been seen for days.”
Maloney begged the stranger, but fellow Irishman, to pick her up in San Francisco. He did.
In short order she found a place to live, and called Norman Hobday, who gave her a job at Henry Africa’s, supposedly the world’s first fern bar, even though Hobday didn’t recognize the name of the man who had suggested it in the first place.
“It was a wee popular spot, and the 49ers were playing great football at the time,” Maloney says. “I think they won the Super Bowl that year so it was kind of wild in all the bars.”
It was “great fun, a great time,” Maloney says. “Lots of people my own age. They all welcomed me.”
The six months sped by in a flash. Her visa was up. It felt like she’d no sooner arrived, and it was time to go home.
“I went home a little bit sad, but still happy I’d had such a great time,” Maloney says.
Within a few months of her return to Ireland, she knew it was time to chart her future.
“America had kind of beckoned me, and so I headed off a second time,” Maloney says.
But this time, she did so with an eye toward staying. She got a job before returning, as a nanny in San Francisco, and once back on U.S. soil hired an attorney in California to begin the long and tedious process of legalizing her status in America.
Partway through the process she won a Donnelly visa, got her green card, and was in. Her only sibling, younger sister Linda, also won a green card and joined her in San Francisco.
Maloney renewed old friendships from her first six months, both inside and out of San Francisco’s Irish community, and made new ones.
One was with Steve Maloney, a Butte native whose grandfather had come from County Donegal.
They began dating, and she soon learned Steve’s goal was to return to Butte. He wanted her to see it.
“It was funny coming to Butte from San Francisco,” Celine says. “San Francisco looks so glorious in the sunshine all the time with the sea, the bay and the bridges. I came up here, and there’s a pit, the uptown and the downtown. I thought, hmmm.”
But her first time trip to Butte was over a St. Patrick’s Day. The place was so Irish, she says, and her boyfriend’s family so wonderful, she felt right at home.
They married in 1994.
“To be honest, Butte has just smiled on me,” Celine says. “People who knew Steve’s family were so warm and welcoming to me. They treated me like royalty, almost. And people I didn’t know treated me fabulously as well. They’d say to me, ‘Oh, you sound like my grandmother from Ireland.’ ”
Already licensed in Ireland as a pharmacist’s assistant, Celine decided to pursue a similar career here – even after officials at the University of Montana told her none of her education would transfer, and she’d have to start at ground zero with basic English and algebra courses.
Maloney took her prerequisites at Montana Tech, then transferred to UM – both her sons were born in Missoula – and earned a degree in pharmacy in 2000 while raising two young children.
She works as a clinical pharmacist at St. James Healthcare in Butte, and returns to Ireland at least once a year, “and more if I’m rich in my pocket,” she says.
How much of Ireland did she bring with her to America? Bernadette Sweeney asks in the interview.
“I think I brought it all,” Maloney tells her. “I must be somewhat Americanized after living here for 25 years-plus, you know – but I think I brought it all in my heart.”
‘IRISH IN MONTANA’
“From Rocky Shores to the Rocky Mountains: The Irish in Montana” is on display at the Mansfield Library on the campus of the University of Montana through April 19. You can also listen to recorded interviews done for “The Gathering: Collected Oral Histories of the Irish in Montana” online by going to ir.lib.umt.edu:8080/xmlui/handle/10844/5/browse?typeauthor, where 116 of them are archived. More information, including some interview vignettes, is available online at mtirishgathering.org.