HELENA - Gov. Brian Schweitzer's Irish grandparents left their homeland with next to nothing. Next week, Schweitzer returns to his ancestral home as a state governor to receive a prestigious award from the University College Dublin.
"It's a great honor," said Schweitzer, who has been to Ireland only once before while on an airplane layover.
The Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin is presenting Schweitzer with its James Joyce award on Nov. 26. Past recipients of the award, which is named in honor of society alumnus and famed Irish novelist James Joyce, include philosopher Noam Chomsky, U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and comedian and actor Will Farrell.
Schweitzer and his wife, Nancy, will leave for Ireland on Saturday. He is expected to give a speech on "The World After Oil" to a university audience after receiving the award.
Schweitzer's Irish roots run deep. His mother, who was born in Montana, has obtained her Irish citizenship and has an Irish passport. Schweitzer has many cousins and kin still living in Ireland. Some of them will be in the audience, and Schweitzer said Thursday that he expects his cousins will "gin up a few more relatives" to attend his speech.
Schweitzer said he expects to spend more time with his Irish family on the trip, although he and Nancy don't have a set agenda.
The Literary and Historical Society is paying Schweitzer's way. The Schweitzers are paying the first lady's way and their private vacation out of their own accounts, said Jayson O'Neill, a governor's spokesman. No state funds will be spent on the trip.
Asked if he would look up his family home, Schweitzer said there may not be one.
"When my grandparents came to Montana, they weren't royalty," he said. "They came to Montana because they had no place to go back to. Going back is touching because they came with nothing and Montana made them."
Schweitzer's grandmother, Hannah Friel, was 17 when she came, using her older sister's papers. She homesteaded north of Chester. His grandfather, Mike McKernan, homesteaded near Box Elder. They met when they were already established in Montana, Schweitzer said.
Schweitzer grew up in a half-Irish home, where animosity toward the English, whose occupation of Ireland lasted 700 years, never faded.
"I will be very careful not to refer to the English as 'the Orangemen,' " Schweitzer said, referring to the slur his grandparents routinely used for the British.
And he suspects he may have a pint or two.
"The Irish, they must be using some Montana barley in their products," he said. "I will respect the Irish brewing industry by partaking in some of that."