Monday, July 13, 2015

Billy the Kid Was a Gaelic Speaker

Yesterday my brother sent me an interesting magazine article on Billy the Kid.  The article was written by Chuck Usmar, a writer, historian, and scholar, on the life of Billy the Kid.  I learned from the article that Billy the Kid was a Gaelic speaker.  Usmar discovered this fact in reading primary sources, i.e. interviews, with people that knew Billy the Kid. 
There were a lot of Irish and Scottish immigrants on the frontier in those days and Gaelic speakers were common in the Old West.  It might surprises some to discover that this Gaelic heritage is still around.  For example, Butte, Montanan, had at one time a Gaelic language newspaper.  Eamon DeValera visited Butte in 1919 and Irish President Mary McAleese also visited there in 2006.  Butte today has a very active Gaelic language organization that sponsors yearly immersion Gaeltacht seminars for Gaelic language learners and speakers.  Personally, I can not imagine a better backdrop to practice one's Gaeilge than Montana; think cowboy culture, barbecued beef ribs, beer, beautiful mountains, a dry cool air, and speaking Gaelic.  Mining, railroads, homesteading, and ranching, brought many Irish immigrants to the West.  In Butte the large Irish population came mostly from Counties Cork, Wicklow, and Donegal.  In August each year Butte enjoys a large outdoor Irish festival. 

But, back to Billy.  Billy the Kid's real name was Henry McCarty and he was born to an Irish immigrant family that lived in New York City on 17 September 1859.  His early years are still elusive to historians, much is known, but elements of his early life are still unknown.  By 1872 his family had moved to Sante Fe, New Mexico, and this is where the legend of Billy the Kid begins.  Billy was a good looking young man, he stood 5' 8" tall, had blond hair, and a smooth complexion.  And, he was drawn into an event called the Lincoln County Wars which involved cattle, land, water rights, and armed cowboys.  His history is well known, so I will not go into further detail, but will turn to his Gaelic language abilities now.

Three Rivers area, New Mexico

Billy sold cattle to another Irish immigrant, cattle rancher, business man, Pat Coghlan.  He was born in Clonakilly, County Cork in 1822 and arrived in New Mexico in 1874. Pat ran the Three Rivers Ranch which was located north of Tularosa, New Mexico.  It is a beautiful, wild, area, still to this day.  Billy often stayed at the Three Rivers Ranch because of his business connections with it.  Pat Coghlan had the US government contract to sell beef to Fort Stanton, where from there it was prepared and taken to the Mescalero Indian Reservation. 

In the late 1870s Mary Coghlan, Pat's niece, came to live at the Three Rivers Ranch.  She came straight from Ireland and did not know English at all, her only language was Gaelic.  Pat Coghlan did not have enough Gaelic to speak with Mary and her having no English made for a difficult time.  Pat asked Billy the Kid to act as interpreter as Billy knew both languages fluently.  On interest, Billy could also speak fluent Spanish, so he was a handy man to have around.  Writer Chuck Usmar discovered Billy's Gaelic language ability while reading through interviews with people who knew the Coghlans and Billy.  It is another interesting piece of Old West lore.



Sìne Bheag said...

This is really interesting. I hope you don't mind but I reblogged it to my gaelic blog:
Tapadh leat

Frank said...

Most likely Scottish or Scots-Irish not Irish. Mother was married in a Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe not a Roman Catholic church and fought for an Englishman and a Scotsman(Presbyterian) in the Lincoln County War,against Irish Roman Catholics. His mothers favorite dance was the Highland Fling which is a Scottish dance not Irish.
Even one of his aliases Billy Bonney was a play on Bonny Scotland. Not Irish,not by a long shot!

Barry R McCain said...

Frank, would have to disagree with you. He spoke Gaeilge, acted as translator for a family from Cork. I have read some who suggest his family 'may' have been from Antrim, but have never been able to confirm that. I place no importance on his religion myself, many native Irish were Protestant. I work in the field and see quite a few native Irish Presbyterian families, especially in the Bann Valley (Antrim) and in the Lagan (Donegal). His surname native Irish and his language Gaeilge, and many Irish dance Highland dances. My own family Scots-Irish, but were Irish speaking when they migrated to the Colonies (1718). Not uncommon.

Kreps Neklo said...

McCarty and its variants are commonplace in West Cork. It is the ancestral seat of the McCarthys at Blarney Castle. I have McCarthy forebears in and around Clonakilty

Unknown said...

Barry is surely correct. At the time Billy the Kid was growing up in rural Ireland many - maybe most - people would still have spoken Irish as their first language. Indeed there would have been a significant minority who were mono-lingual speakers of Gaelige.