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

rue da claire said...

It seems that coming over in the 1870 mary would speak english as the irish language was outlawed that that's why they had hedge schools long before the late 1800's

Seumas Scott MacIonmhainn said...

I think the point that the Gaelic cultures and languages were far less divergent in 1718 than they are in 2016 is being lost here. Billy the Kid was a Gael! That's the only important part!

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.

Joe Tamayo said...

Your cultures are fascinating, just thinking, it would be great if they could get Billy Mc Cartys DNA after readying alot of Billy Books, he got around quite a bit
and may still have some living relatives especially here in New Mexico, maybe Texas as well, but without the DNA we'll probably never know!!

K L said...

That is so interesting. I learned a lot from this article. I guess I'm Scots=Irish. My Scottish ancestors fled to Ireland during proscription. Is that what Scots-Irish means?

I'm sure you'll know. I'm also very Welsh with a little Viking blood thrown in from Gothenberg, Sweden and the rest of me is English and Hungarian.

Anyway, I just discovered your page and will be interested to read your posts and articles about my ethnic heritage.

MacGregor and Graham are my Clans

Karen L

Axel Koehler said...

Exactly, especially since Scottish strathspeys have long been in the repertoire of Donegal fiddlers - and in the areas of Glencolmcille ("An Gleann") and Gaoth Dobhair (angl. Gweedore), they're called "Highlands". Many Presbyterian families from Ulster and their descendants in Appalachia and other areas settled by Scots-Irish (Ulster Scots) bear Gaelic surnames with "Mac" (incl. the very gentleman running this blog) or such originally prefixed by an "Ó". However, to many self-declared "Ulster Scots" from nowadays' Northern Ireland, it is anathema that any of their folk may have spoken "the Gaelic" which (unfortunately instrumentalised in sectarian strife) to them is nowt but "Taig Talk", i.e. Catholic lingo. Those unfortunate people have been so brainwashed by anti-Gaelic anglo-centric propaganda of the "Loyalist" side, they hate what is part of their own cultural background: a considerable number of Scottish Covenanters who settled in Ulster as "planters" were from then Gaelic-speaking Galloway and the Carrick, to begin with. And the Gaelic dialects of those areas were as close to Irish as the Gaelic dialects of the Antrim Glens and Rathlin Island were to Scottish Gaelic.

celtical said...

Very Interesting. My mom was from Kerry, Irealand. There was a rumour that Jessie James lived in one of the small towns there, Listowel, Tarbert or Ballybunion.Told this over 50yrs ago so memory not as sharp.

James Nolan said...

Greetings! I enjoyed your page and I have a request. I am writing my second book about translation and I would like to use the photo you posted of Billy the Kid as an example of a famous bilingual. May I reproduce the photo in my book?
Thanks and regards,
James Nolan /