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.