It was pure serendipity.
I was in the midst of planning our annual two-week road trip to visit family in the Pacific Northwest when a friend of mine on Facebook posted information about the week-long immersion course hosted by Friends of Irish Studies in Butte, Montana.
I have been peripherally aware of the Butte course for years, but had never thought about attending it because of the distance. Also normally when I’m in the Northwest I’m with my husband and daughter, neither of whom has any interest in Irish.
This year, however, I was going to be doing the greater part of the trip alone, as my husband had recently started a new job and my daughter had plans to visit her girlfriend in Seattle. It suddenly occurred to me that Butte isn’t all that far from my father’s home in Spokane, Washington — just a four-and-a-half-hour drive (which, when you’re doing a 2,000-mile road trip, isn’t much of a distance at all) — and that there was nothing preventing me from taking an extra week to immerse myself in some Irish (That’s an advantage of being a writer. You can do your work pretty much anywhere.)
That’s why July 22 found me flying eastward on I-90 (And I do mean flying! Montana has an 80 mph speed limit!) toward a new experience in the western foothills of the Montana Rockies.
A Stunning Location
If you’ve never been to Butte, you owe yourself a visit. This small city (population approx. 34,200) is situated in a beautiful bowl-shaped valley, with mountains on every side, and a constantly changing view of Montana’s trademark big sky.
It’s a mecca for those who enjoy outdoor sports, such as hiking or camping, as well as for people with an interest in western U.S. history (it is still very much a mining town, and evidence of that is visible everywhere, from the ubiquitous mining head frames and the strangely beautiful Berkeley Pit to the World Museum of Mining, which gives visitors an opportunity to experience mining from a miner’s point of view).
The people who live there are fiercely proud of their city (the name of which, by the way, is pronounced “byoot,” NOT “butt” — a mistake the guide on the city tour told us is relatively common), and with good reason. In addition to its stunning location, interesting history, and unique architecture, Butte also boasts Montana Tech, which, according to the Princeton Review, ranks among best colleges in the country.
What many visitors don’t realize, however, is that Butte is also a major center for Irish culture. In fact, during its heyday, Butte had the largest concentration of Irish immigrants and their descendants west of the Mississippi!
It’s home to multiple Irish festivals throughout the year, as well as to one of the best Irish-themed shops I’ve encountered: Cavanaugh’s County Celtic.
If Irish history and culture is of interest to you (and, if you’re reading this, I imagine it is), Butte is definitely a must-visit!
A Week of Firsts
I’ve attended many Irish immersion courses over the years, both in the U.S. and in Ireland, but the Butte course was a first for me in many ways.
To begin with, it’s the only week-long course I’ve attended outside of Ireland (full-week courses are not as common in the western U.S. as they are on the East Coast). Weekend courses are wonderful, but often it seems that they’re over too quickly. It was nice to have the time to get to know people, and to explore the area, as well as more time to practice speaking Irish!
It’s also the first immersion event I’ve attended on a university campus which, among other things, meant that we had the option to save a lot of money by staying in the dorms ($25 a night, and wi-fi included…heck of a deal!). The dorm we were housed in — Centennial Hall — was less than a block from the Student Union Building, where we had our classes (and almost as important…just a few steps farther along to a Starbucks!)
The most interesting thing to me, though, was the fact that it’s the only immersion course I’ve attended at which most of the students, as well as the teachers, spoke the same dialect — Munster Irish.
Munster is the dialect with which I am the least familiar (though I can understand it, thanks in large part to TG4!), and it was interesting and useful to hear it all around me for an entire week.
I have to admit I was a bit concerned at first, when I realized there were only two levels: bunleibhéal for beginners and lower intermediates and ardleibhéal for upper intermediates and advanced speakers. I wasn’t certain that it could be made to work for people of markedly different levels.
Fortunately, it worked out very well indeed! In our class (ardleibhéal), we broke into groups during the morning session, with the more advanced students working among ourselves on conversational exercises. During the afternoon the class came back together to work on reading and listening comprehension and and on translation.
The daily pattern was similar to what you find with other immersion courses: A morning session with a 15-minute break in the middle, about an hour and a half free time for lunch, then back for an afternoon session (also with a brief break) that continued until about 4:00.
One thing that did differ from what I’m used to is there were no scheduled afternoon/evening workshops or activities (sessions, dancing, etc.), and I found that I missed that a bit.
That’s not to say that we didn’t do things together after class. We went out to dinner together on two occasions. One afternoon we went together on a guided trolley tour of Butte, which was really interesting, and a lot of fun (should you find yourself in Butte, I highly recommend it)!
On another afternoon, some of the more athletic among us went for a hike up near The Continental Divide (given my bad knee and back, not to mention my tendency for altitude sickness, I had to regretfully decline, but I heard that it was a lot of fun!)
And, of course, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to stuff ourselves with street food, listen to music, and ogle the motorcycles and classic cars at Evel Knieval Days!
I often found myself taking advantage of the long summer evenings and the nearby walking/cycling trail (which ran right past the dorm), to enjoy the historical markers and the ever-changing sky.
Still, as a musician (and as someone who was drawn to Irish by a love for traditional music), I found I missed having some kind of musical gathering. Next time I’ll just have to pack my small harp!
I’ll Be Back
I have no doubt that there will be a next time, when circumstances allow. I had a good time in a beautiful place with some wonderful people, and as always, I learned a lot. Agus bíonn sé go deas i gcónaí bheith ag caint as Gaeilge, in Montana nó in Éirinn!
I’ll leave you with a few more pictures of beautiful Butte.
Le meas, GG
In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada. For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/