By Pierce O’Reilly
Some people moan about the cold or fret over icy roads and mounting snow. Others, however, learn to love the seasonal rhythms and take advantage of the unique offerings — cultural and recreational — available in Missoula, Mont. New York-born Traolach O’Riordan has been there only a few weeks, but the well-traveled Irish-language scholar is confident he will fall comfortably into the latter category.
O’Riordan, who was born in the Bronx and spent his early days living on Fordham Road, is the Irish language instructor at the University of Montana. In this newly created post, O’Riordan, who is in his early 30s, believes he is well positioned to help the language blossom and flourish in this relatively remote part of the American West.
O’Riordan moved with his parents to their native Cork when he was still young. It was there that he fell in love with his native tongue.
"I grew up surrounded by Irish speakers, yet they never spoke in G’ilge to me," O’Riordan said. "That really intrigued and baffled me. All the local characters in our village visited our house weekly and the conversation would always turn to Irish when ever the kids were around."
O’Riordan may have struggled then to interpret this adult talk, but his ears were primed and tuned. He was attentive and eager to learn the language, and while at Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal and later at Colaiste Iognaid Ris in Cork city, he did just that. He credits his teacher, Ray O’Morain, with creating an environment that made the Irish language a living resource applicable to the current time.
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"Ray was a wonderful teacher," O’Riordan said. "He lived out everything he said. I remember distinctively what he told us about our heritage and culture. He convinced us that to understand a country’s history, you had to understand its language — and how right he was."
The Troubles in Northern Ireland were at full boil when O’Riordan finished his second-level education. Hunger striker Bobby Sands’s death in 1981 was proclaimed both as a victory and tragedy for nationalists. O’Riordan’s Irish teacher was adamant that his pupils understand the complexities of the situation and not to get carried away by the emotions stirred by the rhetoric of others. O’Morain, O’Riordan said, taught his pupils to understand the importance of the events in Northern Ireland, to appreciate the ancient values of their native tongue, and to nourish their heritage and roots so they could become an integral part of their lives.
After studying Irish and History at UCC in Cork, O’Riordan went on to complete his doctorate in Cultural Nationalism. But he had no plans to settle in Ireland just yet. So he traveled — first to New York then Boston and San Franciso. Then he set sail for Australia and Asia.
"I suppose I’m a bit like the bardic poets from the classical period who traveled around Europe preaching and promoting their work," O’Riordan said. "It was some experience, yet I always had a dream to return and give something back to Ireland."
Traolach O’Riordan did return and in 1999 published a book, "Conradh na G’ilge in Cork," that quickly became a valuable reference for Gaelic scholars.
"That was the first step in the right direction," O’Riordan said. "I felt, however, that I needed to do more for the Irish language, and when the position came up at the University of Montana in Missoula, I knew it would be a challenge, but also very fulfilling, so I jumped at the opportunity."
Missoula began as a tenuous settlement known as Hell Gate in 1860. But it grew quickly, fueled by the search for gold and the completion in 1863 of the Mullan Road. Irish laborers converged on the state to work in the mines. Many never left and their descendants are there still.
It was not surprising that when interest in the Irish language took off in the U.S. in the late 1980s and early ’90s, that Missoula would not be immune. Indeed, Irish activists Tom O’Sullivan and Richard Newman proposed at that time a comprehensive course of study on Irish culture at the University of Montana. Oideas Gael director in Ireland Liam O’Cuinneagain helped kick start the venture with G’ilge immersion weekends. With cooperation from daltai na G’ilge, plans continued to move forward slowly but steadily. Now, almost 10 years later, it is a reality and Missoula — the name taken from a Salish Indian word meaning "near the cold, chilling waters" — has forged a strong cultural link to its Irish heritage.
O’Riordan is looking forward to his stay.
"I hope that I make a difference, firstly by promoting the Irish language and helping the students to become as fluent as is possible, then it’s my aim to promote our heritage and culture and help these people to rediscover their roots," he said.
The University of Montana which opened in September 1893, has more than 10,000 students in its Arts and Sciences and seven professional schools. Most students are from Montana, but about 30 percent come from other states or foreign countries.
Besides academic and administrative buildings, the 200-acre campus has a student center, counseling services, computer facilities, a student health center, and numerous athletic facilities.
Missoula is a unique city for its size and relatively remote location. It offers skiing and a variety of wilderness adventure on the one hand, and on the other is a hub for theater and the symphony. It also boasts a number of sporting events and offers a broad range of restaurants.
"Montana’s history is really repeating itself," according to O’Riordan. "Irish people have always had a stronghold here."
Indeed, the famous Irish scholar and writer Mici Mac Gabhann lived near Missoula many years ago when he worked in the mining industry at Butte. The state also had an Irish acting governor, Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-1867), whose life was cut short in a mysterious steamboat accident in 1867. General Custer made his last stand here, and the only survivor of his largely Irish unit was the "Comanche,’ a horse belonging to Myles Keogh.
The University of Montana also offers courses such as "Yeats" and "Communities in Conflict: Northern Ireland." Graduate students can pursue Irish Studies in M.A programs for History, English, Sociology and Anthropology. The archives of two major Irish-American organizations — the Butte AOH and the Robert Emmet Literary Association (Clan na Gael) — are also housed at UM.
"Hopefully, this simple step forward will further develop Irish links between Montana and Irish speakers and indeed Irish people around the world," O’Riordan said.
Irish course coordinator Tom O’Sullivan said he is delighted with the progress made since O’Riordan’s arrival.
"We’ve struggled in the past because we couldn’t get a qualified Irish teacher," he said. "Now we have an outstanding teacher and, even more important, we have a great historian."