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The American West and the Irish who made it

‘This is the West sir, when the legend becomes fact print the legend’ (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)

The history of the American far West has been romanticised and mythologised in popular culture to a point where it is difficult to disentangle truth from fiction. Its icons (usually heavily armed) tend to be male, Caucasian, charismatic and violent. There is little room in the classic Western narrative for women, immigrants and persons of colour. Indigenous peoples, while included, usually get short shrift and fill the role of perennial and unsuccessful antagonist.

The actual narrative of the trans-Mississippi region in the late 19th century is far more complex and multi-faceted than the mythology propogated by Hollywood and the dime novel. It has been aptly described as ‘a past that never was and always will be’. It is an integral part of the U.S. foundation myth and of America’s sense of itself as a rugged, independent, self-reliant, free-thinking nation.

‘The American West, 1820-1920’ while acknowledging and addressing the romance and myth, aims to deglamourise the ‘Frontier’ era and challenge some of the received wisdom that has gone largely unchecked in the popular imagination. While icons like Billy the Kid, Custer, Cochise, Crazy Horse and Wyatt Earp will feature so too will Thomas Fitzpatrick, Nellie Cashman and Jasper O’Farrell from Ireland, the Boo How Doy of San Francisco’s Chinatown, John Sutter from Baden in Germany and Londoner John Tunstall.

There are many mansions in this particular house and quite a few suprises behind the doors of those mansions. Where appropriate the course will point to the influence of Irish emigrants in the far West

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‘A past that never was and always will be’ – Course introduction and overview.

An introductory lecture outlining the origins of the notion of the ‘frontier’, the earliest exploration and exploitation of the trans-Mississippi USA, the mythologizing of the ‘West’ even as the frontier continued to move westwards, the declaration by Frederick Jackson Turner of the ‘end of the frontier’, the dreation of iconic figures like the cowboy and the gunfighter, the marginalisation of women and minorities, and the 19th and 20th century exploitation of the ‘myth’ of the West,

Case Study: The Iron Road – railways, Western capitalism, coolies and navvies.

Signature Film:  Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)

Mountain men and migrants 1820-1850.

The earliest exploitation of the American West, dating from the early 1820s, was the hunting of the beaver by the employees of the Hudson Bay Company, the American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur company during the era of the ‘Mountain Man’ which lasted barely twenty years but launched the careers of western legends like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick.  This overlapped with, and was superceded by, the internal migration of thousands of families along the California and Oregon trails. The diaries of women travelling with the westward-bound wagon trains give the lie to many pervasive western myths.

Case Study: The Donner Party – cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Signature films: Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack)  / The Revenant (Alejandro Inarritu)

The rise and rise of San Francisco –1848-1906.

One western phenomenon which is often ignored is the omnipresence of urbanisation, the growth (and occasionally the disappearance) of large urban centres. San Francisco was the most populous city in the far West from the time of the discovery of gold in northern California until the catastrophic earthquake of 1906. It was also a very ‘Irish’ city in its first fifty years.

Case Study: ‘The Chinese must go’ - Denis Kearney and the Workingmen’s Party of California

Signature Film – San Francisco (W.S.van Dyke / D.W. Griffith)

Gunfighter nation – violence in the American West.

While the Colt 45 and the Winchester 73 were not nearly as ubiquitous in the trans-Mississippi West as folklore would have us believe the ‘cowtowns’ and mining settlements could be violent and unsettling places. How widespread was lawlessness and how close is the graphically violent TV series Deadwood to the truth? Why are some of the most violent figures during this era admired and almost revered?

Case Study: The Lincoln County War – Murphy, Dolan, Riley, Brady and … Billy the Kid

Signature Films:  Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood) – The Long Riders (Walter Hill)

Signature TV series: Deadwood

How the Irish won the west!

Obviously they didn’t - but they did have the sort of influence on the region that you will never see depicted in Hollywood westerns, even those made by ‘professional’ Irishman John Ford. The same is true of most other ethnic groups. The Irish influence was, however, not always benign. There were also many female Irish pioneers, reflecting the fact that 19th century Irish emigration to the USA was almost 50% female.

Case Study: Thomas Fitzpatrick – ‘Broken Hand’ the greatest Irish Mountain Man and Indian Agent

Silver Kings and 49’ers  - extraction and resources.

It was the prospect

At the end of this course, a student should be able to … 

Outline and analyse the signidficance of some of the more notable events of the history of the American West.

Separate truth from fiction in that often oversimplified narrative.

Evaluate the contribution of internal and external ‘Western’ migrants to the modern USA.

Understand something of the history of violence in American society. 

Have a clearer understanding of the influence of Irish emigrants, diverse ethnic groups and women on the Western narrative.

View the fictional and cinematic output relevant to the American West through the prism of the era in which it was produced rather than the period about which it was written.

Walk like John Wayne.

Dr. Myles Dungan is a broadcaster and historian. He has presented The History Show on RTE Radio 1 since its inception in 2010. He writes and presents ‘On This Day’ the weekly RTE Drivetime feature and has made a number of award-winning history documentaries on radio. He is the author of a number of books, including How the Irish Won the West (2006). A Fulbright scholar at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007 and 2011 he received a PhD from Trinity College, Dublin in 2012. 

The Barbary Coast (aka Gangs of San Francisco) – Herbert Asbury

Bury my heart at Wounded Knee  - Dee Brown

Wondrous Times on the Frontier – Dee Brown

Son of the Morning Star – Evan S. Connell

How the Irish won the West – Myles Dungan

Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin

The West: An illustrated history- Geoffrey C. Ward