THE AMERICAN WEST 1820-1920  (And the Irish who made it)

University College Dublin / National Library of Ireland  – Lifelong Learning

Where: National Library, Kildare Street

When: Wednesdays 10.30 – 13.00  October 5, 12,19 November 2, 9, 16, 23, 30

Fee: €195.00

Click to access Adult%20Education%20Brochure%202016-2017.pdf



‘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 de-glamourise 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, George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Wyatt Earp, Jim Bridger, Lol Montez, Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley will all feature so too will Thomas Fitzpatrick, Nellie Cashman, William Mulholland 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 surprises behind the doors of those mansions. There will also be a multitude of locations (including the Little Bighorn, Deadwood, Dodge City, South Pass, Donner Pass, Chilkoot Pass), forms of transport (horse, wagon, buggy, Shank’s mare, railroad), armaments (the longbow, Colt 45, Winchester 73, the Gatling gun, the Bowie knife) and occupations (preacher, prostitute, lawman, cattleman, miner, labourer, teamster, assassin, schoolteacher, farmer).


Where appropriate the course will point to the significance of Irish emigrants in the far West. The ‘two-boat’ Irish exerted a far greater influence on the work, politics, law, military affairs and cultural life of the region than is generally acknowledged.

Among the topics for discussion will be the era of the fur trapper, the emigrant trails, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the rise of the city of San Francisco, the Gold Rush and mining for precious metals, bringing water across the deserts, violence and gun law, the frontier Army, the wars with Native America and the Hollywood treatment of all the above.

‘There’s no law west of Dodge and no God west of the Pecos’  (Chisum)


MYLES DUNGAN: Holds a PhD from Trinity College, Dublin and is the author of a number of books, including How the Irish Won the West (New Island, 2006). He also compiled and presented the RTE radio series True West in 2003.




On This Day- 25 March 1840 – Birth of Myles Keogh




The Little Bighorn, which sounds like a bit of a contradiction in terms, is a river in the American state of Montana. It flows through mainly flat or gently undulating plains. As a river it is unremarkable. But it is not famous for the qualities of its drainage. It is infamous for what happened there on 25 & 26 June 1876 when a flamboyant, egotistical Cavalry officer, George Armstrong Custer, led his Seventh Cavalry to the worst, and last, military defeat ever inflicted on the US Army by the Plains Indian tribes, the Lakota and Cheyenne, at what they called The Battle of the Greasy Grass. No prizes for guessing what it was that greased the grass of the river’s banks.


Five of the twelve companies of the 7th cavalry were wiped out on 25 June, including ‘I’ Company, led by Carlow-born Captain Myles Keogh, the most senior of thirty-two Irish-born fatalities in the battle.


Keogh, from Leighlinbridge, had found his way to his date with destiny by a circuitous route. He had, in 1860, as a twenty year old from a relatively prosperous Catholic family, volunteered for service in the army of the Pope. He wasn’t dressed in a striped uniform guarding the Vatican city, he was fighting, unsuccessfully, to save the Pope’s last remaining landed possessions in Italy. When the American Civil War broke out the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, John Hughes, recruited Keogh and a number of his colleagues, to join the Union Army. He served with distinction through most of the American Civil War as a cavalry officer, fighting at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.


After the Civil War the American Army was greatly reduced in size but Keogh wanted to stay on. Like most other officers he lost his exalted war-time rank but was not demobilized. He was sent west to join Custer’s 7th Cavalry charged with keeping the peace on the great American Plains and ensuring that nations like the Lakota – better known as the Sioux – the Cheyenne, and the Blackfeet, behaved themselves and remained on the relatively useless patches of land that had been set aside for them as ‘reservations’.


Keogh was undoubtedly handsome, dynamic, vigorous and physically courageous. However, he was also described by some colleagues as intemperate, drunken and violent. Although he respected the Native Americans of the Plains as military opponents he had no time for their culture or way of life. He viewed them, quite simply, as savages who needed to be kept permanently in check.


He was part of an Army that had a huge Irish element. 10,000 soldiers were stationed in the American West, a quarter of whom were born in Ireland. The Irish influence can clearly be seen in Custer’s 7th Cavalry. The muster roll in 1876 included 126 Irish-born soldiers out of 822 members of the regiment. Keogh was the only officer. The regiments two marching tunes were the Irish airs ‘Garryowen’ and ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’.


The story of Custer’s massive miscalculation in sending his six hundred strong force against an Indian village that contained up to 5,000 fighting men, has become the stuff of legend. He made things even worse for himself by dividing his command. Everyone who fought with Custer, died with Custer. The only survivor was Keogh’s horse Comanche. Keogh himself was killed a few hundred yards away from Last Stand Hill where his Colonel died. Although he is buried in New York state a gravestone bearing his name marks the spot where he perished, surrounded by the other members of Company ‘I’. For some reason Keogh’s body was one of the few not to have been mutilated by the victorious Sioux and Cheyenne. He wore a Papal medal, awarded in 1860 by a grateful Pope. This token may have been what saved his corpse from evisceration. The Lakota and Cheyenne, who wore pendants of all kinds to ward off evil spirits, may have been wary of the Pontiff’s decoration.


Captain Myles Walter Keogh, commanding officer of Company ‘I’ of the Seventh Cavalry was one of two hundred and sixty eight US cavalrymen to die at the Battle of the Greasy Grass or the Little Bighorn, he was born one hundred and seventy-six ago, on this day.