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
‘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.