St. Patrick’s Day celebrations across the United States often conjure up images of the parade in South Boston or the green river in Chicago. Still, the most Irish city in America is one you likely wouldn’t expect: Butte, Montana. Seriously. According to the most recent U.S. Census (and a recent article in the Los Angeles Times), Butte is the most Irish city in the union per capita; almost a full quarter of its residents are of Irish descent. These stats don’t surprise John McKee, cofounder of the city’s largest distillery, Headframe Spirits. Recently I caught up with McKee for the inside scoop on what makes Butte’s St. Paddy’s Day party so special and what else do to around town.
Butte, Montana: Why so Irish?
It’s a polyglot of a town. Mining was the big reason—it drew people from everywhere. Eastern Europe. Serbia. China. The predominant culture that built the place was Irish. We have a direct connection to this culture at Headframe. The labor movement started here; the very first union was here. Today, when the Irish ambassador to the United States comes abroad, she comes here.
What’s your connection to Irish culture?
First, my family is from Ireland—County Cork, to be exact. And I’ve basically lived here since I was six. But also, our company is connected to Irish culture. The word “headframe” actually describes the big steel structure at the surface that would lower miners into the earth and bring up ore and supplies. The largest headframe in town was up on Butte Hill. The area was called Dublin Gulch because of all the Irish guys who worked there, and the headframe itself was called the Kelley. The area has changed, but the Kelley is still standing, and our distillery sits right next to it, right in the heart of the old Dublin Gulch. We’re actually releasing a single-malt Irish-style whiskey called The Kelley later this year.
How does the city’s heavy Irish heritage play out on St. Patrick’s Day?
Like other Irish cities, we have a big parade. They shut down most of the streets of downtown Butte. Because of our labor history, the heads of all the national unions are there walking it. We have Irish dancers, both from local companies and national ones. Local kids. Politicians. Pipers—so many pipers. The streets are mobbed with people watching. Butte does not have an open container law, so tons of people along the parade route are drinking whiskey out of hip flasks or having a beer. Beyond the parade, everybody in town is genuinely welcoming and nice. Years ago I brought some college friends home for the parade and one friend told me that in three days, she felt like she had met everybody in town. It’s just like going to Ireland in that sense.
How many people show up for the parade?
You wouldn’t believe it. If St. Patrick’s falls on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday—like it does this year—we’ll have 100,000. If you consider that Butte’s normal population is only about 30,000, that means we triple our population for the parade.
Have you ever marched?
Absolutely. And this year my wife and I were nominated to be Grand Marshalls! (We didn’t win.)
When it’s not St. Patrick’s Day, what other things do you like to do in Butte?
There’s a lot for a small town like ours. The World Museum of Mining, for one. There are other museums, too. In summertime, I also always like to float rivers. We live in the place where most people go for their vacation. Whether it’s St. Patrick’s Day or not, you can’t really go wrong.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.