Friday, December 12, 2014

Copper Cais ~ The Milk of Ireland Ripened in the Heart of Butte

Veronica Steele
Veronica Steele
This is a story of chance and cheese; accidental connections waiting to be realized.

Searching for new adventures, I left my hometown of Butte, Montana in 2010 and moved to Northern California where I became enchanted with artisan cheesemaking.

While working as a cheesemonger at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, I read an article in Culture magazine about County Cork and Irish farmhouse cheesemakers on the Beara Peninsula who make a variety of “washed-rind” cheeses which have a distinctive red hue on the rind. It occurred to me that the rind color looked very much like smelted copper that was the economic mainstay in Butte.

The Irish immigrants who came to work in the copper mines of Butte more than a hundred years ago were mostly from County Cork.  Thinking it would be great fun introducing Butte to the luscious kind of copper now produced in the hills of our heritage, I wrote to Veronica Steele of Milleens Cheese in Eyeries, Ireland, and asked about her willingness to teach cheesemaking classes during An Ri Ra 2013, Butte’s annual Irish Festival. Her response opened a whole new world for me about the Butte - County Cork connection.
Hi, Cynthia, It would be amazing to go to Butte, Montana to conduct a class. This area of Ireland has huge connections to Butte. It's spoken of as though it were the next village. If you ever get the resources together, I'll be over in a shot! Best wishes, Veronica

Allihies Copper Ends - Butte Copper Begins

Allihies, Ireland
 Allihies, Ireland
Everyone with Irish ancestry in Butte grows up hearing about County Cork, but no common mention is made about the bulk of Irish miners coming from Allihies, a small copper-mining village on the southwestern reaches of the Beara Peninsula.

Milleens Parish Ancestry Record
Beara Ancestry Record
Copper mining began in Allihies as early as the Bronze Age. In the Industrial Era of the 1800's, it became a full-scale commercial production.  Then, in the 1870's, the veins began to play out just as the Copper Kings in Butte, half a world away, were getting started.

With enticement from copper barons like Marcus Daly, the exodus of miners from Allihies seemed to take place overnight. Veronica's comment about Butte being "spoken of as though it were the next village" was no exaggeration. Her email flew from the Beara Peninsula to my cell phone near Tomales Bay and captured my imagination. Six months later I was seated with Veronica at a table in her house, enjoying Milleens Cheese and learning about the very people I knew while growing up.

Like Answering a Prayer

Midway through our visit, she and her husband Norman introduced me to a remarkable series of volumes compiled by Riobard O'Dwyer called, "My Ancestors (Annals of Beara)". The words "Butte, Montana" echoed through the pages like a supplication and the Copper Cais Project took form. Cynthia Gaffney - May 2012