I’ve long marveled at the way so many Wild West gun-slingers had Irish surnames. From the Dalton Gang to Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody, I figured it was small wonder so many Irish kids grew up shouting ‘Geronimo!’ In about 2009, with this in mind, I approached Orla Nelligan at Cara, the Aer Lingus in-flight magazine, about an article on the subject. As it happened, the Wild West was too focused for Cara but instead I was commissioned to write a piece about five famous Irish-Americans- Henry Ford, Grace Kelly, Walt Disney, James Hoban and Wild West gun-slinger Jesse James.
I’d been angling for Jesse James ever since visiting the small village of Asdee in north County Kerry where there’s a pub that bears his name. Local lore had it that Jesse’s family had emigrated from Kerry to the US during the early 1840s; Jesse himself was born at the height of the Irish potato famine in 1847. I was also tickled that one of my extended McClintock forbears, Harry McClintock, had sung a ditty about Jesse James, as had both The Pogues and Christy Moore. However, when I began my investigations, it turned out the Kerry connection was extremely dubious. Yes, there were James’s in the area – but not Jesse’s lot. Jesse’s father, the Rev. Robert James was a well-known revivalist Baptist pastor from Kentucky descended from John James of Pembrokeshire in Wales. This was subsequently confirmed by the Clay County Historic Sites Director of the Jesse James Farm & Museum in Kearney, Missouri. The Rev. James was listed on the first Board of Trustees for the William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.
With Jesse out of the running, I turned to the next gun-slinger in town. Billy the Kid, a veritable Irish desperado if ever there was one. Although much of his life is hearsay, Billy the Kid was born ‘Henry McCarty’ on 17th September 1859 and raised amid the ramshackle tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. It is said they lived at 70 Allen Street.
Thus his formative years were spent amid the intense violence and rioting depicted in Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’. The identity of his father has not been conclusively established but his mother Catherine McCarty appears to have arrived in New York on board the Devonshire aged 17 in 1846. Louis Abraham, a boyhood friend of Billy, later described her as a ‘jolly Irish lady, full of fun and mischief’. It has been claimed that Catherine had Kilkenny origins, perhaps hailing from Graiguenamanagh or from Coolagh, between Callan and Windgap. Others maintain she was a Carty from near Boyle in Co. Roscommon. Still more say he was from Antrim, which may stem from a confusion over his future stepfather’s surname.
By the end of the American Civil War in 1865, Catherine had moved with her son ‘Billy’ and his half-brother Joseph to Silver City, New Mexico. There she met and married a silver miner from Ulster called William Antrim, who was younger than her by about twelve years. Catherine died from TB in 1873 and was buried in the Memory Lane Cemetery in Silver City.
Her death was devastating to Billy who was miscellaneously abused and ignored by Antrim over the coming years. By 16, Billy was a dab hand at cattle rustling, gambling and pistol-popping – all traditional pursuits for wild west cowboys in those days. He had also learned to speak fluent Spanish. Indeed, according to True West magazine’s Chuck Usmar, author of ‘They Fought Billy the Kid: The Lives of Lawrence G. Murphy and James J. Dolan’, Billy not only sold cattle for Cork-born Pat Coghlan, owner of the Three Rivers Ranch in New Mexico, but also apparently acted as translator when Coghlan’s Irish-speaking niece came to visit, meaning Billy the Kid was an Irish speaker.
At the age of 17, Billy blasted his six-shooter into a bar-room bully called Frank ‘Windy’ Cahill in Arizona. Frank may have been from Galway. City Declared a murdered, Billy fled to Lincoln County, New Mexico, and became a ranch-hand to wealthy Englishman John Henry Tunstall. The Tunstall ranch was then involved in a bitter feud with two unscrupulous beef barons, James Dolan and William Murphy.
In 1878, Dolan’s men assassinated Tunstall prompting Billy and some of his fellow ranch-hands to take the law into their own hands. Over the next four weeks, they tracked down and killed four of Dolan’s men (including a corrupt Sheriff), but lost three of their own in the same feud. Billy laid low amid the sagebrush hills around Fort Sumner, operating under the name of ‘William H Bonney’. He was arrested in late December 1880 by Sheriff Pat Garrett – whose grandparents were Irish immigrants – and charged with the murder of Sheriff Brady. Billy was sentenced to death but pulled off a splendid last minute escape, killing both guards in the process.
By now the legend of ‘Billy the Kid’ was splayed across newspapers throughout the States, the truth of his exploits wantonly exaggerated and fictionalized. On 14 July 1881, Garrett caught up with Billy and shot him through the heart. Billy the Kid is thought to have killed 9 people, although legend gave the figure as 21 – one for every year of his short life. The first book about him was a wildly sensationalistic biography called The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, written by no less a soul than Pat Garrett.
With thanks to Orla Nelligan, Elizabeth Gilliam Beckett (Clay County Historic Sites Director) and Kenette J. Harder (Research Librarian and Archivist, Charles F. Curry Library, William Jewell College, Liberty, Missouri).