Owen McDevitt: A Donegal Irishman

Old black and white photo of Owen and Ellen McDevitt in fine dress
Owen and Mary Ellen McDevitt - Image courtesy of Kay McDevitt Harlow

By Kay McDevitt Harlow

My grandfather Owen McDevitt/McDaid was born February 2, 1883 in Illies, Buncrana.  He was the son of John McDaid and Mary Ann Mc Kinney.   Mary Ann died young leaving behind three sons and three daughters.  With seven children to feed and clothe, John put Owen out to work at the tender, young age of nine.   It was not unheard of that children from large families, whose parents couldn’t afford to feed them, were taken to Hiring Fairs where local farmers took the young children to work for them in exchange for room and board. 

At some point in his life in Donegal, Owen became a tailor and was able to purchase a sewing machine.  No family information is available as to where he obtained the money for this purchase.  However, there was a hint that he was good at making poteen. The sewing machine was still in the ruins of the family home place at Altashane as late as 1995.

Owen left his beloved Ireland in search of a better life in America.  He was 23 years old when he arrived at the Port of New York on May 10, 1907. His immigration papers state that he would be staying with his brother John McDevitt in Boston, Massachusetts.

His quest for a good job and better life led him to Butte, Montana.  The City began as a gold and silver mining camp in the mid 1800’s.  It was one of the wildest, richest boom towns in the West.  In the late 1800’s, the Butte Irish community established itself as a formidable social and political force.  It has been said that laughter and impudent wit have long characterized the Butte Irish.  There were nearly 50 nationalities and at one time 42 languages were spoken in Butte.  Distinct ethnic neighborhoods grew up.  Dublin Gulch was known as Butte’s Little Ireland. 

Owen married Mary Ellen Hearne November 19, 1913 and became the father of seven children.  Mary Ellen’s families were Irish immigrants also.  It was the custom in Butte at that time that a man or woman marry within their ethnic group as mixed ethnic marriages were frowned upon.

His first business venture in Butte was a small tailor shop opposite the County Court House.   In the back of the shop Owen operated a still and made moonshine whiskey.  When the law finally caught up with him he ended up in court in front of a judge who was a customer of his.  It has been family lore that after he received the sentence of jail time for the illegal activity he asked the judge “Where are you going to get your whiskey from now your honor.”? 

The fiddle was an instrument that he loved and played in Ireland and in Butte.   The Saturday night fiddle “Shindigs” are legend.  The “fuddle” is a treasured family heirloom.  A little note left on the interior of the instrument noted that it had been repaired after “Mrs. Murphy sat on the fuddle”.

After losing the tailor shop, he went to work in the Butte underground Copper mines as a hard rock miner in order to support his large family.  A mine cave-in took Owens’s life on August 19, 1939.  He was 56 years old.  


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