Jim Murray and John Maguire:
Irish Sons and Pioneers of the
American West

By Bill Farley

On May 11, 1883, Pope Leo XIII directed the Irish clergy to suppress the efforts of Charles Parnell's Irish National League. Irish loyalists around the world felt the sting of the papal rescript. 

One response came from far across the Atlantic Ocean, high in America's Rocky Mountains. John Maguire from County Cork organized the meeting of Irish faithful. Jim Murray from Co. Clare provided the fireworks. The meeting took place in Butte, Mont., an important mining town that featured the largest concentration of Irish and Irish Americans in the States. Maguire and Murray arrived at the meeting, over 4,000 miles from their homeland, from two very different paths.

John Maguire was born in 1841 and raised in Buttevant, a small village outside of Mallow in County Cork. His parents were proprietors of a large hotel outside the resort community. Since he was a young child, Maguire wanted to be a performer. His earliest memories were of a "gaily painted caravans" that appeared at the market square. As he got older, he met many of the famous players from Ireland as they traveled between Cork and Dublin. His most cherished friend was Elizabeth O'Neill, a celebrated actor who later became Lady Becher. 

After studying the theater at St. Coleman College in Fermoy, Maguire looked to American as the land of opportunities. In 1860, he traveled first to San Francisco where he had relatives. There, he acted alongside many great actors of the day. In the 1870's he decided to strike out on his own and pioneer the theater in the great Rocky Mountains. He performed his one-man play in mining camps and for military outposts. His performance for General George Custer's troops earned a glowing recommendation from the doomed officer. In 1880, Maguire settled in Butte, Mont., and renovated a small hall to operate his theater. 

Jim Murray was born in 1840 in Co. Clare to Michael Murray and Ellen McNamara. He was the Murray's first of six children. County Clare was at the center of the potato crop failures and plague that started battering Ireland in 1845. Murray never spoke of his childhood or his parent's decision to leave Ireland. Census records in the States indicated that they made the voyage with many thousand Irish in 1848. 

The Murrays settled outside of London, Canada. Most of the children stayed close to home as they grew older. Some crossed the border to Michigan and Pennsylvania. Jim was the adventurous one. He heard of the riches in California and wanted to join the rush for gold. He worked his way to California in 1858 when he was just 18 years old. He earned his fare by stoking the fire of a steamship that traveled around Cape Horn and South America. He then spent five years prospecting in California and learning about the mining business. In 1863, Murray heard of a new gold rush and headed north to the Idaho and Montana wilderness. He had just a few dollars in his pocket.

Prospectors working this primitive territory had three daunting tasks - finding food, maintaining shelter, and working endless hours panning or dredging for gold. The snow packed winter months were especially harsh. Murray thrived in these conditions and quickly expanded his business interests from prospecting to grubstaking. Murray loaned money to new prospectors for supplies and materials to pan or dredge the mountain streams. Murray collected a number of mining claims and horses as he foreclosed on failed ventures. 

Murray turned these new possessions into additional business opportunities. He started breeding horses for sale and leasing his collection of mining claims to new prospectors. 

Several years later, a reporter looked backed at Murray's early years and described him this way, "He couldn't be bluffed and he wouldn't be cheated and he didn't scare at anything. He carried his weapons in sight and whenever anyone questioned his right he would simply say, "What's mine is mine, and I'll have it if I have to go to hell for it." After moving from one mining camp to another, Murray settled in Butte in 1871. This was his headquarters for the next 50 years.

Ever the revolutionary, Maguire called a meeting of Irish loyalists to order. They had several items on their agenda. First, to hear a resolution supporting Charles Stewart Parnell, second to establish a formal chapter of the Irish National League, and third, to elect trustees to lead the chapter. 
Murray, a member of the Ancient order of Hibernians and the Robert Emmet Literary Association, headed the committee that drafted the resolution. The words were as fierce as the reputation of its author: 

"Whereas the uncalled for interference of Pope Leo XIII in the temporal concerns of the Irish people in the present crisis, substantially expressing sympathy with England, starves, coerces and exterminates the people of Ireland, therefore be it: 

Resolved, that while we acknowledge and are ready to yield obedience (as Catholics) to the spiritual authority of Pope Leo XIII., we emphatically repudiate his claim to exercise any authority over us as Irishmen while we vindicate the solemn and sacred duty we owe to our mother country."

Resolved, That we approve of the course pursued by Charles Stewart Parnell relative to Irish affairs in the past, and we hereby pledge him our faith, support and sympathy, now and in the future, in all his efforts to alleviate the sufferings of Ireland and the Irish people.

Resolved, that the Secretary of this meeting be instructed to furnish the Citizen, of Chicago, a copy of the proceedings and actions of this meeting.

The group adopted Murray's language by unanimous consent, formed a chapter of the Irish National League and elected Maguire and Murray to serve as two of seven trustees of the organization. 

The meeting galvanized the Irish community in Butte, and cemented a friendship between Murray and Maguire that would last a lifetime. Murray shared Maguire's love of the theater and he would become the performer's greatest benefactor. Their first project was to build a world-class theater in Butte. They worked together to acquire a site and finance construction of the finest theater in the west outside of San Francisco. 

The theater opened in 1885 and featured the most popular acts from New York's theater scene. Maguire used the grand theater as a springboard to promote development of theater throughout the entire northwest. He landed contracts to manage other theaters throughout Montana and in Utah and Colorado. Between 1885 and 1900, Maguire established himself as one of the leading managers in the Country. 

He was as well known in Montana was he was in New York City - where he was a frequent business visitor promoting the great opportunities in the west.

While Maguire expanded his theater network, Murray continued on his path to great riches. The expansion of the railroad network in the west allowed Murray to scout new opportunities. He expanded his small lending business into a network of banks throughout the Western United States. He opened banks in Seattle and Tacoma Washington, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Pocatello Idaho. Along with his mining interests and banking enterprises, he acquired several office buildings, hot springs resorts, and water companies. 

In today's terms, Murray's empire was worth approximately $1.0 billion. This bank account would put him among the top 10 wealthiest Irish residents if he were alive today. 

At the turn of the 19th century, the Irish duo suffered a series of setbacks. First, the theater business changed dramatically with the advent of movies. Murray always stood by Maguire financially, covering expenses for losing seasons and making sure he had a steady salary. But even with a wealthy benefactor, John could not could no longer bring high quality theater to Butte and his other theaters. Movies and local vaudeville acts became the rage. Maguire, not wanting to leave the west, retired from the theater. Murray helped Maguire locate a position as a newspaper editor in Salt Lake City Utah. 

In 1905, Murray suffered a rare setback of his own, a massive stroke. Local papers reported of Murray's impending death. Murray managed to survive. The recovery was a challenge, one that he met with his good friend at his side. Maguire came to join Murray at his seaside mansion in Monterey, California. Within a year, Murray was back riding the rails. Maguire stayed in Monterey after the recovery and took work as an editor for the local paper. 

In 1907, it was Maguire's health that failed. Unfortunately, he would not recover. Murray buried his friend just one mile from his Monterey home at the local cemetery. He built his friend a glorious tribute to mark his grave. The granite monument depicts a theater stage with the inscription, "Ring down the drop, life's fitful play is o'vr." 

Murray continued to build his business, often speaking out about the importance of friendship and the need pay fair wages for miners. He was one of the few capitalists to openly state these views. He also found one more chance to show his support for Ireland. 

When Ireland's President, Eamonn De Valera came to America in 1919 to raise money for Irish independence, Butte was one of his main stops. Jim's nephew James served as the organizer for a luncheon attended by 500 Irish faithful, and Jim presented a gift and a toast to the honored guest. Jim repeated George Washington's toast to the Irish troops that helped the United States win independence, "Ireland, thou friend of my country in my country's most friendless days, much injured, much enduring land, accept this poor tribute from one who esteems thy worth, and mourns thy desolation."

Jim Murray passed away in 1921, over a year after this last toast to his mother country. 

Murray and Maguire both left their imprint on the American West. Murray's last project was development of a series of dams and aqueducts to serve San Diego, California. A dam and a lake that he built still bear his name-and that water system now serves millions of resident. Scholars studying the history of the American West today, still write about Maguire's leadership in pioneering the theater in the Montana wilderness. 
Editor's note: Bill Farley is an independent historian whose stories come from his family tree. His weekly blog can be found at



© Irish American Post
1815 W. Brown Deer Road
Milwaukee, WI  53217
Phone: 414-540-6636

Return to front page