- Buffalo Bill Cody or Bufló Bill Códai? Irish Nationalist Invocations of an American Icon
In the summer of 1903, the renowned German philologist Dr. Kuno Meyer called for the establishment of a school of Irish philology and history to further the aims of the then thriving Gaelic League. The more conservative, traditionalist Gaelic League leader, Rev. Peadar Ua Laoghaire, led the opposition to Meyer’s “scholarly” endeavor, which he argued was aimed at revivalists in the east of the country to the neglect of native speakers predominately based in the west. To support his belief in the superior language ability of the rural peasants—represented here as the fictional character of Michael O’Twomey— Ua Laoghaire draws on an analogy to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which was then touring through Great Britain: “Take a skillful veterinary surgeon examining the ‘points’ of a beautiful horse. There you have the ‘scholarly’ knowledge. Take Buffalo Bill mounted on that same horse and riding him for all he is worth, riding him in such a manner as to bring into action all his splendid energy and fleetness, riding him in such a manner as to bring into action all the ‘thunder which clothes his neck.’ There you have Michael O’Twomey’s handling his native Irish speech.”1
Ua Laoghaire’s invocation of Buffalo Bill’s lore as a horseman was not the first or last time that Cody was drawn upon in Irish nationalist discourse. Cody’s links with Ireland can be traced back to his rise to fame as the star of the play Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men in 1872. Written by Ned Buntline and adapted from his earlier serials in the New York Weekly, the plotline saw Cody marry an Irish servant girl. This early fabrication may have bolstered various genealogical claims to the American star that developed in the coming years. His allure within Irish society was further heightened by the lived [End Page 31] experiences and memories of emigrant Irish pioneers, which included accounts from a number of returned emigrants who claimed to have been contemporaries of Cody in the American West.
Renee M. Laegreid has highlighted the way in which the figure of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show in Italy came to be interpreted, remembered, and creolized through a mix of mass-marketed stories, local folklore, and memories of his visits in 1890 and 1906.2 However, unlike Italy and other European countries that experienced Cody’s show as a novel form of American mass culture, the only experience those in Ireland had with his Wild West came via periodicals and accounts of Irish emigrants. As a result, it can be said that Irish nationalist interpretations of Cody’s stage persona were more inherently bicultural and transnational than that of many of their European peers. From the moment he rose to fame until well after his death in 1917, various Irish nationalist factions, located both in the home culture and among its sizeable diaspora, sought to establish tenable genealogical, historical, and literary links to the star and re-shape his image within their own cultural frameworks. Through a consideration of such attempts, and the inevitable cultural creolization of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West that resulted, this article will broaden understandings of Irish engagement with both the American West and early American mass culture.3
Louis S. Warren conveys that within the context of the American West, the Irish cultural narrative that emerged during the mid-nineteenth century was often fraught with contradictions. As Irish nationalists in the western territories began to find themselves at the intersection of different racial formations, the anti-imperialist language they applied to their own political relationship with England was regularly at odds with their complicity in the subjugation of Native American tribes during the American Indian Wars. An editorial in the revolutionary Fenian organ the Irish People, for example, includes the following account from an Irish soldier serving with the Seventeenth US Infantry in Brenham, Texas, in 1868: “Here on the plains of Texas I have met many Irishmen, whose conversations about the old country have often inspired me with hope...