John "The Yank" Harrington was born the second child in a family of six in Mercur, Utah, on March 10, 1903. His parents, John Peter and Katie were recent immigrants from the Beara Peninsula, County Cork, Ireland. Both parents played the button box accordion, or" melodian" as they called it. John "The Yank" began playing at a very early age.
After the gold mines in Mercur began to play out, John Peter traveled to Butte, Montana in 1911, and found work in the underground copper mines. Katie and the children joined him in Butte some months latter. John "The Yank" still recalls the journey on the Oregon Shortline railroad to Butte and the ride, after arriving, in the horse-drawn hack through the darkness on Butte's cobblestone streets.
As a youngster in Butte, John remembers the events surrounding the Granite Mountain and Speculator mine disasters -- the worst hard rock mining disasters in U.S.history. His cousin Mayme took John down to the Sherman & Reed Funeral Home to help her identify a friend of hers. The burned and broken bodies spread out on the concrete floor, covered with white sheets, were a sight that John never forgot. During this turbulent period of Butte's labor history, John also witnessed the explosions and destruction of Miners Union Hall and the funeral procession of Frank Little -- a union man "killed by the company". The lessons of those times never left John, who to this day, remains a stalwart "union man".
John's father died of the "miners con" (consumption or silicosis) on January 1, 1916, when John was approaching his 13th birthday. His mother and the remaining five children (the eldest, James, had died at age 6 in 1907) were forced to move into a larger home that would allow them to take in boarders, providing them with their only income.
Two years later, almost to the day, the influenza epidemic of 1918 brought more tragedy into the life of young John and his four younger sisters. John's mother died on January 2, resulting in his sisters (Catherine, Emma, Teresa, and Rebecca) being placed into the care of St. Joseph's Orphanage in Helena, Montana, run by the Sisters of Charity. John moved in with his Uncle Dan and Aunt Julia. Later that year John and several friends spent the night ringing the bell at Butte's City Hall, announcing the end of "the war to end all wars" (World War One), while adults drank, danced and fired pistols and shotguns into the air in jubilation.
Work was scarce in Butte in 1919, after the war, so Dan and Julia and the family took John with them back to Ireland. When he arrived at his grandmother's house in Eskaninane, Reentrisk of the Allihies Parish, County Cork, she tagged him with the nickname of "The Yank". To this day, in a world full of John Harringtons, there is only one John "The Yank" Harrington.
John and his uncle Dan found work in the Allihies copper mine. John, then 16, received 4 shilling and sixpence for a day's work. It wasn't much, but in a time where every little bit helped, it bought tea, sugar, and candles for the family. Except for some fish and maybe a pig's head for Christmas ( a delicacy most recently immortalized in the pages of Frank McCort's Pulitzer Prize winning Angela's Ashes), John says they "never had any meat while living under British Rule."
It was while working at the mine that John had his first experience with British troops -- the "Black & Tans" as they were called-- who occupied Ireland at the time. The Black & Tans would arrive at the mine without notice, round up the workers and march them down the road about a mile to the church fence in Cluin, now known as Allihies, where they would be separated and interrogated. The Black & Tans were looking for information about men suspected of being with the I.R.A. Upon finding out that John was an American citizen or "yank," they would leave him alone.
On one of these occasions a mentally challenged young man was startled by the commotion and began to run away, The Black & Tans, on their commander's orders, shot the boy down despite the desperate pleas and cries of his mother. To this day John "The Yank" decries the role of the British in Ireland.
While living on the "ould sod," John also worked as a farmer, a roof thatcher, and a seine fisherman. On off days and evenings, friends and neighbors would show up at John's place looking for a haircut, as he owned the only pair of clippers in the area. The fact that he never charged for the cut made him a doubly popular character. All of these experiences added a certain "soul" to John's Irish music.
In Ireland, and latter in America, John "The Yank" continued to work on his music, learning tunes not only on the accordion, but also on the fiddle and harmonica. John to this day doesn't read music -- he learned the old-fashioned way by playing with other musicians and "fiddlin' around" for hours on end by himself. There was never a shortage of occasions for John to play, whether it was at one of the local dance halls or at someone's house. The only drawback to providing the music was that John rarely got the opportunity to dance.
John left Ireland after seven years, looking for opportunity and for the rest of his family back in America. He landed in New York at the time Jimmy Walker was mayor and Big Al Smith was governor. Both men, of Irish decent, were eager to help the newly arriving Irish. John was able to find work building the Eighth Avenue subway and other construction projects. He continued to play the old tunes for all who would listen, at dances and other gatherings of Irish living in the neighborhoods.
After six years, and in the middle of the Great Depression, John "The Yank" headed west to find his family. He ended up back in Butte where the oldest of his sisters, Catherine, now a nurse, had married and was raising her family. John has lived in Butte since, except for a brief stint in Richmond, California, where he worked at the Kaiser shipyard during World War II.
Over the years, John "The Yank" has been a great source of information for historians and genealogists researching the Butte Irish. He has been a great help to many individuals looking for their Irish ancestry, as well. John has remained true to college wild parties, and continues to play the traditional Celtic tunes the way he learned them so many years ago. "The Yank", in his own inimitable way, is helping keep the old tunes and and traditions alive for younger generations --youngsters who have acquired a new thirst for what John has to offer, thanks to a renewed interest in Irish music and culture. For those of us who are priviliged enough to know this remarkable man, and to listen to his music, he provides us with a window to the past and a tangible link to our own Irish heritage.
Beyond that, John "The Yank" is a kind and gentle soul who, at the tender age of ninety-five, agreed to sit down and record his music.