Here at the Archives, we receive a lot of materials without much context. What I mean by that is, we get a document or an artifact that we’re missing some information on. When we don’t have a firm grasp on the who, what, when, where, why, and/or how of an item, we have to do some digging in order to create a catalogue record that will be meaningful and useful to researchers.
Recently, we received a donation that included three sports medals and a short, hand-written letter. Two of the medals were for familiar games, basketball and volleyball, but the third was for something no one at the Archives had ever heard of. The game is called O’Leary, and the donor wrote a brief paragraph describing it.
As archival professionals, we find a small amount of directed skepticism healthy. It ensures that when we document and catalogue historical items, we do so with as much accuracy as is feasible from the perspective of our current time and place. That said, when I started to catalog this collection, I thought that maybe the donor was making up the game. Because honestly, who has ever heard of the sport of O’Leary?! It seemed possible that the donor had found the medal in with some other sports medals, and with the name O’Leary being pretty common here in Butte, maybe they made up a little story. So, I had to do a little digging.
My first stop was to search through some of our newspapers online, and let me tell you, searching newspapers for a game called O’Leary in Butte in 1935 is complicated. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is not very good with apostrophized names (it sees a lot of o’clocks, O’Neils, and O’Donnellys as all the same!). And even without the OCR issues, I will reiterate that O’Leary is a fairly common name around these parts. There was a Copper League bowler on the Lion Tamers Team, a Butte lad who played football for Montana State and baseball for Freebourn, a football coach in Anaconda, and so forth.
So, after failing in my newspaper search, I turned to Google… And hit gold. The game is more commonly referred to as “one, two, three, O’Leary” (or alairy, or aleary… more on the etymology here) and was a popular game amongst school children, especially young girls. O’Leary was common in parts of England and Ireland, and in areas of the United States and Australia with concentrated diasporas from those regions. Our donor’s account of the game roughly corresponds to those given in various online forums (see examples here and here).
Armed with the additional context provided by my internet search, I was able to return to our local newspapers and find the exact article that best supported our donor’s note.
It turns out that the donor of the items was none other than the 1935 O’Leary champion herself, Dorothy (Ponack) Forsell. The items that she donated came to the Archives via a somewhat circuitous route, which is what caused our initial lack of context, but that’s a story for another day!
In memory of Dorothy (Ponack) Forsell ~ July 24, 1924- May 2, 2020