Billy the Kid was trilingual, one of the language he spoke was Gaelic


You’ve probably heard of Billy the Kid, but did you know he was trilingual? Billy may have been used as a translator for Irish immigrants who did not yet know how to speak English.

Chuck Usmar – an expert on Billy the Kid – says he has found evidence that shows Billy may have been an Irish speaker, which at the time would have been very handy.

It is unknown where or when Billy was born, but historians believe he was born in New York around 1859. Billy was a first generation Irish-American – his parents were Irish immigrants – and his real name was believed to be Henry McCarty. He was first arrested at the age of 16 after his family moved west.

 Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid

Very little is known about Billy’s father, but his mother was supposedly named Catherine McCarty. There have been debates about whether McCarty was her maiden name or her name after marriage. It is said that Billy’s father left when he was young and mother died of tuberculosis, leaving him an orphan.

Soon after he had started his criminal career, Henry McCarty earned the nickname “Billy the Kid” because of his short stature and his age. He would also use other aliases like William H. Bonney and Henry Antrim.

Billy would later go on to sell cattle to a man by the name of Pat Coughlan, who owned the Three Rovers Ranch north of Tularosa, New Mexico. Coughlan was born in Cork in 1822 and sometime before 1874 he had made his way to New Mexico, where he would secure a government contract to supply Fort Stanton with beef.

Clark Hust gave an interview in 1954 in which he stated that a niece of Coughlan visited once; her name was Mary and she was a sort of surrogate daughter to them. During her, only the Coughlans and Billy could speak with her because she did not understand English, only Gaelic. This is corroborated by newspaper reports of the time, and by Pat Coughlan’s will.

Historians also believe that Billy the Kid spoke Spanish, which is a hardly farfetched claim for a man that lived in New Mexico. His linguistic skills must have made him a very handy person to be around.

 Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid

Billy was born in the Five Points neighborhood of New York, which had a very large Irish population. With such a strong concentration of Irish immigrants in this part of New York, Usmar argues it is not that hard to believe that Billy would have spoken Gaelic; he would have certainly heard it spoken when he was a child.

Legend has it that Billy killed as many as 21 men – one for each year of his very short life – although modern historians believe this number was actually closer to 6. It is also said that his first time killing another man was when he was 17, but it could have been even younger than that since his real date of birth is unknown.

In February of 1878, John Tunstall was murdered. This is what started the Lincoln County War, in which Billy and his gang, which was named “The Regulators”, sought to get revenge for their murdered compatriot. The war finally came to an end with the Battle of Lincoln on July 17 when the Army intervened, and the Regulators were either killed or fled.

Shortly after this happened, Billy was placed on a wanted list – any man that killed or brought him in alive would receive $500. He was captured and sentenced to death in 1880, but Billy killed the two deputies guarding him and fled.

Billy was found in Mexico Pat Garrett, who, according to official reports, fatally shot him in the chest. Some believe that Garrett lied about the shooting and let Billy go, but the truth is lost to time.

Graves of Bonney, O'Folliard, and Bowdre, Fort Sumner, New Mexico Photo Credit
Graves of Bonney, O’Folliard, and Bowdre, Fort Sumner, New Mexico Photo Credit