When Seamus Egan found himself in Butte, Montana for the “An Rí Rá” Festival eight years ago, his father had a request—see if Seamus can find anything about Michael Conway, a great-uncle of his father who had emigrated from Ireland and ended up in Butte, where he had been murdered. Not much was known of his story—only that he had been a bare-knuckle fighter. A picture of his grave, an entry in a ledger—anything that would shed light on Michael’s story was the initial goal of Egan on that first trip. The story that Egan would uncover—of how Michael Conway was murdered by the sheriff of Butte because he wouldn’t throw a fight—became a much bigger story about the town of Butte itself.
It was said in the 1800’s that there were more Irish per capita in Butte, Montana than any city in the U.S., including Boston and New York. The Irish were there to work in the copper mines, as there were few places in the U.S. that would employ Irish workers. The Historical Society in Butte opened up their archives to Seamus to do his research and on subsequent visits, Egan continued to research Michael Conway’s story. However, it ended up opening up his eyes to the remarkable story of Butte, Montana itself, and the part that the Irish played in its history.
“One of the largest mines, the Anaconda mine was owned by Max Daly who was from County Cavan, and it became known around Ireland that if you made it to America and could get to Butte, that he would make sure you had a job”, said Seamus. “It got to where people wouldn’t spend much time on the east coast, but would make their way as quickly as possible to Butte. At one time, it was so popular a destination for the Irish that Butte became synonymous with America. Even if you weren’t going to Butte, you were in Butte, as far as they were concerned.”
The further Seamus got into the story of Butte, Montana the more he wanted to tell the story—in part through the eyes of Michael Conway, but also to expand to the larger picture. Immigration, labor, poverty, mining—all were interwoven in the history of this town. Therefore, Seamus and Solas utilized the fundraising website Kickstarter to provide the working capital to produce “Shamrock City”. “In all the years Solas has been together, we’ve never done anything without a record label”, said Seamus. “We were really floored by the outpouring of support and generosity for the project. That gave us the start to get the ball rolling financially as well as the moral support that there was interest in this idea.”
“One of the hardest parts of this project was to decide what stories NOT to tell”, Seamus related. We wanted to tell Michael Conway’s story but put it in a place and time. We didn’t want to just do a linear history of the town. We are using archival images as well as video we shot to add a visual sub-context to the story in our live performances. It is sort of a silent picture running behind us to give that extra dimension”.
“We are just now starting to work on the DVD, and as part of that, we have started a new function on our website. (www.solasmusic.com) The idea is that the US is made up of many stories just like this. We thought it would be a nice thing to include those stories in this project. Therefore, we are starting a video project this week called “Tell Your Story”. People can go on the website and tell their story and we’ll also be filming at stops on our tour where people will have a chance to tell their story as well. Even though Michael Conway’s story is over 100 years old, many of the issues are still relevant today. Having people tell and record their stories will be very interesting!”
“Shamrock City” is a musical journey that starts out with the leaving of Ireland and the beginning of the recording is a masterful inclusion of an archival recording of Rita and Sarah Keane singing “A Stór Mo Croí”. It is stark and bare and sets the tone for the typical “American Wake” that would take place for those going off to find their fortune in “Amerikay”. “That song had been in my head when we finished the album”, said Seamus, and we thought, “what would be the most effective way to get that feeling across?” “We certainly couldn’t do it better than Rita and Sarah”, said Seamus, laughing. “So I told Sean Keane what we were doing and he gave us permission to use the recording and we were thrilled. Once that was there, it allowed us to begin the journey”.
While there are numerous songs and tunes on this superb album, the song “Michael Conway” seemed to me to be the one that was the most powerful. Like a small film, it paints a vivid portrait of Michael Conway’s life—and death. The writing is so timeless, that it could have been a ballad written on the day of Michael’s death over 100 years ago.
“ I think we were really able to lay out Michael’s story in this song as well as the references to Butte”, said Seamus. “He was only 25 years old when he died, but I imagine the three years he spent in Butte he experienced things there that he would not have done anywhere else. In the purest sense of a story song, it was going to tell his story. Mick (McAuley) did a great job with the lyrics. It was a song that was written early on, but really needed to work. Seamus continued, “It is one of the songs that after the show people come up and talk about that song—they have a profound reaction to it.”
Miners worked hard but also played hard. Egan was able to get Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops to record “Lay Your Money Down” for the project. “I was really thrilled with that song”, said Seamus. “Rhiannon’s voice was the voice that was in my head right from the beginning, so we were thrilled to have her do it. That song needed a really strong personality. We didn’t want it to be too oppressive, because Butte was also a wild place! People never knew when they went to work whether they would be coming back alive at the end of the day—it wasn’t an easy life. So when they let loose, they were mental! So there was this liveliness about the town that we definitely wanted to harness”, Seamus continued.
Another contributor was iconic Scottish singer, Dick Gaughan. “The way we looked at this”, continued Egan, “was that the songs themselves were characters and as much as we could, the person singing that song played that character. The “Labor Song” was great for Gaughan and we had always wanted to do something together. So I found myself in Glasgow and called him up and he was home in Edinburgh. We got together and knocked it out in an afternoon!”
The final song is another stunner, called “No Forgotten Man”. Again, I thought that it was probably an old-timey ballad from the 1800’s that he had arranged for this project. Yet, again, however, it was a very thoughtful and seamlessly written original song that will linger in the mind long after the CD stops revolving. “That was actually the last song we wrote”, said Seamus. “We came across the story of this guy called William Parks, who really was the guy who started what would become Butte. He was a guy who had a notion that there was something in the ground in Butte and started digging a hole. Everyone thought he was cracked and had lost his mind. The gold rush had passed Butte by but he dug for a long time and eventually found the vein of copper that led to Butte becoming the richest hill on earth. Then he was more or less swindled out of his find, so the song is about perseverance and that even if it doesn’t work out so well, you’re not going to be forgotten. The chapter in the historical record about him was called, “The Forgotten Man”. And it’s also the story about Michael Conway, because he had been for all intents and purposes, a forgotten man for the last 100 years until we found him for this project”.
A stunning tour de force, “Shamrock City” will take the listener on a vivid and emotional journey that tells the story of Michael Conway, but also opens up the larger picture of the emigrant experience in Montana in the 1800’s. For those looking for a genuine experience this St. Patrick’s Day—ditch the green beer and take a listen to “Shamrock City”. Prepare to be amazed.
Editors note: Cindy wrote this article for the Celtic Connection in the spring 2013 having interviewed Seamus prior to Solas’s sold out show at eTown Live Radio Show taping, in Boulder)