In 1910, a man named Michael Conway set sail from the Irish seaport town of Cobh to seek better fortunes in the United States. Landing in Philadelphia, he made his way west to Butte, Mont., to work in the copper mines. Six years later, at age 25, he died from a blow to the head.
Conway's great-great nephew, Séamus Egan, is chief songwriter for the seminal traditional Irish band Solas, and this year, his band released a concept album titled Shamrock City about life and death in that Western outpost where a large Irish community still lives today. Growing up, Egan says he heard about Conway's death from his family. The story went that in addition to his work in the mines, Conway was a bareknuckle fighter. "He was meant to throw a fight that had been organized by the sheriff in Butte," Egan says. "He didn't throw the fight, and as a result, he was murdered. That was the fragment of the story that we had growing up."
Egan grew up in Ireland but lives in Philadelphia. Eight years ago, he followed Conway's path to Butte — only this time, it was to play a concert. Over the course of a 15-year career, Solas has built a nationwide reputation in the Irish music scene, with Egan playing banjo, mandolin, nylon guitar, bouzouki, and whistles alongside Winifred Horan (fiddle), Mick McAuley, (lead vocals, accordion, guitar), Eamon McElholm (guitar, vocals, harmonium, electric bass, keys, piano), and Niamh Varian-Barry (lead vocals, viola). And while Irish music is sometimes ghettoized in America, relegated to St. Patrick's Day and Red Sox games, Egan says it's not quite accurate to say his band has an educational mission. They're just entertainers, he says. "I think the trick when you're playing Irish music or ethnic music, one of the things you're trying to do is put it in context that creates a situation that is still relevant," Egan says.
Hence the Michael Conway story, which Egan thinks can still strike a chord with immigrants and descendants of immigrants in 21st-century America. While he was in Butte, Egan started sifting through town historical archives and newspaper clippings to see what he could find about Conway. As it turned out, Conway's death was something of a news sensation, with numerous articles written about the trial of the cops who were accused of beating him to death. According to one account, 1,000 people turned out for Conway's funeral.
Egan says he couldn't verify the bare-knuckle fighting or the sheriff's culpability, likely because the fights were underground and illegal. But as he read about the hardscrabble way of life endured by miners in those days, he began cobbling together new and traditional songs that told Conway's story.
Despite the story's tragic subject matter, Shamrock City does include a pair of fun-loving reels, the instrumental "Girl on the Line" and the new pub song "Lay Your Money Down." For the latter, Egan enlisted Carolina Chocolate Drops vocalist Rhiannon Giddens to belt out the lyrics. "Drinks all on the house here, sonny/ The sweetest deal in town/ You can't take it with you, honey/ So lay your money down," she sings with all the Vaudevillian verve of a frontier bartender. Egan says songs like this one reflect what he imagines to be a hard-partying nightlife in early-20th-century Butte. "It was mind-bogglingly dangerous," Egan says. "So the circumstances of your daily life would have been you're going down this hole, never knowing whether or not you would come back. So I think that led to a certain amount of wildness when you're above ground, that notion of making the most of it."
But the album also lingers in its melancholy moments, from the directly autobiographical "Michael Conway" to the haunting "Arbor Day" to the traditional hymn "Am I Born to Die?" Egan and McAuley, the songwriters on most of the tracks, show a knack for creating lush soundscapes from acoustic instruments, imbuing the songs with more cinematic sweep than rigid genre purism.
And then there's "Labour Song," a protest tune near the end of Shamrock City that fits squarely in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger: "No more we'll go below, boys/ Let's heed the union's call/ Throw your shovels to the ground, boys/ Until we've had our say/ For our lives are worth far more than four lousy bucks a day."
"The one thing that I think is amazing about this story is that you change a few things here and there, names of places or people or organizations, and looking at the whole labor thing, all that's still going on," Egan says. "What was occurring 100 years ago, those issues are still front and center in public discourse."
As the strings swell over Egan's driving banjo line on "Labour Song," guest vocalist Dick Gaughan sings about the ultimate insult added to injury. With the blunt matter-of-factness of old political songs, McAuley eulogizes the Irish miners who, unlike Michael Conway, never had a proper funeral: "So you think your life they'll value/ When finally you fall?/ Having blast and dug for countless days/ And given it your all?/ For what you're paid, your widow/ Won't even bear the cost/ To lift you up to Duggan's Place to put you in a box." On a level that transcends time and nationality, the story of Egan's great-great uncle is the story of many men.