It began a with an invitation about eight years ago...and it began with a journey a bit more than a hundred years ago.
The Irish American band Solas was invited to play a festival in Butte, Montana. Seamus Egan, one of the founders of the band, had a connection with the town: he knew his grand uncle, Michael Conway, had come there from County Mayo in 1910, but little else was known about him. As Egan began to look into Conway’s life. the band members became intrigued with what life was like in Butte at the height of its copper mining boom town times. Rough and tumble still at the turn of the golden age, a western American town that saw hard working folks and mine owners facing off over wages, people raising their families and making their livings in the midst of all these things, and a town that was at one time the most Irish town in America, a place where emigrants from Ireland, often unwelcome elsewhere, could find a job in the mines -- a town that came to be known as Shamrock City.
Shamrock City is the name Solas chose for the album which came from this. With original music and tunes from the Irish tradition, the members of Solas have created music which gives a unique and original portrait of what the Butte Montana that Michael Conway might have known was like. It’s no surprise that they could do this: ever since Solas came on the music scene, they been known for highly original interpretations of the music of Ireland and Irish America which respect tradition while carrying it forward. Current members Egan, Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Eamon McElholm, and Niamh Varian-Barry are joined by a fine crew of guests as they explore this history, and yet it is the vigor and focus of the band members’ musicianship which anchors the music.
Far Americay finds Varian-Barry treating a haunting song of emigration and immigrants which understated grace in her singing. Winifred Horan does the same with her fiddle playing a tune she composed called Welcome to the Unknown. Tell God and the Devil calls in the sprits of hardworking miners and the boom town energy that work required, while Lay Your Money Down (with guest vocalist Rhiannon Giddens) gives a picture of how that energy played out elsewhere in the town. at times there’s tasteful use of sound which helps set the scene, including the singing of A stor mo chroí in Irish, a distant voices from Ireland which lead into Far Americay, to the clank of metal upon metal heading up the mining songs to the sound of children at play which lead into a song from the point of view of a miner’s child. These are short, subtle bits which bridge the music and move the stories along. reminding that real people lived through these times.
That’s a point also made in the three songs which bring Shamrock City to a close. Dick Gaughan guests to sing Labour Song, a piece which, though the details and amounts of money have changed, could find a place today as well. Am I Born to Die? is a reflective treatment of a spiritual with an eternal question about finding a way through hard times. No Forgotten Man, which was written by McAuley and Egan, draws together the threads of history and life in Shamrock City, the stories told shading into what comes next and what lives on today. Shamrock City is a place you’ll not forget.
I was fortunate to be present as Solas performed the music of Shamrock City live at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, at the Old Fruitmarket. That's where these photographs were made. They were made with the kind permission of the festival, the artists, and the venue, and are copyrighted. Thank you for respecting the copyright.
This video was also made at that concert in Glasgow, filmed for a program on BBC Alba