In 1910, a young Irish immigrant named Michael Conway arrived in Philadelphia determined to find his fortune in the United States of America.
Three years later, Conway found himself in Butte, MT, which was nicknamed “Shamrock City” because of the massive influx of Irish immigrants. Conway began working in the copper mines, slugging it out in the bare-knuckle boxing rings and slugging whiskey in the Shamrock City saloons.
In 1916, the 25-year-old Conway refused to take a dive in a fixed bare-knuckle boxing match and as a result was murdered by two local policemen.
Nearly 100 years later, Conway’s great-great nephew, Seamus Egan, and his traditional Irish band, Solas, visited Butte to play an Irish festival, and Egan began to trace his great-great uncle’s life in the Montana town.
Egan’s search left such an impression on him that he and his band began writing songs in the spirit of the wild days of Shamrock City and telling the story of Conway.
Solas, widely recognized as the most popular Irish band to originate in America, has been performing its Irish folk music for more than 15 years, but Shamrock City – released in 2013 – is the most ambitious of the band’s 11 albums. The project has grown in scope to include online videos by fans about their family heritage and immigration stories, and film and stage adaptations of the album are in the works.
We caught up with Egan via Skype last month as he was working in Glasgow, Scotland. The part-time Glaswegian (yes, if you live in Glasgow you’re a Glaswegian) talked about Shamrock City (the town and the album), the contradictory nature of U.S. immigration issues and scoring films.
Fly Magazine: You were born in Philadelphia and then moved to Ireland. That’s the opposite of your ancestor’s experience.
Seamus Egan: Yeah, I was born just outside of Philadelphia in a place called Hatsboro, moved back to Ireland shortly after that and came back to Philadelphia in the early ’80s. So it’s like reverse immigration.
FM: You grew up with Irish music. When you moved back to Philadelphia as a teenager, did you hear anything on the radio that you connected with?
SE: I remember becoming obsessed with Rush and “Tom Sawyer,” so that will give you an indication of where I was at.
FM: How did the Shamrock City project come about?
SE: I remember my father telling us the story of Michael Conway. I found it really exciting. Then, 10 years ago, we were invited to go to Butte and play in a festival. I told my father, because I’d never forgotten the story. He said, “See if you can find anything about where he might be buried.” It started out as sort of a family history project. There’s an incredible historical archives in Butte, and if you worked in any of the mines, they kept really good records. As it turned out, Michael’s murder was all over the newspapers in 1916, so there were eyewitness accounts and records all the way through the trial. Two police officers were charged with the murder, so there were updates on the trial in every edition of the newspaper. That opened up this whole world.
FM: What was the verdict in the Conway case?
SE: Both officers were found not guilty.
FM: That’s terrible.
SE: But not surprising. I think I would’ve been more surprised if they would’ve been found guilty. It was a five-day trial, and the judge came back in 20 minutes. But the thing was, all the judges were bought off. It was a wild place. I don’t know that anyone would’ve expected any other outcome.
FM: Another interesting aspect of the Shamrock City project is audience’s contribution to it.
SE: Shamrock City is a story of how many of us came to be here. We felt it would be interesting to start asking people to contribute little snippets of their family history that we could pull together like a collage.
FM: What’s one of the more interesting stories from the audience?
SE: There’s a great one here that I’ll read to you. “My mother was adopted in Liverpool, England, in 1911 when adoption was informal. She died not knowing where she came from. In 2009, the 1911 U.S. Census was published, and we found her and traced her mother to County Kildare. Five of us traveled to visit family and trace more of our ancestry – the huge irony is that all five of us grew up with an unspoken yet keenly felt disapproval of the Irish. We believed them to be uneducated and drunk. Our English ancestry was full of peasants, coal miners and such. As it turned, out our Irish grandparents were well-to-do professional people – two medical doctors with a beautiful home. I learned a lesson about prejudice, even the unspoken sort.” I think that’s just fantastic. The idea really was just to show we all have a story to tell. Immigration is still an issue today and I felt it was important to just say as a gentle reminder that if you’re not a Native American, you came from someplace else and someone gave someone in your family a chance. That’s all anyone is asking for.
FM: There’s a great song on Shamrock City called “Lay Your Money Down” that features Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. How did that collaboration come about?
SE: We’re all huge fans of Rhiannon as well as the Chocolate Drops. Her voice was always in my head for that song. One of the ways we looked at Shamrock City was that each song would be a character, and we felt that the way she gets inside a song would suit that particular scene. We found one afternoon when she was passing through Philadelphia. We had to fly out to Los Angeles later that day, and we literally had three hours to record the song. We brought the band into the studio and recorded live.
FM: What role has luck played in your career?
SE: I got to work on Edward Burns’ film, The Brothers McMullen, years ago, and that began as the result of a car breaking down while we were on tour. We ended up staying at someone’s house that was kind of involved in this little film that this guy was doing for nothing, and they were desperate for some music. They passed along this CD that I’d left there at the house. And the next thing I know, I’m getting phone calls from Eddie Burns about what would become The Brothers McMullen, which went on to win Sundance and do very well. I’m a firm believer in luck.