It's been a little while since renowned Irish-American band Solas released their last album, Shamrock City, and I've been remiss in not writing about it, since it's speaks so eloquently to the experiences of the Irish in America. Based on the history of the city of Butte, Montana, specifically the family history of Seamus Egan, who had an ancestor, Michael Conway, who emigrated from Ireland to Butte, but met a terrible end at the hands of the Butte police in 1910. Shamrock City draws not only from the rich traditions of Irish traditional music, of which each member of Solas are acknowledged masters, but also from American roots music, reflecting the rough lives of the Irish in the 19th and 20th centuries in early America. I got a chance to interview Séamus Egan, an Irish-American multi-instrumentalist who's been at the heart of Solas since the very beginning. Here's what he had to say about the album and his thoughts on Irish music in America.
Hearth Music Interview with Séamus Egan
Hearth Music: First question: -Would you call this a concept album?
Seamus Egan: I'm not a huge fan of the term, but i suppose it is.
Why not a fan?
SE: i think it's one of those terms that over the years people have become suspicious of! Myself included!
Ha, Gotcha. So tell me more about your ancestor, Michael Conway. Did you hear a lot about him growing up? Or was this a story you found later on?
SE: I remembered it from my father telling me as a boy growing up in Ireland. It always seemed to me to be an exciting adventure story. There wasn't a whole lot of detail in his telling but I came to learn more as I researched Michael in the Butte Historical Archives and from info from other relatives.
What did you find on him in the archives? Newspaper clippings? How did you find the story of his death?
SE: The archives there are amazing.... We found everything from his employment history, newspaper articles on the event that killed him, the death certificate from the coroner, accounts of his funeral, the arrest of the policemen who killed him, coverage of the trial....
Oh wow, that's amazing! What else were you looking for in the archives?
SE: besides anything we could find out about Michael, I was looking to learn more about the history of Butte.....to get a sense of the time and place while he was there
How was the experience of Irish immigration in Butte different from what you've experienced or seen elsewhere in the US?
SE: At that time in US history, Butte was a friendlier place to the Irish than most of the rest of the country. In a lot of other cities the Irish would have had difficulty finding work...."no Irish need apply" was a common disclaimer on job notices. In Butte though, if you were Irish you were pretty much guaranteed a job. And since a job was what they needed, an awful lot of Irish made their way to Butte.
Had you been to Butte before you started this research? What is the Irish community like today in Butte? Are there still Irish emigrating to Butte or just a historical community left?
SE: Our first visit to Butte was about 8 years ago and I suppose that is when we started work on what would become Shamrock City.....we just didn't know it at the time! Butte is a place that seems very much aware of it's Irish heritage today, but it long ago ceased to be a destination for new immigrants. As is the case with most mining towns, once the mines close the town becomes a shadow of it's former self
Are there still good Irish trad musicians in Butte?
SE: there's a really strong interest in the music and a few people play. For the past 10 years they have run an Irish festival called An Ri Ra.
What are your thoughts on Irish-American traditional music? I've heard people say that there is not an Irish-American music tradition, since it's still so closely tied to Ireland. Do you think Irish-American music is derivative, or its own tradition?
SE: Irish music in America has had a long and fruitful history. It helped keep the culture alive here for new immigrants over the years. It also helped keep it alive in Ireland when it seemed like it was being forgotten there. It also influenced mountain music, bluegrass, American folk music. I don't know if I would get caught up in the term "Irish American Music"......perhaps Irish music played in America!
That's what I'm getting at, though. People think of this as Irish music played in America, but isn't there a real tradition of "Irish-American" music? We speak so much of the different regional styles of Irish music (the various counties), but are there regional Irish-American styles? Like Philadelphia vs. Boston, or Brooklyn vs. Butte? Maybe Irish-American bands are just too closely tied to Ireland to have been able to develop something very different?
SE: There certainly is a tradition of it existing in certain cities and flourishing, but the notion of differing styles from city to city doesn't exist. But for that matter, the idea of regional styles in Ireland doesn't really exist anymore and hasn't for a long long time. In much the same way as regional styles faded in Ireland as a result of the phonograph and radio, same here.... Perhaps it should be viewed as America is just another county where the music traveled to and was influenced the same way as the Irish music in Ireland.
What are some new elements of the Irish experience in America that you discovered doing this research?
SE: i think role of Butte and by extension the Irish in advancing workers rights in America was another theme we saw in working on this project. Butte was known for a time as the Gibraltar of organized labor in America. Unions were very strong and for a time were able to hold their own against the mine owners and exert influence in other parts of the country. In fact, the history of labor in Butte and its decline closely mirrors what is happening today with the attacks on the rights workers throughout the country.
Irish emigration wasn't a one way street. Your own parents moved back to Ireland when you were young. Were they moving back to a family home?
SE: My family moved back to Ireland so my Grandparents could go back home (they lived in the US with us). I was young at the time but remember clearly being the "Yank"......and it wasnt necessarily a term of endearment! That was a long time ago and a lot has changed but it is something that has always stuck with me.
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