Growing up, Irishman Seamus Egan, the bandleader for Irish American band Solas, knew the story of his great-great uncle Michael Conway quite well, despite never having met the man. With themes of immigration, mining and murder woven through the tales, Conway was the subject of much family lore.
He’d immigrated to America, specifically to Butte, Mont., in search of opportunity he couldn’t find at home. Egan had always been fascinated with the story and his band’s latest project, dubbed “Shamrock City,” came from Egan’s desire to find out more about his family’s history here in America.
“Conway was this distant relative that did something that didn’t work out so well, but there was this excitement to the story,” Egan said. “In your mind, as a kid, (Butte) was the wild west. He was a fighter and a miner and on a very sort of entertaining level, it was an exciting story to hear as a child.”
As Egan dug deeper into the history, he was surprised by how much he uncovered.
In 1910 Conway sailed from Cobh, Co. Cork in Ireland to Philadelphia and then made his way to Butte to work in the copper mines. Six years later, at the young age of 25, he was dead from a blow to the head.
“It was impossible to learn about him without learning about Butte and its history,” Egan said. “The two stories started to make sense in a larger sense — we started to realize Conway, even though he was an Irish immigrant, he represented a path of a general immigrant’s experience. He left his home for reasons of trying to find work and escape poverty and came to America in the hopes of making a better life for himself. There’s a resonance to that story and it’s very much an American story, in that sense.
“You didn’t go to Butte for a holiday,” Egan continued. “You would have known what you were getting yourself into. It was a rough-and-tumble town and the only reason to be there was to mine for copper. The circumstances of what happened to Conway, as the story in our family goes, he was a bare knuckle fighter; he did that as well as mining, He was meant to throw a fight and he didn’t. The fight was put on by local sheriff in Butte. The sheriff wanted him to take a dive, and he didn’t and he was beaten to death shortly afterwards. It’s a story that has as lot of drama to it. It’s another color to the immigrant experience.”
An immigrant’s life
With audio recorded in Philadelphia and film footage in Butte, “Shamrock City” seeks to not only uncover the life and young death of Conway, but to also illuminate life as an immigrant during the Industrial Revolution. The band has been performing “Shamrock City,” a multimedia show of original music, and featuring archival photos, footage and stories from turn-of-the-century copper boomtown Butte, Mont., across the country for almost a year now, Egan said.
“It’s a story, in a general sense, that the audience can relate to,” Egan said. “Often someone in their family made an arduous journey from someplace else to here in hopes of making a better life. In that way, it’s a very relatable story.”
The band will perform “Shamrock City” at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek on Sunday evening as part of the Underground Sound concert series.
“We hope that our fans understand what a unique and special format Solas will be bringing to the stage on Sunday evening,” said Kris Sabel, executive director for the Vilar Performing Arts Center. “Their storytelling is as compelling and engaging as their vocals and their musicianship. This band has been around for some time and they are obviously great performers. I think our audience will discover how their art of storytelling and the passion behind their music plays into that.”
The band is based in both the U.S., specifically Philadelphia, and in Ireland. Solas — Gaelic for “light” — has been around for 15 years and produced 11 albums in that time. Anchored by founding members Egan (flute, tenor banjo, mandolin, whistles, guitars, bodhran) and Winifred Horan (violins, vocals), Solas is rounded out by Mick McAuley (accordians, low whistle, concertina, vocals), Eamon McElholm (guitars, keyboards, vocals) and newest member and lead singer, Niamh Varian-Barry. Through fresh and unexpected arrangements of age-old tunes, compelling originals and covers, and unparalleled musicianship Solas continues to define the path for the Celtic music world and drive the genre forward.
Partnering with seven different nonprofits in the Vail Valley this season, the Vilar Center welcomes various groups to its theater for each show this season to set up a booth and talk to concert attendees, each night before the performance. This Sunday, the Vilar welcomes Roundup River Ranch. As part of the Vilar Center’s nonprofit partnership, Roundup River Ranch will be given approximately 15 percent of the proceeds from Sunday evening’s merchandise sales.
High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2984.
“We hope that our fans understand what a unique and special format Solas will be bringing to the stage on Sunday evening,” said Kris Sabel, executive director for the Vilar Performing Arts Center. “Their storytelling is as compelling and engaging as their vocals and their musicianship.