Head frames: a century and more ago, they were part of daily life of Butte, Montana. They were the way miners went down to their work, and what brought them back up again. Today, these metal structures stand as witness and reminder of history.
Gold, at first, then silver, and then copper made Butte a crossroads, a town with mansions built by copper barons in high Victorian style, a wide open place for adventurers to make their mark, a place immigrants to make a new life, to make a stand, and to make money to send home.
When Seamus Egan’s band, Solas, was invited to play a music festival in Butte a few years back, Egan called his dad. “I knew there was a grand uncle who had gone out west,” he says. Sure enough, that was true, his dad confirmed, and asked Egan to see what he could learn The stories Seamus found led through tales of the Butte his great uncle Michael Conway knew, tales of travel, friendship, family, work, change, loss, and murder, in a place that, a century ago, was known as the richest hill on earth. It was also known as the most Irish town in America. In those days, Butte had the nickname Shamrock City.
The stories of Michael Conway and the town he knew, pieced together from newspaper accounts, museum collections, history books and tales handed down, fired up the imaginations of of Egan and his band mates, Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Eamon McElholm, and Niamh Varian-Berry.
Bringing their own gifts as musicians and experiences of being Irish and irish American, they have made the album Shamrock City.
Starting with a song in Irish and English, a bit taken from an old recording that is at once both lament and benediction for a the traveler, the musicians of Solas weave tales new and old, tunes Conway might have heard or played or danced to, sounds of the ring of miners’ tools on rock and chisel, the voices of children at play, into their own songs and tunes.
Far Americay connects the lives and stories of those who left Ireland with those who stayed, in graceful connection to that Irish lament.
With four and twenty shillings
we sent him on his way
now my blood runs through the mountains
of far Americay
The courage and rough hewn devil may care ways people often come to doing a dangerous work so far from home are in the words and melody of Tell God and the Devil. Lay Your Money Down tells of the women working the line in Butte. The details of Michael Conway’s own story — a mystery still, some of it — unfold in a song named for him. Fiddler Winifred Horan does a masterful job of cresting a piece with no words at all that gets to the emotions of those making lives so far from all they’ve known in the tune called Welcome to the Unknown. High Wide and Handsome again lifts up the pace. There are songs of labor and working people, a hint of family life, and a haunting take on an old spiritual that ties back to the traveler’s lament at the opening. All the threads of the hard life of miners in Butte, Montana at the turn of the century and the courage it took to live it come together in No Forgotten Man.
As you walk streets in Butte named Copper, Silver, and Gold, as you see those Victorian era buildings, as you pass by the head frames, perhaps this music will come to your mind, and thanks to the creativity of the musicians of Solas, you’ll remember the people of Shamrock City.
2017 update: You may like to learn about the most recent project from Solas, a recording called All These Years.
Photographs were made at the Celtic Connections Festival with the permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue. They are by Kerry Dexter and are copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.
Consider subscribing to our stories through e mail, and connecting with us through your favorite social networks — and while you’re at that social network exploring, we invite you to keep up with our adventures by liking the Perceptive Travel Facebook page.