- 06 Aug 13
A new record documenting the Irish emigrant experience has emerged from Philly. Greg McAteer gives his verdict...
Based in Philadelphia, Solas have a unique perspective on Irish traditional music. So it’s perhaps no surprise that they’ve written a concept record about emigration – from the perspective of the individuals trying to make a life abroad rather than those left behind.
Led by Mick Moloney their wonderful barnstormer of an album, McNally’s Row Of Flats, looks at these newly settled maids and dockers, jumbled in with a mix ‘em, gather ‘em of Germans, Slavs and Italians in New York. We love it to pieces even if it barely qualifies as ‘trad’. More accurately, its heart resides in the music hall tradition of the early 20th century.
‘Shamrock City’ tells of a migrant, Michael Conway, from County Mayo, who made the journey to the mining community of Butte, Montana. At the time it was known as the ‘richest hill on earth’ with vast quantities of copper ore extracted on a daily basis. It’s a highly personal tale. Michael Conway was band member Seamus Egan’s great-great uncle and the story of how he was killed by a corrupt policeman for refusing to throw a fight was surely passed down in family folklore. It’s a gripping account, rooted in the same grimy reality that made Herbert Asbury’s Gangs Of New York an essential read. The way Solas weave it, the yarn has the same disembodied sense of ‘unbelonging’ that underpins Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
As a child I knew a party was taking a turn for the worse when the morose, self-sentimentalising drunks started to talk or sing about ‘Ameri-kay’ or ‘Californ-i-ay’. places to which the better part of them had lost a brother or a sister, an aunt or an uncle. That mawkish, self-pitying streak is a constant in the Irish psyche. For those who went the experience was different, however, and Solas capture the sense of freedom and optimism migrants often experienced.
The result is a record that combines the sweep of Scorsese’s adaptation of Gangs Of New York with the visceral sensibility of The Godfather, though without the ultra violence of either. Characters are broadly drawn. Michael Conway is depicted as the noble hero of bare-knuckle bouts. Arrayed around him is a supporting cast of saloon girls and stock characters.
Sonically the album delivers some beautiful vignettes, which move the story along efficiently. But there’s sentimentality to go with the rawness and the music sometimes owes more to a tacky tourist shop as to the lonesome wetlands of Mayo.