Police chief's passion for Irish music sounds through the century

AMERICA: Born in Skibbereen in 1848, Francis O’Neill collected more than 3,500 traditional tunes

AMERICA:Born in Skibbereen in 1848, Francis O'Neill collected more than 3,500 traditional tunes

HOW DIGNIFIED Capt Francis O'Neill looks in the sepia portrait photograph, taken 110 years ago and recently reproduced in the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center News.

The Chicago police chief’s visored cap is embroidered with the words “Gen’ Superintendent” wreathed in laurels. The stars around his collar echo the larger star pinned on his chest. Gold buttons shine on his double- breasted jacket.

The greying temples suggest wisdom and authority; O’Neill would have been 53 at the time, but there’s a far-away look in his eyes, the hint of an artist in the shaggy moustache.


O’Neill was by all accounts an exemplary police chief, whose passion for Irish music endeared him to the denizens of Chicago. Junior officers played music with him and joined in his quest for Irish tunes. The force’s hierarchy broke down when lowly sergeants burst into O’Neill’s office unannounced.

On one occasion, O'Neill was believed to be hot on the trail of a murder suspect. Engulfed by reporters on returning to headquarters, he announced he'd found a 93-year-old Irishwoman who "had a tune" he had never heard, The Little Red Hen.

Another time, O’Neill was rumoured to have been assassinated, but was eventually found playing music in the home of Sgt James O’Neill (no relation), a fiddler who transcribed music for the superintendent.

Francis O’Neill was himself an accomplished flautist and player of the uilleann pipes. He collected more than 3,500 Irish tunes, says Nancy Groce, an ethnomusicologist at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. “He is really legendary, one of the great folklore collectors of all time.”

Most collectors were not musicians, says Groce, so they sought lyrics only. Furthermore, “unless you are a really good musician, transcribing Irish tunes is very difficult. They are fast, there are a lot of notes and nuances.”

O’Neill also recorded music played by the Irish Music Club of Chicago – over which he presided from 1901 – on dozens of wax cylinders. Thirty of the cylinders found their way to the music department at University College Cork, but the rest were believed lost until 2003.

David Dunn, a Milwaukee doctor, was rummaging in the attic for his grandfather Michael’s fireman’s coat and hat when he happened upon the treasure of 32 more cylinders. Michael and Francis had been friends and played music together.

The Dunn family donated the cylinders to the Ward Irish Music Archives in Milwaukee, who lent them to the Library of Congress for digitalisation. Today, they can be listened to or purchased on Milwaukee Irish Fest’s website, irishfest.com.

“Francis O’Neill is one of the most powerful symbols of the role that Irish America plays in the history of Irish art and culture,” says Eugene Downes, the chief executive of Culture Ireland.

“The work he did at a time when there was not a culture of preservation, of transmission, was extraordinarily original and comprehensive. The fact that he combined this with the job of police chief in one of the toughest metropolises in America is amazing.”

The five books which O’Neill published “not only were important in the US,” says Dr Groce. “They went back to Ireland where they have been used for the whole Irish traditional music renaissance.”

O’Neill’s descendants from Chicago include the dancer and choreographer Michael Flatley, fiddle-player Liz Carroll and guitarist Dennis Cahill.

Cahill and Martin Hayes, the fiddle-player who emigrated from Co Clare, figure prominently in Culture Ireland’s year-long Imagine Ireland season in the US.

Francis O’Neill was born in Skibbereen in 1848. At the age of 17, he secured work as a ship’s cabin boy and sailed around Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

After his ship sank on a coral reef in the Pacific, indigenous sailors rescued the crew but put them on starvation rations.

“One of the Kanakas had a fine flute,” O’Neill wrote years later. He showed the sailor what could be done. “My dusky brother musician cheerfully shared his ‘poi’ and canned salmon with me thereafter.”

O’Neill appears to have owed his appointment as police chief to his musical talent as well.

He and Irish friends met to play at the home of Kate Doyle, a retired governess, on Sundays. The Chicago Daily Tribunerecounted how Doyle called on mayor Carter Harrison, whom she had helped to raise, in 1901. "Carter, I'm going to ask a great favour of you," Doyle reportedly said, "but gra machree, I know you'll do it for Kate . . . what brought me here was to ask you if you would appoint my old friend, Francis O'Neill, chief."

O’Neill’s marvellous life was darkened by tragedy. He and his wife had 10 children, six of whom died of illness. After their last son passed away in 1904, no music was ever played in their home again, out of respect for Mrs O’Neill in her mourning.

O’Neill continued to play elsewhere, but he distributed his phonograph and cylinders among friends.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times