Francis O'Neill 1848-1936
The curious journey, detailed below, of Francis O'Neill from a West Cork farm to occupying the office of Chicago Chief of Police, is in itself the stuff books in the mould of Jack London are made of. But it was the tunes and songs picked up from his parents and visiting musicians at the family home in West Cork that were to form the basis of one of the most remarkable collections of Irish music, published in the early years of the last century.
The Music of Ireland (1903), was compiled and edited in Chicago by O’Neill (1848-1936), who resigned from the city’s police force in 1905 following a distinguished career.
His grandfather, O’Mahony Mor, or as he was generally called “The Cianach Mor - his clan title - kept open house in the glens of West Cork, not far from Castle Donovan, for the rambling musicians of his time. It was to be expected, wrote O’Neill, in Irish Folk Music (1910), “that my mother - God rest her soul - would memorise much of the Folk Music of Munster and naturally transmit it orally by her lilting and singing to her children." His father also sang from his large repertoire of songs in Irish and English.
That O’Neill collected and published 1,850 pieces is all the more remarkable because he was unable to write music. Back in West Cork he had learned the rudiments of the flute from Timothy Downing, “a gentleman farmer in Tralibane, our townland.”
However, within the ranks of the Chicago police force he found one Sergeant James O’Neill who was to be his transcriber and able assistant. James, who hailed from Co Down, was unrelated to Francis. He was, however, a trained violinist. And although the two men lived 20 miles apart, James regularly crossed Chicago, committing to paper tunes as Francis recalled them. On one occasion, it is said, 12 tunes were recorded at a sitting.
At that time Chicago was home to numerous Irish traditional singers and musicians. A keen listener, Francis O’Neill came to the realisation that the many songs and tunes he had heard from his parents and others in West Cork were unknown in Chicago.
Initially his intention was to preserve those tunes of his earlier life in West Cork, adding tunes he learnt after emigrating. The Chicago musicians became interested in his project and were keen to have their favourite tunes included in his collection.
The renowned Irish collector and writer Breandán Breathnach takes up the story: “James O’Neill’s method of working was to note the tune down in pencil from the playing, singing, lilting, whistling or humming of the contributor, then to play it back whereupon it was accepted or corrected as the case might be.
“All tunes considered worthy of preservation were later copied in ink into books classified for convenience. Step by step with this transcribing went the scrutinising of old printed and manuscript collections and the copying of any tunes found therein which were thought to be worthy of wider circulation.”
Breathnach continues: “The appointment of a committee of musicians to assist in the selection and revision of the vast amount of material assembled suggested itself. Early and McFadden, Delaney, Cronin and Ennis, outstanding musicians then resident in Chicago, agreed to co-operate in that work and they came together for the purpose in James O’Neill’s house.
“James played from his manuscripts but scarcely a tune was considered to be satisfactory in all respects. Changes were suggested and opposed and arguments waged until the more modest members fell into silence and one opinionated and domineering member had the field to himself. The one meeting of the committee was sufficient to prove the idea was unworkable and the two O’Neills were left to soldier for themselves”.
With over 2,000 pieces now assembled, O’Neill became anxious to have the collection published. He also decided to broaden its popularity to include well-known tunes and songs, thus the inclusion of several of Thomas Moore’s melodies and works by the composer Balfe.
O’Neill’s book was widely welcomed by musicians and critics. But back in Cork Father Edward Gaynor (1850-1936) was on his case. Fr Gaynor, renowned for his choir in his Sunday’s Well church, accused O’Neill of pirating airs from Moore, Petrie, Joyce and others and including airs “which were not Irish music at all.” It was difficult to repudiate Fr Gaynor’s claims, as he failed to come up with many sources. Breandán Breathnach suggests that Fr Gaynor was “continuing his feud” with Father Richard Henebry (1863-1916), a Gaelic scholar, violinist and acquaintance of Francis O’Neill, who had published a pamphlet on the subject of Irish music, also in 1903.
The criticism that some of the airs “were not Irish at all” was particularly stinging at a time when Irish nationalists were busy forging an identity for themselves. Yet Killarney, one of the airs to come under suspicion, was to be recorded by the piper Patsy Touhey.
Unsually generous in his praise, a curious omission in O'Neill's writing is any reference to Ryan's Mammoth Collection, 1050 Reels and Jigs , Hornpipes and Clogs, published in 1883. These were edited and collected by one William Bradbury Ryan of Boston. O'Neill could not have been unaware of this collection.
Nevertheless, the great debt Irish musicians, particularly in America, owe to O’Neill is immense. Many of the tunes played today can be traced back to The Music of Ireland.

O'Neill's Odyssey
BORN on August 28, 1848, at Tralibane, near Bantry in West Cork, Francis O’Neill was a bright pupil at school. Intended for the Christian Brothers, he ran away to sea in 1865. First he worked his passage to Sunderland in the north of England. After working at various jobs he signed on as a cabin boy for a voyage which took him through the Mediterranean, the Dardanelles, the Black Sea to the Ukrainian seaport of Odessa.
He left Liverpool for the USA in July, 1866, on the packet ship Emerald Isle, arriving in New York five weeks later. It was on board the Emerald Isle that Francis O’Neill met Anna Rogers. Several years later they were again to meet, in Missouri, where they were married.
From New York O’Neill served on the full-rigged ship, the Minnehaha, bound for Japan. On the return trip they were shipwrecked on Bakers Island in the mid-Pacific and the crew, according to O’Neill in Irish Folk Music, led a Robinson Crusoe-like life before being rescued by the brig, Zoe, manned by a white captain and a Kanaka crew.
“Rations were necessarily limited, almost to starvation,” wrote O’Neill. “One of the Kanakas had a fine flute, one which he played a simple one strain hymn with conscious pride almost every evening. Of course, this chance to show what could be done on the instrument was not to be overlooked.
“The result was most gratifying. As in the case of the Arkansas traveller, there was nothing too good for me. My dusky brother musician cheerfully shared his “poi” and canned salmon with me thereafter.”
When they arrived in Hawaii after a voyage of 34 days, all but three of the castaways were sent to the Marine Hospital. “I was one of the three robust ones, thanks to my musical friend, and was therefore sent straight on to San Francisco.
“What became of my wrecked companions was never learned; but it can be seen how the trivial circumstance of a little musical skill exercised such an important influence on my future career.”
After a spell herding sheep, O’Neill returned to sea for one more voyage before settling down. He passed a teacher’s exam in Missouri and taught there for one winter in 1869 before moving to Chicago where he was to find work sailing the Great Lakes and later as a labourer in the rail freight house.
O’Neill was sworn in as a policeman in July 1873. Several months later he was shot in an encounter with a notorious gangster. The bullet was lodged too near the spine to be extracted and O’Neill carried it to the grave. Promotion followed. Achieving top marks in police exams he worked his way up through the ranks and was appointed General Superintendent or Chief of Police of Chicago in 1901.
Over the years the high incidence of Irish musicians within the ranks of the police force has been commented upon - often accompanied by the remark that had there been less musicians there might have been less gangsters abroad. Other police forces also had their difficulty with gangsters, although their police chiefs never matched O’Neill’s achievement as a collector of music. © Ronan Nolan, 2000-07.

Sources: Francis O’Neill: Collector of Irish Music, by Breandán Breathnach, published in Dal gCais (1977).
Irish Folk Music, by Francis O’Neill, (1910).
See also: A Harvest Saved, Francis O'Neill and Irish Music in Chicago, 1997, Nicholas Carolan. Ossian Publications.


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