Chief O'Neill

find out more about Captain Francis O'Neill

About Chief O’Neill

Francis O’Neill was born the youngest of seven children in Tralibane, outside Bantry in West Cork, and rose to be the General Superintendent of Police in the city of Chicago, a post he held from 1901 to 1905. ‘Chief O’Neill’, as he became known, is still remembered fondly for his legacy as an officer of the law, but it’s his dedication to traditional Irish music, and the work he did to sustain it, that gives the true measure of the man.

His birth took place in 1848, just at the end of the worst years of the Irish famine, a famine which had devastated the Union of Skibbereen in which his own parish of Caheragh was situated. Still, the nearer town of Bantry was regaining prosperity, and Frank – as the young Daniel Francis O’Neill became known in America – enjoyed a happy childhood rich in music and society.

He particularly remembered Peter Hagerty, ‘An Píobaire Bán’, the piper who played at the nearby Colomane crossroad, and years later the Chief remembered Hagerty’s music reaching his younger self in his bed as people danced next door: ‘Being young and insignificant I was put to bed, out of the way, while the others went to enjoy the dance next door. It just chanced that the piper was seated close to the partition wall … Half-asleep and awake the music hummed in my ear for hours, and the memory of the tunes is still vivid after the lapse of 50 years.’

His parents were singers and kept their house open to travelling musicians. So, it was that the young boy quickly became acquainted with songs in English and Irish, and with the dance tunes that made up the repertoire for the visiting fiddle, flute and uilleann pipes players around him. When the time came to play himself, he learnt the flute by ear with the help of neighbouring farmer Timothy Downing. Downing had a large collection of transcribed music in manuscript form, but the old means of handing on the musical tradition were strong, and O’Neill left Ireland as a confident musician still unable to read music. His restlessness and his desire to explore the world didn’t mean that he’d left the old tunes behind him, however. He always claimed that he learnt from his mother ‘a keen ear, a retentive memory, and an intensive love of the haunting melodies’ around him.

Adventures Abroad

O’Neill’s life as a sailor – inspired perhaps by the sights and scenes of Bantry Bay – was fraught with drama. He fell overboard on a trip to Odessa, and fractured his skull. Rescued in that instance by a lifeboat crew, he moved to America but was drawn to a life at sea again, only to be shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

When O’Neill and his fellow crewmen were rescued from a coral island, they were in a state of near-starvation, and their rescuers brought them on an onward journey via Honolulu to San Francisco. The musical friendship O’Neill struck up with a flute-playing Kanakan crewman on that journey helped him to ward off malnutrition: the young Francis was able to exchange his musical knowledge for food rations!

Despite these setbacks, O’Neill’s sailing days weren’t over, and, after a spell as a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada mountains, he tried his hand at sailing on the Great Lakes before heading to Chicago in 1870, still aged only 22.

Chicago Melodies

In his new home, Chicago, O’Neill encountered new musical influences from American popular music, but also with the forms of Irish music then popular among the large Irish population in the city (Irish people numbered around 13% of Chicago’s population when O’Neill arrived there). Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies were hugely popular, and nationalist songs often appealed to people more than the traditional Irish music they had left behind them. But O’Neill was determined to make note of the traditional tunes people carried in their memories before their lives in America became so well-established that the old ways were forgotten. As he said himself: ‘The time was opportune then, and will never occur again.’

Chicago brought together musicians from different parts of Ireland who knew different tunes and regional variations, O’Neill — like his Scottish counterparts in Chicago — realised that their vantage point, outside their home countries gave them a unique opportunity to gather this music in a fairly systematic way. O’Neill himself likened his collection work to a scientific endeavour: ‘Among Irish and Scottish music lovers, every new arrival … is welcomed … and there is as much rejoicing on the discovery of a new expert as there is among astronomers on the announcement of a new asteroid or comet.’  Though Chief O’Neill undertook his researches without the academic rigour we would expect today, his work was part of the broader attempt to catalogue and revive Irish cultural practices that can be traced in broader projects like the establishment of the Gaelic League and W. B. Yeats’ transcription of fairy and folk tales. 

Listening and Listing

O’Neill had an exceptional memory for tunes, and a rare ability to be able to keep track of their differences and connections. He was not, however, able to transcribe the tunes he could whistle and lilt in standard musical notation. For this work, he relied on his Scottish friend James O’Neill, and Captain O’Neill soon drafted the young O’Neill into his musical project and into the Chicago police force. The two men worked closely together, and though an attempt to add a layer of officialdom to proceedings via the creation of an approval committee failed, it quickly became apparent to Irish musicians in the city that this was a worthwhile project. O’Neill sought out tunes ‘through a few dark passageways’ and up the odd ‘rickety back stairs’, and as time went on people began to bring their music to him too. O’Neill began the process of — over many years — collecting and publishing the biggest collection of Irish dance tunes ever to be assembled.

O’Neill was always gracious in acknowledging his helpers and collaborators and where a tune lacked a name, he’d often confer on it the name of the player who had introduced it to him. But the bulk of the work fell to the two O’Neills: ‘It required great caution, aided by an acute ear and a retentive memory, to determine whether it was an hour or a month ago that a strain was head among the hundreds played at a sitting, in quick succession.’

A tune would have be played several times for James O’Neill to notate it, and then Francis O’Neill would listen to it played again to check it for accuracy. Each tune would then be copied several more times before the manuscripts were ready to pass on to the engraver. In this process there was room for error, and O’Neill, like other editors of this kind of encyclopaedic project, made editorial decisions along the way, to fill in missing sections of tunes, and to omit the grace notes and embellishments that many of the tunes featured, for example. While there is room for debates about the work Captain O’Neill oversaw, it is without doubt that he helped to ensure a future for traditional Irish music in which people would be able to benefit from the resources of an orally-transmitted culture captured at its high watermark.

Irish Minstrels and Musicians

Francis O’Neill’s appreciation of Irish music was arguably rich because he understood the importance of the people who performed and transmitted the music. His 1913 book Irish Minstrels and Musicians represented a major attempt to recognise those players, past and present. The volume represents a major achievement, and a foundation for any subsequent studies into the social and cultural aspects of Irish traditional music.

Its conclusions also provide a striking testament to O’Neill’s lack of sentiment about the music he loved. He realised that for it to survive, as it continues to do today, its musicians needed real practical support of the kind he himself had endeavoured to produce: Talk of an Irish ‘revival’ he thought was too often ‘just talk’: ‘An Irish revival,’ he noted acerbically, ‘is but the antidote which patriotic optimists administer periodically to the body politic to check the progress of national decadence.’

For traditional music to continue to flourish, it had to be valued, and its musicians had to be properly rewarded: ‘If Irish music is to regain its lost prestige — and its fruition is not beyond the range of possibilities — the attitude of chronic apathy must come speedily to an end. Something more effective than holiday oratory glorifying “our music, our language, and our literature” in set phrases and ready-made monotonous resolutions is essential and imperative.’

While there might be a bit of holiday oratory at our festival in West Cork, like O’Neill, we’re committed to ensuring a real future for the traditional Irish music he first learnt to love in Tralibane. Our workshops, concerts and competition will honour the contemporary players who draw on O’Neill’s legacy as they take traditional Irish music into the twenty-first century. 

O’Neill’s Publications

O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1903), [1,850 tunes]
The Dance Music of Ireland (1907) [1,001 tunes]
O’Neill’s Irish Music (1908)
Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby (1910)
400 Tunes Arranged for Piano and Violin (1915)
Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody (1922) [365 tunes] (2nd. ed. 1924)
Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913)

In 1931, O’Neill made a generous gift of his entire library and two music manuscripts to the University of Notre Dame where these valuable resources still remain. Unfortunately, a good portion of his manuscripts were not preserved, though hopes remain that they may be recovered at a later date.

For more information on O’Neill’s fascinating life, see Nicholas Carolan’s ‘A Harvest Saved: Francis O’Neill and Irish Music in Chicago’ (Cork: Ossian, 1997), a brilliantly-researched and absorbing book to which we are indebted.

Chief O’Neill Music Festival

Join us every Autumn for the Chief O’Neill Music Festival as we celebrate the musical legacy of Chief O’Neill.  This is a traditional music festival to highlight his achievements as a collector of traditional Irish music.

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