Celtic Music: Francis O'Neill: The Police Chief Who Saved Irish Music

John Callaway narrates the fascinating story of this turn-of-the-century Renaissance man and the wide-reaching effects of his life's work.

Francis O'NeillImmigrant. World Traveler. Chicago Police Officer. Scholar. Author. Historian. Musician. Husband and father of ten children. Francis O'Neill, Chicago's Police Superintendent from 1901-05, is virtually unknown today. Yet this remarkable man not only served as a heroic police officer and reforming chief of police, but also made an enduring contribution to his native Ireland and Irish culture through the gathering and publication of the largest collection of Irish music ever assembled.

The youngest of seven children, O'Neill was born in Tralibane, County Cork, in 1848, the last year of Ireland's devastating Potato Famine. Pushed by ambition and pulled by adventure, the spirited young man passed up a chance to become a teacher. Instead, at the age of 16, he set out to seek his fortune as a cabin boy on an English merchant vessel. On one of his voyages, he met Anna Rogers, an Irish girl he then married in Bloomington, Illinois. The couple moved to Chicago soon after the Great Fire to start a family.

In 1873, O'Neill signed on as a Chicago policeman, and distinguished himself from the start. Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin and author of a new book on O'Neill entitled A Harvest Saved, relates: "In [O'Neill's] first month on the police force, he showed his bravery by tackling an armed burglar. He was shot, and carried the bullet encysted near his spine for the rest of his life." O'Neill's intelligence and political savvy helped him rise in the ranks quickly. In 1901, he was named General Superintendent, where he earned respect for his efforts to reform what had been a corrupt police department.

At the same time, O'Neill was also pursuing his other passion, the performance and collection of Irish music. He retained strong memories of his childhood in Ireland where he learned to play the flute and listen to the musicians at Crossroad Dances near his home. In later years, he wrote, "traditional Irish music could have survived even the famine if it had not been capriciously and arbitrarily prescribed and suppressed" by the English and some elements of the Church. O'Neill went to great lengths to unearth the music -- and musicians who could play it. Siobhan McKinney, a native-born Irish musician and co-owner with her husband Brendan of Chief O'Neill's Pub in Chicago, explains, "As soon as he heard of pipers coming to America, he would bring them all to Chicago. And immediately he would snap 'em up, put 'em on the police force, and write down their music." Historian Richard Lindberg adds, "He would travel the streetcars of Chicago in civilian clothing, listening to people on the street cars humming and whistling little tunes. He really collected these songs in much the same way an archeologists digs for things in tombs." O'Neill's great granddaughter Mary Mooney Lesch concludes: "He'd go back to his office and play them for his sergeant, who would write them down." O'Neill eventually published eight books of some 3,500 traditional Irish tunes, most of them after he retired from the police force in 1905 and could devote himself to the cause on a full-time basis. Carolan states, "It was the largest snapshot ever taken of Irish traditional music and we still have it."

Francis O'Neill is revered today, 65 years after his death, because at a critical time for Irish culture, his books helped to keep Ireland's music alive. Noel Rice, President of the Academy of Irish Music, has taught O'Neill's music to his students for the past 25 years. "He did a magnificent job. . .of gathering it together and trying to keep it from dying." Kevin Henry, an Irish piper who plays in the sessions at Chief O'Neill's Pub, says, "I have to take off my cap to the Chief; there was nobody like him." Paddy Ryan, music officer of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the organization that promotes traditional music in Ireland, concurs. He put Chicago on the map in the musical sense. Chicago is a very important place in the history of Irish traditional music. Extremely important place. Because of Francis O'Neill."

Admiration for the "Music Mad" Francis O'Neill
(from A Harvest Saved: Francis O'Neill and Irish Music in Chicago)

In all his wanderings and throughout his police career and long retirement, O'Neill was obsessed with music, 'music mad' as he said of himself. He continued with his childhood instrument the flute as his main instrument, and privately considered himself 'a fair freehand fluter.' At different times he played the fiddle, the Scottish Lowland pipes and Scottish Highland pipes on which he described himself as 'a tasty performer.' He was also 'an excellent performer on the [uilleann] pipes,' according to his friend the Rev. Dr. Richard Henebry, professor of Celtic at the University of Washington, D.C. The enthusiastic Henebry is likely to have been the anonymous admirer of O'Neill's piping made fun of by the piping historian Seamus O Casaide:

Captain O'Neill is a musician himself, and a good one. He has at least one admirer who places him above all the musicians of the world. If Paderewski were to give one of his masterly performances of a Mozart sonata, or if Kubelik were to play the Hungarian Rhapsody with that wonderful artistic feeling which is so characteristic of his work, and if one were to say to a certain distinguished votary of music, 'Isn't that exquisite?,' the chances are a hundred to one that the reply would be, 'Ah, yes, but you should hear Chief O'Neill play "The Fox Chase"!'