MUSIC MAD

Directed by Stefan Brun

Written by Adam B. Whiteman

Program Notes

Set in the 1890s, Francis O’Neill, captain of the Chicago police force, has gathered a group of Irish policemen into his home to notate the tunes that each brought with them from their homeland. “Write down the tunes?” O’Neill is asked by his wife, “Whatever for?” “That was a good question,” replies O’Neill to the audience, “The ongoing quest to notate the melodies of my youth is a wonder”.

The chapters of O’Neill’s life journey then play out in story, song, dance, and of course, plenty of Irish tunes. We travel back to 1848, the year of O’Neill’s birth in Bantry Bay Ireland. A famine year. A visit from the parish piper, Peter Hagerty, and a gift of a whistle tells baby Francis that “tho life may vex you greatly, it is only through music that you will find your salvation”. O’Neill learns well from Peter Hagerty and at 16 he is playing for a step dance at the crossroads. But father Wallace, the newly appointed priest, puts an end to this dance and silences the pipes of Peter Hagerty believing him to be a corrupting influence on the children of the parish. The injustice cuts deeply for Francis, and though he had planned to be a Christian Brother, now decides to set off into the world. His mother, Catherine, gives Francis a flute and reminds him that he can be an Irishman in any land as long as he carries the tunes of Ireland within his heart. “Treasure them” she says, “and carry with you the experience of generations.”

We next find Francis at the strapping age of 19. He sings to us of his life at sea, having travelled round the world and survived a shipwreck. Aboard a boat called the Emerald Isle, he recalls meeting his lovely wife, Anna Rogers, who reminds him that the past may in fact be worth preserving as long as he makes a future for himself.

This future, we learn, is on the Chicago police force where he meets many like-minded Irishmen who share a love of the old music. One officer in particular, named James O’Neill, has an ability to transcribe and notate any music played, whistled or sung. And so an idea takes hold of Francis to start collecting the tunes in a book which he does with a fervid passion. After writing down the hundreds of tunes he and his compatriot officers can remember, they expand their search, even to the criminal element where they hunt down a two bit thief named George West, not to arrest him, but to take down his tunes.

We return again to the opening scene when the officers had gathered in the O’Neill home. Preserving the memory of a tune proves difficult when not all remember the same version, and a savage fight ensues. The difficulties mount for Francis as he experiences the tragic loss of his eldest son, Rogers to meningitis and the O’Neill home is, for the first time, shrouded in a gloomy cloak of silence.

O’Neill realizes that children are like songs echoing through the ages and sometimes the melody is all we have left. The words of Peter Hagerty prove prescient. Personal loss weighs heavily on Francis, and so he devotes the remainder of his life to protecting the wandering melodies of his youth, so that they may be preserved for all time.

 

Music Notes:   All tunes for Music Mad were selected directly from “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland”. The song, “A Harvest Saved” and “Well Travelled Man” were written by Adam B. Whiteman.

Photos:            Courtesy of  Mary Lesch, great granddaughter of Francis O’Neill.

 

 

 

 

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