How Chicago’s  Chief of Police Saved  the Music of Ireland

“From the heart it has come and to the heart it shall penetrate.”

       Francis O’Neill – Irish Folk Music (1910)

Historical Backdrop

Chicago. 1901. The wheels of the Industrial Revolution begin to spin with increasing speed and resolve. A modern metropolis is literally rising from the ashes of a great fire that burned away the old world vestiges of a frontier town. Now, the populace burns with a desire for progress and development. The winds of change stoke the flames of the foundries. Steeled structures define a new landscape in which the human forces of labor clash violently with the barons of industry while the structures of government struggle to keep pace and the peace.

Immigrants from around the world, escaping poverty and oppression, take root in the fertile soil. Among them, the Irish. Having fled the ravages of a devastating potato famine and the burdens of an occupying nation, The Irish find themselves to be a growing and important presence in the city of Chicago. But to get along, they must change. The traditions and culture that so defined their way of life in rural Ireland, now seem unnecessary and out of place as they become “Americans” in the fast moving streets of Chicago.

It is in this setting that Francis O’Neill, a hard working Irish immigrant, became Chicago’s Chief of Police. Battling with equal vigor both corruption and crime, he set himself apart as a man with a solid moral core, gifted with both character and spirit.

However, this modern day chieftain does not forget his Irish identity. He knows the power that the music of Ireland has over his restless soul. And so, it is the music of Ireland, the very soul of the Irish, that he now must save.

The Early Years in Cork
(Daniel) Francis O’Neill was born on August 28, 1848, the youngest of seven children in the west Cork townland of Tralibane (near Bantry Bay). As the son of a well-to-do and educated farmer, his family was spared the ravages of the Great Famine that devastated the western regions of Ireland.
O’Neill grew up in a largely Irish-speaking rural society in which music, song, and dance were an integral part of life. His maternal grandfather, a latter-day chieftain named Donal O’Mahony, kept open house for travelling musicians; his parents, sisters, and himself, were all great singers; and his parish supported two professional pipers in the years after the Famine. At a young age, Francis began learning the wooden flute, a skill that would remain with him during the remainder of his life.

O’Neill was an exceptional student at the national school in Bantry where he studied Latin, Greek and Mathematics. He was nicknamed “Philosopher’ by a teacher and became a teacher himself at a very young age. He had a serious disagreement with his brother who, he had learned, was misappropriating his teacher’s salary for investments in cattle. At sixteen, O’Neill missed an appointment with Bishop Delany which would have resulted in his entry into the Christian priesthood. A new parish priest had banned music and dancing in the Tralibane area, and country life became intolerable to the intelligent and driven young man.

A Life at Sea
Driven by a desire to see the world, in 1865, the sixteen year old O’Neill worked his passage by boat to northern England, signed on as a cabin boy, and before his 21st birthday, he had circumnavigated the globe, making ports of call in such exotic locales as Russia, Egypt, Japan, the West Indies, Mexico and South America.

Following numerous adventures at sea, O’Neill became a citizen of the United States, and began to work his way across the country engaging in a variety of jobs. He herded a flock of sheep in the Sierra Nevada mountains, taught school in Missouri, sailed the great lakes, and worked with the railroads and lumber yards of Chicago. In July 1873, O’Neill joined the Chicago police force.

A Chicago Policeman
At the time O’Neill joined the Chicago police in 1873, there were a mere 550 officers on the force responsible for the city’s nearly 500,000 inhabitants. Crime, prostitution and political corruption were rampant. During his first month on the force, O’Neill was shot in the left shoulder by a burglar who was attempting to escape a Pinkerton watchman. Though wounded, O’Neill still managed to disarm the criminal with his night stick, and then arrested him, all the while preventing the Pinkerton man from further harming the miscreant.

O’Neill built a reputation for efficiency, courage and honesty and refused to trade favors for local ward politicians. He rose in the ranks by sheer talent and ability. In 1878 he was promoted to desk sergeant in the Deering Street station where he found that traditional Irish musicians in the neighborhood and in the police station were ‘delightfully numerous’. After a series of promotions, he placed first place in the captaincy examinations and became “Captain O’Neill” in the year 1894.

As captain, he earned commendations for effectively dispersing a threatening crowd of strikers during the Pullman railroad riots without resorting to the violent tactics applied by the state militia. He was subsequently appointed Chief on April 30, 1901 by Mayor Harrison who cited O’Neills unimpeachable reputation, his high standard of education and his ability to creditably represent the city on public occasions were reasons given by the mayor’s office for the appointment. O’Neill commented that he disliked ‘loafers’ on the force and it was clear he intended to engage in police reform and, in fact, earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, driving corrupt detectives off the force. He cracked down on prostitution and gambling and ordered the arrest of security guards who were illegally carrying concealed weapons during the Stockyards strike of 1902.

He was reappointed for a second term by Mayor Harrison, and, in unprecedented manner, was asked to stay on as Chief under the subsequent administration of Mayor Dunne who succeeded Harrison.

Notably, during his tenure, Chief O’Neill promoted a black policeman to the rank of sergeant, a first in the United States. Further, although he was personally contemptuous of anarchistic philosophy of the day, he released the famous Russian anarchist, Emma Goldman, after interviewing her and determining that charges of complicity in the assassination of President McKinley were unfounded.

Family Life
In 1916, O’Neill said of himself, “I’m hardly companionable myself. I can’t smoke, I dislike intoxicating liquor, neither am I political or an agitator.” He elaborated that he and his family ‘were all (an are yet, those who are living) friendly and kindly, but…we were always beastly sober, so where was the fun in visiting us?”

This rather gloomy self assessment is no doubt due to the unimaginable personal tragedies suffered by O’Neill and his wife, Anna, during their marriage. They had ten children, five sons and five daughters, but all the sons and one of the daughters died young. Three boys died in a single day from diphtheria, and in 1904, their oldest boy Rogers, a bright musician himself, died of spinal meningitis at the age of eighteen. After that, music was no longer played in the O’Neill household.

O’Neill first met his wife to be, Anna, while he was working aboard a steamship aptly named the Emerald Isle in August 1866. She, like he, was a lover of traditional Irish music, and they married in the year 1870 after O’Neill had served a stint as a sailor on the Great Lakes.

A Life of Music
Traditional Irish music played a prominent role in the life of Francis O’Neill. In fact, he once described himself as having been ‘music mad’. As a child in Tralibane, he listened, long past his bedtime, to the piper through the walls at night as his parents hosted a barn dance. He learned to play the wooden flute from a neighboring farmer, and the music that he absorbed from his countrymen infused him with distinctive sounds that would forever remain a part of his very being.

Wherever he travelled, he encountered others who shared his passion for music, and it is no surprise that he made such strong connections to the similarly inclined Irish policemen in his district. In his writings he describes “many an impromptu concert” in which he took part at the old Deering Street Police Station, in which the officers performed the music of their homeland, one officer exhibiting talent as a drummer forcing a broom-handle held rigidly against the floor.

He Saved the Tunes of the Irish – O’Neill’s Music of Ireland
In the 1880’s O’Neill befriended a young man named James O’Neill. Although not related, the two men shared an unyielding passion for the music of Ireland. Recognizing the young man’s skills, O’Neill enlisted him onto the force. It was discovered that James O’Neill had an ability to write down any tune he heard with great alacrity. O’Neill thus recruited him to notate all the tunes Francis remembered from his childhood in Cork. Over time, the project expanded, and soon the two men began collecting tunes from other musicians.

The search for tunes to notate knew no boundaries. Players of renown and even some of ill repute were visited for purposes of notating their tunes. An ‘Irish Music Club’ was formed of like minded officers and musicians to assist with the venture. Melodies were captured as they were overheard in barber shops, trolley cars and railway crossings.

After years of dedicated effort, using his own personal funds, O’Neill published the collection in a masterwork titled, “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland: Eighteen Hundred and Fifty Melodies. Airs, Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Long Dances, Marches, Etc., Many of which are now Published for the First Time. Collected from All Available Sources.” The book identified “Capt. Francis O’Neill” as the editor and James O’Neill as arranger. To this day, “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland” is widely recognized as the bible of traditional Irish music.

Following his retirement, O’Neill redoubled his efforts in this area and authored a good many number of collections and treatises about Irish music and Irish musicians. One book, Irish Minstrels and Musicians recounts, in short story format, brief reminiscences about the life and times of various Irish musicians, each containing a spark of humanity and pathos such that one feels a real connection to these colorful personalities of the past.

During the later part of his life, O’Neill became somewhat disillusioned with the state of traditional Irish music in the 20th century. In 1918, he wrote to a friend:

“I was music mad, but the fever has subsided considerably. In fact I’m cured. Now I’m only angry, disgusted, and pessimistic. The Irish have frittered away their artistic heritage, and in this generation have come to be regarded by the world at large as nonentities in the arts for which they were most distinguished…”

Despite these harsh words, O’Neill continued to write prolifically on the subject of traditional Irish music. Today, there is a thriving community of traditional Irish musicians in Chicago, two major Irish cultural centers, Irish music and dance academies, Irish newspapers and Irish theaters. Any Irish musician in Chicago will tell you that Chief O’Neill’s Music of Ireland is one of their most important collections from which they perform.

And so It would seem that Chief O’Neill did Save the Soul of the Irish. The music is alive and well – and living in Chicago!

Two books serve as outstanding resources about the interesting life and character of Francis O’Neill.

A Harvest Saved, Nicholas Carolan, Ossian Publications (1997)

Ellen Skerrett and Mary Lesch, ed., Chief O’Neill’s Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful Life in Chicago(Evanston, IL.: Northwestern University Press, 2008)

19th Century Ireland
In 1848, the year of O’Neill’s birth, Ireland was suffering from a widespread blight of its potato crop. Starvation and disease were rampant throughout the countryside. This period of deprivation came to be known as The Great Famine.

For young and old, it was the “piper”, the “fiddler” and the “local dance master” who would come ‘round and provide much needed distractions from the mundane existence of a peasant farmer. But even these modest traditions fell victim to the famine as the attention and resources of the population were focused on mere survival.

At this time in history, by virtue of an Act of Union passed in 1800, Ireland was a subject of the British crown. In the context of this occupation, the Irish peasantry, and Irish Catholics in general, did not receive equal treatment from the British parliament. They were often subject to repressive laws which denied them property rights and equal representation. The manner in which the British reacted to the potato blight is considered by many to be inept at best and intentional genocide at worst. Much of Ireland was owned by “absentee landlords”, i.e., landowners who lived in Britain. It is documented that these individuals were overly harsh in evicting starving Irish tenants from the land by burning down their houses and sending them into the cold winter with no provisions whatsoever. Many British of the time declared that God had sent the famine, and, therefore, interference with the effects of that famine (public assistance) should be limited. In other words, ‘providence’ demanded the expulsion of the Irish peasantry from Ireland. Some believe this line of reasoning was simply window dressing for the true intentions of the British which was to colonize Ireland and convert it to Protestantism.

In 1848, the Roman Catholic Church was also in turmoil. A revolution had occurred in Italy which resulted in the temporary exile of Pope Pius IX. Upon the Pope’s return to Rome, he adopted a more hard-line, conservative approach to leading the Roman Catholic Church. In Ireland this policy resulted in the promotion of strict Roman Catholic practices and the discouragement of traditional Irish customs, music, and language.

As a result of the physical trials brought by the famine, and the social restrictions imposed by the British government and the Roman Catholic Church, many in Ireland came to be disheartened. A mass exodus of Irishmen took place on ill provisioned boats ominously known as “coffin ships”, and much of what remained of the country’s population and culture fled to America.


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