Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

A lot of folks don’t know the story of Francis O’Neill. He left Ireland during the potato famine at the age of 16 on a merchant ship. There’s lots of stories to tell of his life there, but the truly remarkable story is how he restored Irish music not in Ireland, but in Chicago and may be the sole person responsible for keeping this fantastic music alive not only in the new world in the 19th century, but beyond. He is the author of several music books, called "the Fiddler’s Bible" among musicians. I picked up a copy of "O’Neill’s" back in the 1970s and still use it to this day.

I’d like to hear some of your stories about Mr O’Neill. I know a bit about his activities in Chicago, how he would ride the trams listening to people singing and whistling and then write down the melodies he heard. How he would hire any Irish musician he heard about, put them on the force, and get them to teach him their tunes. I know he took a bullet in a gunfight which lodged against his spine and never left his body.

Let’s talk about Francis O’Neill!

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

"how he would ride the trams listening to people singing and whistling and then write down the melodies he heard. "

Amazing, considering he (apparently) couldn’t read or write music.

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

I used to live in Knox County, MO, up in the northeast corner of the state. O’Neill worked in Edina, the county seat, as the chief of police before getting the big job in Chicago. Edina was a Catholic Scots-Irish town.

I can’t remember where I read this, but in one of his memoirs O’Neill wrote of a local blacksmith named Ike Forrester. This blacksmith was also a fiddler and O’Neill named "The Merry Blacksmith" for him.

Another tune associated with O’Neill’s sojourn in Edina is a jig called "Nolan The Soldier", #726 in the "1850" collection.

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

First chief of police in us that had to deal w criminals that had automatic weapons…

First cheif of police to hire minorities…


My question is, did he have his flute when he was ship wrecked?

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Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

@weejie, no he could not notate musically, but he did have a knack for remembering the melodies he heard, and repeating them for someone else to write them down. This is a skill he learned from his mother. From O’Neill himself: "(his mother)…would memorize much of the Folk Music of Munster and naturally transmit it orally by her lilting and singing to her children, inheriting a keen ear, a retentive memory, and an intense love of the haunting melodies of their race. Similarly gifted was our father, who, full of peace, and content, and occupying his accustomed chair beside the spacious fireplace, sung the old songs in English or Irish for his own pleasure, or the entertainment of those who cared to listen, of whom there were many not included in the family. Like the glens among the Ballyhoura Mountains, where Dr. P. W. Joyce imbibed and accumulated the hundreds of tunes which he has published, the glens and valleys in Southwest Cork were also storehouses of musical treasures unexplored by the great collectors of Irish melodies, Bunting and Petrie, whose work has won them undying fame."

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

That ebook is free on Google play (I think that is the current name) They also have his "Irish Minstrels and Musicians." Both are fun to read. I enjoy them especially since being in Kentucky, Chicago is in some ways the hub of Irish music for us. (There is plenty of the music elsewhere in the US Midwest, I hasten to add!)

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

Also well worth a read: ‘The Scribe - the Life and Works of James O’Neill’ by Caoimhin Mac Aoidh (Drumlin Publications 2006). James O’Neill (no relation) is the man who wrote out the tunes for publication by Francis.
http://www.drumlinpublications.com/thescribe.htm

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

"did he have his flute when the was ship wrecked?"

If I remember the story correctly, O’Neill did not have a flute with him (or it was lost with the ship). Among the Polynesians who rescued them was an individual with a primitive, flute-like instrument. Through gestures, O’Neill communicated that he would like to give it a go. The results so impressed the rescuers that O’Neill was given preferential treatment, including the sharing of food rations by his fellow musician, so that after their long canoe journey to a European outpost, he arrived in much better condition than his shipmates.

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

Thanks for the link, celticagent! By the way, I was able to download the PDF for free.

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

Recently discovered: "Chief O’Neill’s Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful Life in Chicago." More a historical curio than an entertaining read, it’s his diaries primarily covering the period of his police career. Music gets a mention here and there but it’s primarily of interest to historians of Chicago.

Incidentally it may be of interest to those outside of the US that Chicago politics have always been noted for their marked shenanigans, to use an apt term here, which persists to this day. O’Neill stood out in his era for his absolute stance against graft and corruption, barring the platoon of musicians he put on the police payroll of course. ;)

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

"…how he would ride the trams listening to people singing and whistling and then write down the melodies he heard."

Woah….. that is a skill to be envied.

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

Can you imagine the scandal in the media today if it was found that the Police Chief of a major American city were hiring police officers based on their skill and prominence in a field unrelated to police work?

And on top of that, the Chief were an immigrant who only hired fellow immigrants from his own native country? The media would have a field day and the Mayor would soon be accepting the Chief’s resignation.

For example say it was found that the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, a Mexican immigrant, was making it known back in Mexico that any really good soccer player was guaranteed a place on the force. Tryouts were held regularly, the Chief getting a look at the players’ skills, and the best players all getting jobs as police officers. The LAPD fielded a great soccer team that was regular champions in some local amateur league, and the force was, more or less, entirely composed of Mexican soccer players. (Well at least they could run down any suspects that tried to make a break for it.)

Back to O Neill, there are two ironic things about his view of the state of piping

1) he was a staunch supporter of the uilleann pipes as the true Irish pipes and despised the adoption of Scottish Highland pipes by Irish Revivalists; the irony being that it appears that Chicago was the leader in the correlation between police forces and masses of pipers in green kilts playing Highland pipes marching down the street on St Patrick’s Day.

2) he seemed to fully believe that he was witnessing the death throes of the uilleann pipes, that the current generation of pipers would be the last. He had no way of knowing, or predicting, that a half-century later the uilleann pipes would have a massive revival, and a century later there would be more pipers and pipemakers than ever.

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

This is somewhat off topic but I read a really wonderful book called The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens about the journey of a young man through the famine and emigration through Liverpool to Canada. It’s beautifully written and gave me a whole new feeling for the experience of the emigrants, even though it was a novel and may not have been historically accurate.

I didn’t realize that O’Neil was an emigrant - it gives a whole new meaning to the restoration work he did so diligently. I assume y’all have seen this? http://archives.irishfest.com/dunn-family-collection/Music.htm

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

The Francis O’Neill cylinder recordings found in the Dunn Family Collection are historical documents of the highest importance. They form part of the dawn of the era of sound recording in Irish traditional music and constitute an important element of the first sonic evidence documenting the music styles and repertories in Irish traditional music.

http://archives.irishfest.com/dunn-family-collection/Music.htm

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

Well it took me awhile, but since reading this thread I have read both ‘A Harvest Saved’ and ‘Irish Minstrels And Musicians’. My thanks to everyone here in this thread for inspiring me to do so!

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

I know it’s been a while since you were discussing Francis O’Neill. His was indeeds a fascinating life that went beyond the incredible legacy of tunes he collected. I have spent the last few years (roughly since this discussion started) researching his story and travelling to West Cork and Chicago. I have written a novel of historical fiction based as closely as I could on his life.
See my website here: http://chiefoneill.com/the-book

I am currently trying to get the work published and would love any feedback/ideas from the session community.

Thanks

Re: Francis O’Neill And The Restoration Of Irish Music

There is a web site dedicated to Francis O’Neill at:

http://www.francisoneill.ie

The following books by Francis O’Neill are available complete and free in https://books.google.com

The dance music of Ireland: 1001 gems: double jigs, single jigs, hop or slip jigs, reels, hornpipes, long dances, set dances, etc
https://books.google.com/books?id=ihI2AQAAMAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Irish Minstrels and Musicians: With Numerous Dissertations on Related Subjects
https://books.google.com/books?id=p2EpAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby, with Some Account of Allied Subjects Including O’Farrell’s Treatise on the Irish Or Union Pipes and Touhey’s Hints to Amateur Pipers
https://books.google.com/books?id=QggtAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Footnote: these are available from Google Books in the US; my understanding is that because of varying copyright laws, books available from Google Books in the US aren’t always available in other countries.