Francis O’Neill, the Police Chief who saved Irish Music is born in Tralibane, Co Cork. After emigrating to the United States, he joined the Chicago police force in 1873, eventually serving as Chief of Police from 1901-1905.
Chief O’Neill had a strong interest in Irish music from his childhood, an Irish music and tradition that was in real danger of being lost as the Irish diaspora melded into other societies. During his time in the police force, where apparently Irish musicians were made feel particularly welcome, and after he made strenuous efforts to recover and record details of the Irish music tradition.
Captain O’Neill was a remarkable man and although his career and musical hobby flourished, his private life experienced soul-destroying tragedies. He and his wife, Ann Rogers, who emigrated from Co Clare, were blessed with ten children, five boys and five girls who were all brought up with a passionate interest in Irish music. His eldest son Roger, was a brilliant student and an exceptional violinist who sadly died of spinal meningitis at the age of eighteen in 1904. The O’Neill family were also visited by severe tragedy when on one single day they heartbreakingly lost three young sons and a daughter to Diphtheria.
His musical works include:
• O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1903), containing 1,850 pieces of music
• The Dance Music of Ireland (1907), sometimes called, “O’Neill’s 1001,” because of the number of tunes included
• 400 tunes arranged for piano and violin (1915)
• Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody (1922), 365 pieces
• Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby (1910). Appendix A contains O’Farrells Treatise and Instructions on the Irish Pipes, published 1797-1800; appendix B is Hints to Amateur Pipers by Patrick J. Touhy.
• Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913), biographies of musicians, including those from whom he collected tunes in Chicago.
The Dunn Family Collection contains a large number of recordings made by O’Neill. “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.”
Photo: Bronze statue of Francis O’Neil in Tralibane, Co Cork