(1848 - 1936)
Francis O’Neill was born in Tralibane, near Bantry in County Cork, on August 28, 1848. His family was musical, and in his home district music, song and dance were the popular recreations. O’Neill left home at sixteen, became a cabin boy on a ship and traveled the world. After being shipwrecked on Baker Island in the Pacific, his expertise on the flute earned him extra food from a member of the ship’s crew that rescued him. He was landed at San Francisco, and worked as a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada mountains and a teacher in Missouri before coming to Chicago in 1870.
O’Neill joined the Chicago police department in July 1873 and was shot in his first month on patrol; the bullet remained with him for the rest of his life. He gradually rose in rank within the department, and eventually became Chief of Police, from 1901 to 1905, with a budget of $3,500,000 and a force of 3,300 men.
But Chief O’Neill´s passion was Irish music. He was involved in the foundation of the Irish Music Club in Chicago in 1901 and sometimes secured jobs for his fellow musicians on the police force. With the help of his music scribe, James O’Neill from Co. Down, he collected Irish music and music information in nine important books that were published between 1903 and 1924. These books are still a main source for Irish traditional dance tunes today, and the biographical information compiled in his 1913 book Irish Minstrels and Musicians is a who’s who of early Irish music history.
Today Francis O’Neill is revered as the savior of a great deal of Ireland´s musical heritage, to a greater degree than he could have imagined during his later years in Chicago when Irish Americans, in an effort to assimilate, were turning away from Irish music towards American popular music. However Francis O’Neill’s Chicago publications will forever remain a foundation source for Irish traditional music world-wide, and for information about it. With the addition of the Dunn Family Collection at the Ward Irish Music Archives (WIMA), we are provided with a little more insight into this great man.