O'Neill Cylinders History

History of the Francis O'Neill Cylinders


Francis O'Neill Cylinders in their suitcase

With the acquisition of the Dunn Family Collection at the Ward Irish Music Archives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Irish traditional music community now has access to 32 cylinder recordings compiled by Francis O’Neill of five of the greatest Irish traditional musicians from the early twentieth century.

The musicians represented on these recordings--Patsy Touhey, John McFadden, Edward Cronin, James Early, and Bernard Delaney--were all vital sources and personal friends of O’Neill during his mission to collect and publish his collections of Irish traditional dance tunes and airs. Through various letters, books, and interviews we believe that Francis O’Neill purchased his Edison Phonograph to record his Irish musician colleagues in 1902. Some of these recordings were sent to Dr. Richard Henebry as a birthday present in 1907; some of these were eventually donated to University College Cork. For another batch of recordings, O’Neill had a suitcase made to house the 32 cylinders that are now part of the Dunn Family Collection.

From Nicholas Carolan’s book, A Harvest Saved, we learn about these cylinders’ journey after the death of O’Neill’s son, Rogers. “Rogers… died at the age of eighteen of spinal meningitis in 1904… In deference to his wife’s feelings, he [O’Neill] no longer played music in the house after 1904 and stored his cylinder sound recordings and cylinder player in the home of a friend” (A Harvest Saved, 25).

The friend mentioned above is likely James Early. We know that Early was a close friend of Milwaukee fire captain and musician Michael J. Dunn and his family. Many of the artifacts in the Dunn Family Collection that originated from O’Neill were likely given to Early, and after Early died in 1914 these items made their way to Dunn in Milwaukee. Dunn also possessed a set of Taylor pipes that were to be sold for Mrs. Early after the death of her husband.

After Dunn’s death in 1935, the Dunn family believed that Michael’s daughter, Mary, had destroyed the cylinders. As World War II approached, apparently Mary had been told that if she stored the cylinders in the attic that they might become shrapnel if a bomb exploded in or near the home. She told her family members and music collectors interested in the O’Neill cylinders that she had burned or destroyed them.

Before selling the home in 2002, Dr. David Dunn took one more look in the attic and found the cylinders along with the rest of the items in the Dunn Family Collection. The wax cylinders were likely in this attic for around 80 years. Amazingly, they were still in excellent condition.

The cylinders were brought to WIMA in February 2004 and in 2007 WIMA retained ownership of them. In 2007, in partnership with the Library of Congress, we had the cylinders digitized. Harry Bradshaw of Dublin, Ireland digitally remastered the cylinder recordings in the winter of 2010. It is our pleasure to present these recordings to anyone interested in Irish music and history.


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Ward Irish Music Archives, Milwaukee, WIMilwaukee Irish Fest