“Off to the Hunt”: Francis O’Neill’s Lifelong Search for Tunes
Francis O’Neill is one of the seminal figures in the history of Irish music. A colorful character by any measure, O’Neill was born in Ireland in 1848, toward the end of the catastrophic Irish potato famine. He grew up in a home where traditional Irish music was among the only forms of entertainment avail- able. Like many in his community, O’Neill learned to sing and to play airs and dance tunes; his instruments of choice were the flute, tin whistle, and several types of bagpipes, including the complex uilleann pipes. O’Neill’s family was from the Union of Skibbereen in County Cork, one of the areas worst affected by the famine, and like many of the post-famine generation, he left Ireland seeking a better life. In 1865, he shipped as a cabin boy on a sailing vessel, and soon sailed all around Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. After many adventures, O’Neill found himself shipwrecked with several crewmates on a coral island in the Pacific. During their rescue, the value of O’Neill’s musical skills became very clear. His fellow sailors were sub- jected to starvation rations by the crew that rescued them, but O’Neill escaped their fate through music. “One of the Kanakas had a fine flute,” O’Neill later wrote, “on which he played a simple one-strain hymn with conscious pride almost every evening. Of course, this chance to show what could be done on the instrument was not to be overlooked. The result was most gratifying. […] My dusky brother musician cheerfully shared his ‘poi’ and canned salmon with me thereafter” (1910, 16).
Soon after this, O’Neill entered the United States. He remained a sailor for a few years, then took on other jobs, in- cluding shepherding in the Sierra Nevada and teaching school in Missouri. The big city soon beckoned, however, and he found his way to Chicago by 1871. He remained there until his death in 1936. In Chicago, O’Neill served on the police force from 1873, when he began as a patrolman, to 1905, when he retired as General Superintendent, or more colloquially, “Chief of Police.” He was famous for integrity and competence on the job, and for general erudition, which made him one of the most beloved public figures of his era. On his appointment as Chief in 1901, the Chicago Daily Tribune commented, “Captain O’Neill is not only the best educated man on the force, but also has a good reputation as a policeman.” Part of O’Neill’s reputa- tion for learning was certainly based on his knowledge of Irish culture; he had one of the most extensive private libraries of Hiberniana in the United States. Moreover, his expertise in the specific subject of traditional music was also well-known; a few months after his appointment the Tribune called him “custo- dian of the richest treasury of Irish music in the world.”
There is, in fact, a good indication that O’Neill may have
been made General Superintendent in large part due to his mu- sical connections. A newspaper article from the Chicago Daily Tribune of April 14, 1911 claims that O’Neill “piped his way to power” through his acquaintance with an unprepossessing woman named Kate Doyle, who happened to be the beloved childhood governess of Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison. The paper recounts the story of Doyle’s visit to Harrison in 1901:
Edging her chair toward the table, the mayor’s visitor glanced around the room. Satisfied that they were alone, she said:
“Carte , I’m going to ask a great favor of you, but gra ma- chree, I know you’ll do it for Kate. I see by the papers that a new chief of police is going to be appointed. No , what brought me here was to ask you if you would appoint my old friend, Frank O’Neill, chief. That’s all.”
The mayo , to use his own expression, was “taken off his feet.” But Mrs. Doyle went away with the promise that her request would be granted.
The article goes on to explain how O’Neill and Doyle came to be friends:
Years ago her house in Dearborn Street was a meeting place on Sunday for all the Irish pipers, fluters and fiddlers in Chi- cago. Among those who met there to play the tunes of Ireland were Barney Delaney, James Early, John Ennis, James Kerwin, James Cahill, and her choice for chief of police, Francis O’Neill, who played the pipes and flute. It was these Sunday afternoon concerts that made Kate Doyle acquainted with the man for whom she appeared before Mr. Harrison.
O’Neill’s biographer, Nicholas Carolan (1997, 68), has declared the Kate Doyle story “just someone’s joke.” Although Carolan has not apparently seen this newspaper account, and gives no reason for his belief, he may be right; this article is not credited to a specific reporter, nor does it cite any individual as a source for the story. But by claiming to give Carter Harrison’s “own expression” of his reaction, it suggests that the source was Harrison, former mayor of Chicago and, at the time the article was written, mayor-elect as well. The fact that neither O’Neill nor Harrison seems to have made any complaint about the article’s suggestion of blatant favoritism also suggests it may not have been far from the truth.
Whether his “fascinating hobby” helped him get the top job or not, certainly throughout his career on the force, O’Neill spent his spare time playing, collecting, and writing about Irish traditional music. From his earliest days on the force, when he served in the predominantly Irish Deering Street station, O’Neill sought out local musicians to hear them play and learn their repertoires. He listened for Irish tunes in businesses, in saloons, and on streetcars. Sometimes impromptu music sessions took