Chief Francis O’Neill from Tralibane

Francis O'Neill, christened Daniel and familiarly known as Frank, was born in Tralibane on August 28, 1848, the youngest of seven children.

Music, song and dance were an integral part of the rural society in which O’Neill grew up and his father’s house was the venue for the venue for the neighbourhood dances.

Pipers, fiddle players and flute players were frequently heard at crossroad dances at Tralibane Bridge and Colomane Cross in summer and at farm houses in the winter.

Inheriting his mother’s gift of a keen ear, retentive memory and an intensive love of the haunting melodies of the race, the Young O’Neill began learning to play the flute from a neighbouring farmer called Timothy Downing.

After beginning his formal education in Dromore School, he moved on to the larger national school in Bantry where he excelled at Latin, Greek and mathematic sand was nicknamed the ‘Philosopher’. He became monitor in the school at the age of fourteen and then a teacher there.

Francis O’Neill left West Cork in 1865 at the age of sixteen. He served on a ship, the Minnehaha, which was wrecked in the Pacific on Baker’s Island and provisions were severely rationed. A member of the crew was able to play simple melodies on the flute. When O’Neill played some tunes on the flute, he found his meagre rations mysteriously supplemented by some tinned salmon. The crew were rescued and when they arrived in Honolulu, the capital of the Hawaiian Islands, after a voyage of 34 days, all but three of the crew were sent to the Marine Hospital. Francis was one of the three robust ones, thanks to his musical friend, and was therefore sent straight on to San Francisco.

By 1870, Francis O’Neill had become a school teacher at Edina, Knox County, Missouri. He boarded with the school director, a Mr. Broderick, a native of Galway and a fine flute player.

He joined the Metropolitan Police Force in 1873 and was stationed in Harrison Street Station. during his first month in the Chicago Police Force, in August 1873, he was shot in an encounter with John Bridges, a notorious burglar and there after carried a bullet encysted near his spine. For his bravery he received instant advancement to Patrolman.

From Patrolman Patrick O’Mahony, commonly known as ‘Big Pat’ from west Clare, he learned rare tunes, double jigs, Out on the Ocean, The Fishermen’s Widow, etc. and Bantry Bay, one of the most beautiful traditional hornpipes in existence. In his police life, O’Neill achieved first place in the captaincy examination in 1894 and eventually rose to the rank of Chief Superintendent in April 1901.

An amazing number of musicians joined the police force in Chicago, pipers, fiddlers and flute players from every county in Ireland were regular visitors to the chief’s home in Poplar Avenue - James Moore from Limerick, John Connors from Dublin, Jimmy O’Brien a piper from Mayo, Patrick O’Mahony Clare, John Hicks from Kildare and many others.

Highland piper, Joseph Cant, a Perthshire man, brought news of a fine fiddler who worked with the Brideport Iron mills. This was James O’Neill, who was born near Banbridge, Co. Down,who was found to have a vast store of Ulster music.

When it was discovered that James O’Neill could write down, with ease, any tunes whether hummed, whistled, lilted or played, the idea of a manuscript collection of tunes was born. James O’Neill became a member of the police force and later, as a Sergeant, he had more leisure time to undertake the collection of tunes with Francis O’Neill.

IN 1903 O’Neill’s music of Ireland edited by Captain Francis O’Neill and arranged by James O’Neill, was published in 1903 and contains 1,850 melodies, made up of thus: Airs 625; O’Carolan, 75; Double jigs, 415; Slip jigs. 60; Reels, 380; Hornpipes, 25; Long dances, 20; Marches, etc., 50.

O’Neill's Dance Music of Ireland, edited by Capt. Francis O’Neill and arranged by James O’Neill and containing 1,001 tunes, was published 1907 and still the collecting went on. James O’Neill searched one half of Chicago, Edward Cronin the other half, while Francis O’Neill searched old publications. In this way 200 tunes were collected.

Other music publications, all arranged by Selena O’Neill are O’Neill's Irish Music for Piano or violin, 400 tunes published before 1915; Popular Selections from Dance Music of Ireland by Selena O’Neill, 52 numbered, Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody, arranged by Selena O’Neill, 365 tunes, published in 1922, gives the sources of tunes with comments and historical notes on many tunes. Selena O’Neill was a violin student at Chicago Music College, whose father was a native of Macroom. She was not related to Francis O’Neill.

Irish Folk Music, by Capt. Francis O’Neill was published in 1910 in Chicago.

Irish Minstrels and Musicians, including numerous dissertations on related subjects by Captain O’Neill, was published in Chicago in 1913. ‘Dedicated to the venerated memory of my parents......’, this book is an attempt to rescue from oblivion the names of our musicians, harpers, pipers, flute players and fiddlers. A list of almost one hundred authorities, and there are almost as many photographs and musical illustrations, while some use is made of unpublished MSS.

Even though Francis O’Neill was very successful in the police work and in collecting and publishing thousands of Irish tunes, his private life was subjected to appaling tragedy.

The O’Neill’s had 10 children, five daughters and five sons, one daughter and all the sons died young. Three of the boys died in childhood on the same day of diphtheria and the last and oldest, Rogers, a promising college student and violinist, died at the age of eighteen of spinal meningitis in 1904.

O’Neill is one of the most outstanding figures of the Irish diaspora. His achievement in rising to the position of Chief of Police in Chicago, the second largest city in the USA, is quite astonishing in itself.
O’Neill returned to Ireland on holiday in 1906. He was recording music up to two years before his death in 1936. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see the fruits of his work fully appreciated, but now the Captain O’Neill Memorial Company has plans to develop the two acre site which they have acquired from Victor and Ursula Kingston in Tralibane. A plaque was erected on Tralibane Bridge in 1998 on the 150th anniversary of the birth of O’Neill. Then the monument was put in place on the site near O’Neill’s home in March 2000.

The Committee is now planning the next phase of the project, a building is to be erected on the site to include a dance area, a kitchen, toilets and facilities for open air dancing. The plans are being drawn up and the members of the Memorial Company are very excited about this project which will provide a venue and a focus for all traditional musicians, dancers and singers.

The Francis O’Neill Summer school is also planned for the future and a scholarship for a student to study O’Neill’s music is also on the agenda. In August 2001, a film crew from Chicago who were filming a documentary on O’Neill, both in Chicago and Bantry, arrived in Bantry and filmed O’Neill’s homestead, Tralibane Bridge and the monument, in addition to interviewing members of the Memorial Company. This documentary was shown in Chicago on January, 11, 2002.

The open air pattern has been revived in Tralibane, This takes place in September each year and is attended by crowds of musicians, singers and dancers.

At last Francis O’Neill of Tralibane, after whom a hotel. The Chief O’Neill, in Smithfield in Dublin and pubs and restaurants in Chicago are named, and whose music is being played a truly deserved and fitting tribute in his native place.

Courtesy of the Southern Star