From Tralibane to far-flung shores: The musical efforts of Chief O’Neill

Posted on: 9th March, 2015

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.

Save for the summer months, during which time the Fleadh Cheoil, as well as summer schools and festivals across the country, monopolise the calendars of Irish traditional musicians, no other time of year draws demand for Irish music such as that of St. Patrick’s Day. However, the sets that fill the air during sessions this season might sound quite different if it weren’t for the preservation efforts of one Irish-expatriate, musician, and cultural revivalist, originally from the townland of Tralibane, in the Parish of Caheragh near Bantry.

Born in 1847 at the height of one of the darkest periods in Ireland’s history, Francis O’Neill would eventually become one of the guiding, yet often overlooked, lights in bringing about a resurgence in traditional culture in the decades following the Famine. Despite the hardships that plagued the island in his formative years, the young O’Neill was immersed in the rich musical tradition of his native area from an early age. The youngest of five sons and two daughters born to John and Catherine ‘Kit’ O’Neill, Francis later described the house in which he had been raised as an ‘Irish traditional atmosphere’. He recalled that his parents often sang melodies in both Irish and English while going about their daily routines and neighbourhood musicians regularly called over for a social song or dance. During his mother’s upbringing in her native Drimoleague, her father had established a reputation for keeping an ‘open house’ for travelling musicians. This ever-rotating cast of different performers, all with their own unique repertoire of songs and stories to present to their receptive hosts, had an indelible effect upon the young Catherine who years later, relayed many of the songs back to her own children.

After leaving home at the age of 16, O’Neill embarked on a journey rivalling that of the mythical Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. After procuring passage by boat to Sunderland in northern England, he signed on as a cabin boy on an English vessel. In the years that followed, the young Corkman would travel to ports in Egypt, Russia, the West Indies, Mexico, South America, the United States, Hawaii, and Japan. In one particularly harrowing incident, O’Neill and his crewmates were shipwrecked on Baker’s Island in the middle of the Pacific. After nearly succumbing to starvation on the small coral island, the crew was rescued by a passing ship, and brought to Honolulu, and later San Francisco. As a result, O’Neill became one of the nearly half a million Irish immigrants to enter the United States in the 1860s. After a brief stretch as a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, he returned for another brief stint at sea, sailing around Cape Horn en route to New York harbour. With that journey, O’Neill had completed the feat of a global circumnavigation before his twenty-first birthday. Having satisfied his appetite for sea travel, he made his way to the Midwestern United States, first to Missouri, and then to Chicago where he eventually settled.

In 1873, O’Neill began a career as a member of the Chicago Police force. His intellect, bravery, and practicality allowed him to quickly rise through the ranks, and by 1901, he was named General Superintendent. Of the 3,300 men under his command, 2,000 of them were said to have been Irish, a fact that led some to humorously remark that O’Neill had recruited his countrymen to the city’s ranks in an effort to bolster the resources for his undying passion of Irish music. One such officer who had entered the force during the 1870s was another Irishman with the same surname but no relation, James O’Neill, a County Down native who was reared in Belfast. Together, the two O’Neills undertook a vast personal project to document the rich sounds and stories that surrounded them in the émigré music community of their adopted city. Unlike their contemporaries in Ireland, their location within a bustling city that contained musicians from all thirty-two counties in close proximity to one another provided them with a unique opportunity to collect a wealth of material that reflected the many diverse regional musical traditions of their homeland. Beginning with the melodies from his youth in West Cork, Francis would play tunes from memory, which were then recorded by James, who was musically literate. The two officers’ homes quickly became havens for fellow musicians, eager to become involved in the project. Regarding one such recording session, O’Neill noted, “on a recent occasion, to the astonishment and delight of a score of Irish musicians who prided themselves on their comprehensive knowledge of their country’s music, a violinist who left his native valley over forty years ago played dozens of excellent tunes, then heard for the first time by his audience. And this was but one of many instances.”

Reflecting the oral tradition in which their work was rooted, the collected tunes often underwent variations to serve for gaps in the participants’ memories. To make them more easily accessible to others, the O’Neills and their collaborators invented song titles where none existed, pieced together fragments of tunes into a single piece, and composed new segments of songs to fill gaps. However, their revivalist efforts were not relegated strictly to the world of music. Seen within the wider context of the Gaelic revival of the period, Francis, a keen supporter of the Gaelic League from its founding in the 1890s, arranged for the translation of thousands of song titles into Irish for publication. Additionally, he played a major role in welcoming League president, and future president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde to Chicago in 1905, and served as a key member on the planning committee for a widely hailed Gaelic League Feis, that was held in Chicago’s Comiskey Park baseball stadium in 1913. Amongst the many fruits of his labours were the releases of the widely acclaimed source books for performers, ‘O’Neill’s music of Ireland’ (1903), and ‘The dance music of Ireland: 1,001 gems’ (1907). Although O’Neill would release a number of other publications, it was the latter which became a valued resource among traditional musicians in the years to come, many of whom came to refer to it as ‘the book’, or ‘the thousand and one’.

Today, O’Neill’s works remain popular with a readership spanning a range equal to that of his youthful travels. Through the various songs and titles, enthusiasts are offered a glimpse into both the Ireland which, years after their departures, remained enshrined in the minds of O’Neill and his associates, and the sounds and scenes of their adopted Chicago. As you enjoy the many songs of the season, take a moment to appreciate the efforts of the man from Tralibane.

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