Captain O’Neill was the General Superintendent of Police in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. He preferred the title Captain, to Chief or Superintendent, which perhaps give us some insight into the man. By any measure he led an exciting life. He was born in County Cork and there he learned to play the flute. At the age of sixteen, he was given a letter of introduction to the local bishop. His family sent him off to a life as a priest but he had a change of mind and ran away to sea.
He circumnavigated the globe and was later shipwrecked in the Pacific. He was rescued and landed in San Francisco. He did some ranching in Montana before going to Chicago by way of New Orleans and Missouri. In Missouri, he married a young lady, Anna Rogers, whom he had met when she was an outbound passenger on one of his voyages from Ireland. He and his wife moved to Chicago in 1870, shortly before the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. He came to Chicago to work as a sailor on the ore boats that cruised the Great Lakes.
Fate intervened and the Captain ended up as a patrolman on the Chicago Police force. He was on the force less than a month when he was shot by a burglar. He carried the bullet, lodged near his spine, till his death. Even though he was wounded in the shoot-out he still managed to arrest the felon and bring him into the station. Not a small feat when you consider that patrolmen in those days walked their beat.
During his thirty-two years on the force, and after his retirement in 1905, O’Neill devoted much of his private life to his intense passion for the traditional music of his native Ireland a tradition that was in danger of extinction due to the effects of the Great Famine and the subsequent Irish Diaspora. Realizing this tragic possibility, the Chief developed an extraordinary network of musicians both in Chicago and Ireland, and often found jobs on the force for the best pipers. He read every book he could find about Irish music, and had standing orders with booksellers in America, Britain, and Ireland for relevant publications. With the help of many devoted collaborators, O’Neill collected over 2,000 tunes in manuscript, which would result in several published works. The most famous of which was the 1903 publication of O’ Neill’s Music of Ireland. Containing 1,850 melodies, it was the largest collection of Irish music ever printed. The Captain’s papers and reference materials are archived at the University Of Notre Dame.
Chief Francis O’Neill died on January 26, 1936, but the musical tradition that he revived lives on forever in his hometown Chicago, in his native Ireland, and in Irish communities all over the world. To celebrate his life and the music of his people, your hosts All-Ireland musicians Brendan & Siobhan McKinney invite you to enjoy our good food , thoughtful wine selections and proper pints, the loveliest airs & reels, and all the other good craic here at Chief O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant.
A message from Chief O’Neill:
Check out the WGN interview with the cast and musicians of a show I’m in called Music Mad! Show runs Sundays at 4:00 pm at Chief O’Neill’s. Come check us out! -Chief