Born in into a family steeped in the traditions of Irish music (his grandfather kept an open house for itinerant musicians, and his mother and father both had a large repertoire of songs) in Tralibane, West Cork, Ireland on August 28, 1848, Francis O'Neill tried his hand as a sailor, shepherd, teacher, and finally as a policeman, becoming Chief Superintendent of Police in Chicago from 1901 to 1905; but he is best known, and most fondly remembered, for his contribution to the preservation of the cultural heritage of his homeland, in the form of his collection of Irish dance music, jigs, slip jigs, reels, hornpipes, set dances and works by O'Carolan, that he edited and published in two separate volumes: The Music of Ireland, in 1903, and its sequel The Dance Music of Ireland, in 1907, in print to this day as a single volume: O'Neill's Music of Ireland, which is still the standard work in the field.

After distinguishing himself at school, and perhaps disturbed at the prospect of a career in the priesthood, he fled to sea in 1865, working his passage to Sunderland (in North East England) and becoming a cabin boy on a ship voyaging, via the Mediterranean, the Daradanelles, and the Black Sea, to its destination in Odessa.

In 1866 he sailed from Liverpool, England, on the Emerald Isle, a packet ship bound for New York. During the five week voyage, he met Anna Rogers, whom he was to marry after meeting her again in Missouri, several years later.

Pursuing his nautical career in New York, he sailed on the Minnehaha to Japan, but on the return voyage was shipwrecked on Baker's Island, and, on being rescued by the Zoe, a brig bound for Hawaii, he found that his troubles were not over: rations were short on the rescuing ship, which had a chiefly Kanaka crew. According to his 1910 book Irish Folk Music, in which he recounts his adventures as a musicological collector, he was able to make an advantage out of his abilities on the flute in his struggle to survive:

"Rations were necessarily limited, almost to starvation," he wrote. "One of the Kanakas had a fine flute, 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. As in the case of the Arkansas traveller, there was nothing too good for me. My dusky brother musician cheerfully shared his "poi" and canned salmon with me thereafter."
On arrival in Hawaii, O'Neill was one of only three of the rescued castaways who were not immediately hospitalised. "It can be seen," he wrote, "how the trivial circumstance of a little musical skill exercised such an important influence on my future career."

He made one more sea voyage as a sailor, and then spent a little time as a shepherd, before passing a teachers' examination in Missouri and teaching there during the winter of 1869, after which he moved to Chicago, briefly resuming his sailor's career on the calmer waters of the Great Lakes and also working as a labourer in the rail freight house.

He joined the police force in Chicago in July 1873, and, after a shooting incident a few months later (he carried an unextractable bullet, lodged near his spine, with him for the rest of his life) he was promoted in recognition of his heroism. A distinguished career followed, and he was made Chief of Police in 1901.

Prior to O'Neill's epic musicological efforts there was really no substantial printed record of Irish dance music. Works such as those of Edward Bunting (General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music, 1796, which unfortunately often transposed into keys and added notes that were unavailable on traditionally tuned harps) and George Petrie (whose works were collected and edited by Sir Charles Stanford and printed posthumously as The Complete Collection of Irish Music as Noted by George Petrie, during 1902-1905) had focused entirely on traditional songs and airs and slow tunes, omitting entirely the vast corpus of livelier dance music.

O'Neill had collected many tunes, at first for his own amusement - he was an accomplished amateur flautist - which he had remembered from his childhood and picked up during his various careers, especially through his contacts with the many traditional Irish musicians in Chicago, not a few of which were also serving as police officers, sometimes by the gift of O'Neill himself, who is said to have found positions for several travelling Irish musicians on the force, thus allowing them the means of residence in Chicago. As his first collection was met with wild approval, he continued his efforts, eventually publishing in the region of 2,000 tunes. He was not himself a reader of music, and employed his junior in the force, Sgt James O'Neill, as a transcriber. Miles Krassen's introduction to my copy of O'Neill's Music of Ireland describes the process as follows:

The two would get together with a particular musician who would play a tune they desired. James O'Neill would then attempt to reproduce it on paper. He, being also trained as a violinist, would then play back what he had written. The musician's comments would then be solicited until the musician was (ideally) satisfied with James O'Neill's transcription.
The method was not without its problems, not least, perhaps, because of the 'uneven' character of many Irish musicians, their antipathy to the rigours of a strict formal approach, and their creative unwillingness to simply regurgitate the same material note for note, over many repeated performances. Krassen hints at this in his relaying of a meeting between the famous piper Patsy Touhey and fiddler John McFadden:
it seems that on this particular occasion Touhey wanted to learn a tune from McFadden. He had McFadden play it for him several times and then tried his own hand at it. Of course McFadden had to play it again, pointing out several "errors." This happened a number of times until Touhey finally gave up, for McFadden was playing the tune a little differently each time through!
Another difficulty was that, since the music itself had not evolved as a written form, it was often impossible to exactly reproduce it on paper - idiosyncratically timed grace notes and ornamentation and the subtle nuances of intonation employed mean that, for an authentic rendition, the musician hoping to benefit from the written form should at best treat it as a mnemonic, a guideline, and must ultimately avail herself of the authentic living tradition which is the true repository of the canon.

It's O'Neill's participation in this tradition, and his own sheer love of the music, that have made his written legacy the essential printed work for those seeking to join it.


Sources:

http://www.irishmusicweb.ie/texts/o-neill.html
and Miles Krassen's introduction to O'Neill's Music of Ireland Oak Publications, 1976 (ISBN 0.8256.0173.8).

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