Chief O'Neill's pub on Elston is practically an Irish shrine. Look up and you'll see ceiling tiles painted with Celtic knots. Behind the bar eight of the ten beers on tap are Irish. Bottles of Jameson Irish whiskey rest upside down on classic glass optic dispensers, popular in Irish pubs because they assure an honest pour. Proprietors Brendan and Siobhan McKinney have gathered an abundance of antique Irish bric-a-brac, much of it hunted down by Siobhan's family, who still live in County Cork. There are glass cases throughout the pub displaying maps, books, a police uniform, and countless old musical instruments. Brendan's grandfather's fiddle hangs above one of the doorways. But the stage in the back room--where local and touring Irish musicians perform every week--is the real focal point.
The McKinneys speak warmly of Francis O'Neill, Chicago's chief of police at the turn of the 19th century. Not that they're particularly taken by his work on the police force during Prohibition or the stockyard strike of 1904. It's his contribution toward keeping Irish music alive that's made them fans. The great famine of the mid-1800s all but devastated O'Neill's west Cork town of Tralibane, a region where traditional Irish music, song, and dance had roots. But despite the ravages of illness and economic depression, his grandfather maintained an open house for traveling musicians, and his entire family of nine kept their spirits elevated by keeping a home full of music. O'Neill played the wooden flute and sang.
He traveled the world, settling in Chicago in 1871, where he worked at a few odd jobs and then landed on the police force in 1873. By 1901 he was chief of police, overseeing 3,300 officers--2,000 of whom were Irish, including some of the best pipers and whistle blowers in town. In that same year he founded the Irish Music Club of Chicago. The Irish diaspora of the late 1800s had threatened the extinction of Irish music, not a lick of which had ever been transcribed to paper. The rich ballads and folk songs were passed on orally and then only within families or among small communities. The Irish Music Club was O'Neill's attempt to preserve and promote traditional Irish music in the United States. He collected over 2,000 tunes in manuscript form, many of which were published in 1903 as O'Neill's Music of Ireland, then the largest collection of Irish music ever printed. "We're proud to pay homage to him," says Brendan.
The McKinneys are acclaimed musicians--they've both won the All-Ireland Fleadh, the most prestigious Irish music competition. Siobhan plays wooden flute and tin whistle and Brendan plays uilleann pipes, Highland bagpipes, wooden flute, and whistle. They met at the Milwaukee Irish Festival and were married in 1993. They've played the Chicago circuit for years at places like the Abbey Pub and Tommy Nevin's. Although they still run McKinney Associates Insurance Agency during the day, the pub is the realization of their longtime dream. "We wanted to be the only place in town that featured exclusively traditional Irish music seven nights a week," says Brendan. Right now, the music is limited to about four days--concerts on Friday and Saturday nights and jam sessions Tuesday evenings and Sunday afternoons--but they plan to schedule more shows this spring, especially after their 200-seat outdoor patio opens in early summer.
O'Neill's has an impressive menu of traditional Irish fare that's prepared and served by an all-Irish crew. It may even succeed in dispelling the common perception of Irish food as greasy and bland. Starters include Harp-battered onion strips and Erin curried chips--thick-cut fries slathered in a spicy curry sauce that Brendan calls "the only thing to eat at 4 AM when you roll out of an Irish pub." The Galway Bay mussels are perfectly tender and moist, steamed in a broth of white wine, garlic, and parsley then splashed with cream. The salmon cakes could rival those in a trendy Wicker Park place--two plump, moist cakes without any filler come served on a bed of mesclun lettuce with a nicely balanced whole-grain mustard sauce. Two soups are offered at lunch: a moderately creamy potato-leek and a cheddar cheese variety with a Guinness stout base and a crouton covered with melted cheese floating on top. The brown bread, earthy whole wheat slices with a hint of molasses, that accompanies the dishes is also imported from Ireland.
Of course fish-and-chips is on the menu, but O'Neill's version uses North Atlantic cod dipped in a Harp batter then deep-fried in very hot oil, which renders it surprisingly greaseless. It comes with crunchy homemade red cabbage slaw. There are also bangers and mash--grilled imported Irish sausages served with sauteed onions and champ (mashed potatoes)--and an impressive side of sauteed broccoli and carrots kissed with garlic. Seamus' Blue Ribbon Stew (named after Brendan's dad) consists of slow-cooked, tender chunks of lamb in a hearty stew of potatoes, carrots, leeks, and parsnips.
On Sundays the place gets packed with people drawn in by the traditional Irish breakfast. Plates overflow with bangers, slices of black and white pudding, rashers (bacon), and eggs cooked any style. Any available plate space is filled with the classic garnishes of grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, and baked beans. While breakfast is available any day of the week, "Sunday is a real family day," says Brendan. "It's like Chuck E. Cheese with Guinness." Patrons linger through the afternoon when, from 3 to 6, any Irish musician is welcome to join in the open music session. There's no cover charge to listen; all you have to do is sit back and digest.
Chief O'Neill's is at 3471 N. Elston, 773-583-3066.
Trocadero Bistro and Bar at 1750 N. Clark closed its doors on Saturday, May 13.
Saussy, an eclectic American eatery, opened May 9 in the former Savannah space at 1156 W. Grand with former Pepper Lounge chef Jephanie Foster at the helm.
Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith have opened the Hearty Boys, a gourmet to-go shop and cafe at 3404 N. Halsted. --Laura Levy Shatkin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.