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Ethnic City: Ireland's cultural savior



"I regard Emma Goldman as one of the most dangerous apostles of anarchy in America," Captain Francis O'Neill was saying. "She is a persuasive, almost magnetic, talker, and Czolgosz, who admitted having heard her speak, was no doubt influenced and inspired to do something out of the ordinary in order to be regarded as a hero by his fellow anarchists. Seeking the opportunity, he found it, and shocked the world by the assassination of President McKinley."

The year was 1902, the place Louisville, Kentucky, the subject "anarchy and anarchists." The audience was the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the superintendent of police in Chicago was speaking. O'Neill recalled the Haymarket massacre of 1886, was pleased to report that the three "instigators" of that unhappy event who escaped the gallows and were later pardoned "no longer indulge in incendiary talk," and informed his peers that "in Chicago we have not above a half dozen of the rabid type of anarchists known as 'men of action.'"

As a police chief O'Neill was a man of his time, if a cut above. Born in County Cork, an adventurer who survived a shipwreck in the Pacific before settling in Chicago, O'Neill is dimly remembered as an honest cop with a humane grasp of what drove some men to crime. As he conceded in Louisville, reflecting on the baleful influences of Proudhon, Marx, and Bakunin, "The peasantry and laboring classes had been oppressed for centuries, and when they began to learn their power from the reading of tracts and books written by men of undoubted genius, they became fired with a hatred toward the rich and the form of government under which they lived."

O'Neill understood oppression. He was Irish. And while he gave the police force 32 years, he dedicated his life to undoing the damage done to Irish culture by English occupiers. "England," he would write in 1903, "recognized in the Irish bards a hindrance and an enemy to her dominion....The social changes resulting from war and confiscation of property were fraught with sad effects to the bards, who shared in the fallen fortunes of their chieftains and patrons." Suppressed not merely by the English but also by the Irish clergy, including the parish priest of O'Neill's hometown, Irish music and dance had gone into a sorry decline--worse there than here. He would comment in a letter, "Time and again have I been disgusted by the tittering and mockery of Irish audiences when a piper strikes up a merry tune and this disconcerting conduct comes not from the American born but from the Irish born mainly."

But O'Neill refused to let the music vanish. Himself a piper, O'Neill seeded the Chicago police force with Irish musicians--in particular a sergeant from County Down adept at transcription--and recorded thousands of Celtic tunes, most of which caught his ear here in Chicago. From 1903 to 1924 he published the best of them in a series of books that include O'Neill's Music of Ireland, The Dance Music of Ireland, and O'Neill's Irish Music for Piano or Violin. These books kept Irish music alive until the day when it would return to fashion.

This year a short biography was published in Ireland with the title A Harvest Saved: Francis O'Neill and Irish Music in Chicago. The author, Nicholas Carolan, identifies O'Neill as an "outstanding figure of the Irish diaspora [who] has had through his publications the greatest single personal influence on the course of Irish traditional dance music in this century."

In 1901 prominent Irish musicians gathered in a Chicago home to honor O'Neill. That celebration will be re-created Sunday night at the Petrillo band shell in Grant Park. The "Francis O'Neill House Party" at 5 PM is a highlight of the first Celtic Fest Chicago, held in Grant Park from 11 AM to 9:30 PM Saturday and Sunday. The festival, which is free, features Celtic musicians from Ireland, Brittany, Galicia, Canada, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and the U.S. Fiona Richie, producer and host of The Thistle & Shamrock, will emcee. Call 312-744-3370.

--Michael Miner

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Francis O'Neil photo.

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