Around 1:30 in the morning on May 24, Barry Cunnane was walking down West Leland on the way to a Ravenswood bar when he and a friend passed two men on the sidewalk. One of the men whirled around and said "What's up?" and shot Cunnane in the head. Cunnane died that afternoon at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center as his parents arrived at O'Hare. Cunnane and his killer do not appear ever to have met, there was no apparent motive, and the crime is still unsolved.
Cunnane was 27 and had moved to Chicago from his native Dublin in 1997. He had a day job in marketing at the American Medical Association, but the aspiring actor and musician also performed with the Saint Sebastian Players and often played guitar at the Wise Fools Pub. In June the local chapter of the Sligo Association, an Irish social organization, got in touch with some of Cunnane's friends offering to do something to help (Cunnane's mother was originally from County Sligo). "They were very supportive," says Cunnane's friend Mike O'Malley, the chair of the Justice for Barry committee that was formed as a result. "They came to the wake and funeral, then started talking about putting on a fund-raiser, which is their traditional response to people in need."
Cunnane's friend M., who doesn't want his name used because he was with him that night, says that although Cunnane wasn't particularly active in Chicago's close-knit Irish-American community, many local organizations were eager to help. "A lot of people in the Irish community, who didn't even know him, were like 'this poor fellow.' They do a lot of fund-raisers--they have this whole network in place. So we met with the police, and they were very positive about it. We asked if they were worried it would generate a lot of false leads, and they just said, 'Don't worry about that--that's our job.'"
The committee has been meeting almost every week in different bars, many of which have already donated money toward a reward for information leading to the arrest of Cunnane's killer. A friend from the AMA who's married to a cop who plays with the Emerald Society pipe and drum corps persuaded some of the members to perform. ("I'm not sure how many," says M. "Probably just a few or else it would be really, really loud.")
M. and Cunnane both took guitar lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music, so M. also asked their sometime teacher Eric Johnson if he would perform at the benefit. Johnson--formerly a member of I Rowboat and Califone--and his girlfriend, Gillian Lisee, currently lead the rambling, poetic Fruit Bats, whose second album, Mouthfuls, came out on Sub Pop in April.
"We wanted to draw people who really represent Barry in a way," says M. "Eric understood that their name is a draw, and we need that, to get a different audience to mix in with all the Irish groups--the kind of music Barry liked and played."
Johnson had taught Cunnane in his Eccentrics of Rock class at the Old Town School. "People who took that class I remember," says Johnson, "because we really kind of connected in that class. And he would come to Fruit Bats shows--he saw us play a bunch of times, I think almost all of them. [M.] had been in those classes, and he got in touch with us on tour when it happened and told us what had happened, so I said, 'If there's anything we can do.'"
The Justice for Barry Cunnane benefit starts at 3 PM Sunday, October 5, at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox. In addition to Johnson and Lisee, who'll play an acoustic set, and the pipe and drum corps, the contemporary Irish-American band Dalriada will play; there'll also be a raffle and a cash bar. Proceeds from the raffle and the door will go into the reward fund. The suggested donation is up to the individual, says O'Malley, but he thinks that "what people would normally pay to see the Fruit Bats" is fine as a minimum. For more information call 773-677-1479 or see www.goodegg.net/barry.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.