Francis O’Neill: The Chicago Police Chief Who Saved Irish Music

Francis O’Neill (1848-1936) is often one of the first people mentioned in the history of Irish culture and music. This is due to the immense contribution he made to preserving traditional tunes just as they were fading from popular memory— a contribution that resonates to this day. Go into a music shop in the English-speaking world and you may find fresh copies of O’Neill’s 1001 Tunes. Despite this, very little is known about the extraordinary life of the man who assembled this Bible of Irish music. 

His family, in rural West Cork, was a musical one. Francis played Irish flute from a young age and kept a love for music throughout his varied and eventful life. At sixteen and dissatisfied with his lot, Francis abruptly left home. He was only to properly return in his fifties as a retired and celebrated Chicago Chief of Police. He had many adventures as a sailor in his early days, including visiting places as diverse as Egypt, Russia, Mexico and Japan. He also saw the American cities of Honolulu, San Francisco and New York. His time as a sailor included surviving a shipwreck and near starvation on a remote tropical island in the Pacific. By twenty, he had circumnavigated the globe and watched the nineteenth century world move from the Age of Sail to the Age of Steam. 

Sailing was only his first occupation. Settling on America in his early twenties, he held many different jobs: herding sheep in the mountains of California; working on the canals in Philadelphia; teaching and later school superintendent in Missouri. Around 1870, he settled in Chicago with his new wife Anna Rogers. She was originally from County Clare. Their timing was unlucky as they joined many immigrants looking for work just as the city was visited by catastrophe: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

He struggled in those early years working as a packer in the cruel conditions of the stockyards—conditions immortalized by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. Tragedy visited the young O’Neill family when they lost several young children to sickness. Eventually, in 1873, he received a break when hired as an officer in the burgeoning police force of the booming city. However, he was only a month “travelling beat” when shot by a criminal he still managed to arrest. He carried the bullet lodged next to his spine for the rest of his life.  

He worked his way up through the force in Chicago’s predominantly Irish neighborhood of Bridgetown. It was here he began cultivating musical friendships and collecting Irish music. He was the first to realize that the flood of Irish immigrants to the great metropolis presented a unique opportunity to preserve the tradition he loved. These immigrants brought little with them to the booming American city but their music and culture. He could walk down any Bridgetown street and encounter natives of every county in Ireland. 

As his career progressed, Francis made a name for himself as an honest police officer in a city plagued by corruption. He scored the highest on the civil service exam of anyone at that time. This brought him to the attention of Police Headquarters in City Hall and he was soon elevated to Chief Clerk. Nevertheless, there were occasions where he would sometimes bend the rules. A significant number of fine Irish musicians found themselves in the employ of the Chicago Metropolitan Police Force. 

In 1901, Mayor Carter Harrison II appointed Francis O’Neill Chief Superintendent of Police, a position he held for four years. This was a very long tenure in a role often mired in political turmoil. Francis was the first Chief Superintendent in Chicago history to be reappointed three times. His time as Chief was a busy one and included hosting Theodore Roosevelt as well as over-seeing keeping the peace during two great strikes: the Chicago City Railway Strike and the Teamsters Strike. At the same time, he published his first book: O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, Eighteen Hundred and Fifteen Melodies in 1903. 

He was to follow this first book of tunes with several more over the next couple of decades. However, this musical and professional success was tarnished by terrible personal loss. In 1904, his only son Rogers died at eighteen from spiral meningitis. Rogers was an excellent musician and a fine student. His loss struck Francis so much that he swore to Anna he would never play music in their house again. He retired from the force and buried Rogers in the family mausoleum in Chicago’s Mount Olivet cemetery a year later. Altogether, Anna and Francis had four children survive out of ten. 

Francis O’Neill had a long and fruitful retirement, publishing several collections of Irish tunes along with learned academic works on the topic. The most enduring of these is The Dance Music of Ireland, O’Neill’s 1001. Any time you hear an Irish melody in a movie or TV show, there is a very good chance it was first recorded in this book. Initially there was critical disdain at a self-educated Irish-American Police Chief creating such a legacy. However, there was no denying the depth and breadth of his scholarship along with the fact that nobody else had attempted anything on the same scale. Subsequent generations of Irish musicians, to this day, openly admit their debt and gratitude to the man who saved Irish music.