If The Sea Were Ink

Engraving from Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature

Francis O’Neill loved books all his life. In his autobiography, he finishes his story of life at sea and as a police chief by lovingly describing favourite books in his collection— a somewhat anti-climatic end to his memoirs! It must have been quite the sight to see a tall seasoned police sergeant take a break from pursuing Chicago’s criminals to slip out to secondhand bookshops on his lunch-hour. At the end of his life, he generously donated his extensive collection of books to the University of Notre Dame.

One book he mentions is Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature: A beautiful work full of engravings of strange creatures that he loved from a young age. He notes that it was “reluctantly left behind when I left the old O’Neill farmstead early in my seventeenth year, to challenge fate” [p. 160 Chief O’Neill’s Sketchy Recollection of a an Eventful Life in Chicago].

Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village is particularly stirring in relation to O’Neill’s life story. Although purportedly about rural emigration from England to America, it is likely as much a reference to the changes Goldsmith witnessed growing up in rural Ireland. One can imagine later generations of Irish like Francis O’Neill reading this poem (also in his collection) and finding resonance to the history of the famine in lines like:

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green:



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