James O’Neill

Sergeant James O’Neill


A talented musician, from Northern Ireland originally, James O’Neill (no relation) was a friend of Francis’s who became his most valuable accomplice in music collecting. In his book Irish Traditional Music: A Fascinating Hobby, Francis describes him as:

Quiet and unassuming in manner, his fine musical talent was unsuspected by his neighbors, and it was only by diligent inquiry that his address was learned. When found, he was all that our mutual friend Cant represented him to be, and much more, for his versatility in reducing to musical notation the playing, whistling, singing and humming of others, was truly phenomenal. None from the North Country possessed such a store of Ulster melodies as he, and it was chiefly because of his skill and unselfishness that the initial step in our joint work was undertaken.

Elsewhere, Francis notes that James also played in the Chicago Symphony. Reading between the lines, I believe James had a skill for transcribing music that Francis lacked. Without this, Francis might not have been able to complete the great compendium of tunes. Indeed, a scan through O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, reveals many tunes credited as “collected by J.O’Neill”. To Francis’s credit, James’s name is on the title page right after his own. There is also evidence that Francis got James his first position on the Chicago police force (as he did for a number of other fellow musicians). 

I imagine the two of them like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, musical detectives poring over the mysteries of this tune or that tune. Indeed, my novel opens with just such as scene.

For a deeper look at the life of James O’Neill, have a look at The Scribe by Caoimhin Mac Aoidh and published by Drumlin Press.

Today, many tunes in O’Neill’s famous collections are often misattributed to Francis but actually gathered by James O’Neill. One popular tune, a favourite of mine, is The Blackbird. James contributed no less than 3 variations of this tune. Of course, the tune can be dated back much farther but it gained popularity by its inclusion in the collection. Here is a sample of the great Joe Cooley playing the Blackbird in California in the 1970s. See https://joecooleytapes.org/ for more.

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