Unpublished Letters of Francis O’Neill

Patrick O'Leary

Richie Piggott has done it again! Richie is a friend of mine and the author of the wonderful Cry of a People Gone, an authoritative history of Irish music in Chicago. Through his research and contacts, he has come into possession of previously unreleased letters from Francis O’Neill to Patrick O’Leary. Transcripts of the letters can be read on Richie’s site: https://www.richiepiggott.com/o-neill-letters.html

The correspondence is between O’Neill and Patrick O’Leary, a fiddler from Cavan who emigrated to Australia as a young man. The tone of the letters reflects their shared experiences and interests, despite being at other ends of what was a much bigger world, in those days. Francis has a section about O’Leary in his book Irish Minstrels and Musicians, where he notes:

among the “Exiles of Erin” at the Antipodes no one is more persistent, potent, and practical, than Patrick O’Leary of Eastwood, Parkside, Adelaide, South Australia.

Francis O’Neill – IrisH Minstrels and Musicians

I was especially interested in reading these letters as they begin in 1906, after the final events of my novel of his life. Particularly poignant is Francis’s description of “great grief and privation” around the loss of his son Rogers, something he didn’t express as much publicly as I have described here.

The rest of the letters are a fascinating glimpse into the thinking of O’Neill in his retirement. For example, he reveals a wry humour about the poor sales of his books. However, most outstanding is his disillusion at the state of Irish music in America and Ireland. It is unfortunate that he could not see into the future and the restoration of the tradition he was so passionate about.

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