What Would the Chief Think?

O'Neill's Wax Cylinder Recordings
O’Neill’s Wax Cylinder Recordings

Francis O’Neill’s story is that of an amateur musician that took his passion to great heights when many had lost faith in the music of the “Old Country”.

How many foreign visitors to Ireland today are shocked to find pubs only playing Garth Brooks? Irish music is global now. You find it in unexpected places and don’t find it in expected places. It is played by those who love it and want to keep its communal spirit alive. The practice and tradition is sustained by Youtube and sites like TheSession.org or SlowPlayers.org. This is part of O’Neill’s legacy. As mentioned before, he often embraced new technology: such as making some of the earliest recordings of Irish music on Edison wax cylinders.

Eddie at SlowPlayers.org summarizes the Chief’s contribution as follows:

He is sometimes said to have started the first American revival of traditional music, yanking it back from the “stage Irish” of vaudevillians — some even say that he’s “The Police Chief who saved Irish music“! 


In his later years, despite all his publications and success, O’Neill himself was disillusioned with the state of Irish traditional music in America and Ireland. In a 1918 letter, he wrote:

As you very truly remarked, I was music mad but the fever has subsided considerably. In fact I’m cured. Now I’m only angry, disgusted and pessimistic. The Irish have frittered away their artistic heritage, and in this generation have come to be regarded by the world at large as nonentities in the arts for which they were most distinguished in the days of Giraldus Cambrensis and centuries earlier


What would Francis O’Neill make of this phenomenon of a thriving traditional music scene existing thanks to digital technology? Would he consider it inauthentic and reject it or would he embrace the new? I’m inclined to think he would approve. After all, he did all his collecting of traditional tunes thousands of miles away from the source.

As an example of his legacy, here are the incredible 70’s Trad phenomenon The Bothy Band playing a tune O’Neill collected and named after his sister-in-law, Julia Delaney:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.