an investigation of Francis O’Neill’s fascinating hobby

Rounding up the the Tunes

An investigation of Francis O’Neill’s fascinating hobby
an investigation of Francis O’Neill’s fascinating hobby
Episode Trailer

When flute player and Police Captain Francis O’Neill published his first and most extensive collection of Irish tunes in 1903, he included a LOT of tunes. Nicholas Carolan called it “the largest snapshot of this music ever taken in its 9,000 year history.” 120 years later, I revisit O’Neill’s two biggest books, to explore what’s in there, and what isn’t. With the help of authors Michael O’Malley and Ronan O’Driscoll, librarian Aedin Clements, and fiddle player/scholar Laura Flanagan, I attempt to deepen (and maybe even adjust) my perspective on this heavy piece of the Irish music foundation.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Gerry Corr, Jonathan Duvick, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, John Ploch, Brian Benscoter, Chris Murphy, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, David Vaughan, Suezen Brown, Paul DeCamp, Bob Suchor, Tom Frederick, Leslie Stack, Andrew Westphal, Roland Hebborn, Chris Armstrong, Ralf Wolfgarten, and James Falzone.

Episode 61: Rounding up the the Tunes
an investigation of Francis O’Neill’s fascinating hobby
This Irish Music Stories episode aired June 21, 2022

Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Michael O’Malley: Philadelphia born scholar who teaches history at George Mason University
>> Ronan O’Driscoll: Kerry-born, Halifax-based author of Chief O’Neill and Poor Farm
>> Aedin Clements: Irish Studies Librarian and Curator of Irish Collections at Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Libraries
>> Matt Heaton: Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player 
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Laura Flanagan: Texas born fiddler who’s pursuing a musicology PhD at Texas Tech

>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music and the bigger stories behind it…

[ Tune: “Belles of Tipperary” (aka the New Policeman), from Musical Journey

Artist: Cormac Breatnach ]

…like how broad strokes can set a scene. And how a portrait can start a conversation.

But of course the person who paints the scene is the one choosing what to highlight, and what to omit. 

Back in 1903, flute player and police captain Francis O’Neill published his first and most extensive collection of Irish tunes: 1,850 melodies, all in one book. Four years later he published a follow up with 1,001 melodies, which included a tune called The New Policeman, and another called the Belles of Tipperary. Nowadays these titles refer to this melody, played here by Cormac Breatnach.

[ Music swells ]

Names and versions of tunes continue to evolve since O’Neill offered his presentation of instrumental dance music of Ireland, which he collected in multicultural Chicago.

Michael O’Malley’s new book The Beat Cop is all about that collecting process.

>> Mike: He’s very selective about tunes he won’t accept. That kind of ruthlessness about what’s Irish or not, it’s partly the community he finds himself in. He’s in this international Anglo-Irish elite.

>> Shannon: Mike teaches history at George Mason University in Virginia, and his specialty is the civil war to world war I, the Chief O’neill era. Mike’s new book examines early 20th century police practice, the idea of authenticity, and it also features a lot of juicy chronological backstory about O’Neill’s life. 

Ronan O’Driscoll’s book Chief O’Neill is also heavy in colorful chronology—and just a touch of poetic license. It’s a novelization of O’Neill’s life written by a guy who now lives in Halifax, but who grew up in County Kerry.

[ Music: “Viva Cariad,” from Llinyn Arian

Artists/Compsers: Angharad Jenkins & Delyth Jenkins ]

Ronan launched the book Chief O’Neill in July 2021 in Bantry, close to his own childhood home, and right near Trailbane in County Cork, where O’Neill grew up.

>> Ronan: A lot of people know about his book of tunes, but they don’t know this history of his life, you know? So that’s what was the impetus to writing the novel was to try and convey this story. 

>> Shannon: There are no stories written in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland. And only just a little bit of text in his 1907 follow up, Dance Music of Ireland. But there are a lot of pages—pages and pages of melodies that he collected, with the help of James O’Neill and others, while he was on the police force in Chicago. 

Now there were Irish music collections prior to O’Neill’s. But archivist, writer, and fiddle player Nicholas Carolan called O’Neill’s work “the largest snapshot of this music ever taken in its 9,000 year history.” And it’s the music collecting that’s the centerpiece of Ronan’s book.

>> Ronan: if you just open it up, there’s not a word in there, apart from the titles. Right? And that’s the fascinating thing about it. I think it was a 19th century idea, you this kind of a building encyclopedias. But there was no context, right? I think he tried to rectify it with the later books.

[ Music: “Grupai Ceol Theme,” from  Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Yeah, there is more context in O’Neill Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby, and in Irish Minstrels and Musicians: The Story of Irish Music. And we learn more about O’Neill’s thoughts in his posthumous autobiography edited by his great grand daughter Mary Lesch.

But it’s those early tune collections that have shaped Irish music the most. Almost 120 years later, we’re still referring to those books. We’re still playing a lot of those tunes. We are still talking and writing books about Captain Francis O’Neill in 2022.

>> Aedin: In fact, every time you think the last word has been said on O’Neill, somebody raises a new issue. It seems like he was just a larger than life person. And so much of what he did has, um, it’s kind of got resonance. And his status as a police captain and later chief of police, it just casts an interesting light on that.

That’s Aedin Clements. She’s the Irish studies librarian at Notre Dame, where O’Neill’s own personal collection is stored.

>> Aedin: We have some very good Irish collections. But the most questions I get are on the O’Neill collection. And that never ceases to amaze me, because Chicago people have heard of him, Irish people have heard of him, musicians have heard of him. It’s just amazing. 

[ Music: “Chicago Reel,” from “Celtic Roots: Spirit Of Dance”

Artist: John Whelan (with Patrick Ourceau on fiddle) ]

With Aedin’s help. and with conversations with Mike O’Malley, Ronan O’Driscoll, and Laura Flanagan, I’ll revisit O’Neill’s two biggest books. And perhaps I’ll deepen (and maybe even adjust) my perspective on this piece of the Irish music foundation.

[ Shannon drops the book ]

>> Shannon: Oops. This book is heavy. And I’ve gotten it off the shelf many, many, many times. And I’ve dropped it more than once. Don’t worry. My copies are reprints. And my feet are okay.

So the 1903 book, O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, is the bigger one. It’s got this Celtic knot work design that Francis O’Neill was so proud of. And it says on the cover: 1850 Melodies, collected from all available sources.

Francis O’Neill’s follow up collection, which a lot of people call “The Book” or “The Bible” has a mere 1,001 tunes. The Chicago Reel is in there, pretty much the way John Whelan and Patrick Ourceau are playing it here.

[ Music: “Celtic Grooves,” from  Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ] 

For both books, Francis had assistance in the field from James O’Neill (no relation). James had emigrated to Chicago from Belfast (originally from County Down). And the two of them met over tunes—Francis on flute, James on fiddle. When Francis learned how facile James was with music notation, he enlisted him to help transcribe tunes. 

Now, O’Neill’s books have not taught me Irish music. I’ve learned to play from friends, mentors, and recordings. But I’ve always referred to O’Neill’s — more so before the internet age. But even now, it’s cool to see if and how the old chestnuts appear in his books. It’s like holding history in my hands.

And based on how I see a melody in O’Neill’s, I might adjust the way I approach that tune today. But without prior exposure to Irish music, these little 16 bar transcriptions wouldn’t give me much guidance on how the tunes are actually played. 

Mike O’Malley is a seasoned musician. And he can read notation fluently. But when he opened up O’Neill’s, he was a bit mystified.

>> Mike: It was almost incomprehensible because I didn’t understand where these rhythms, how they were supposed to be deployed. It wasn’t very legible—unless you were in the tradition and knew the tradition. 

>> Shannon: Right. It’s not a fake book. It’s a reference book. If I knew nothing about Irish music, and just read through tune 1244, it might sound like this:

[Shannon reads through four bars and laughs]

But I do play Irish music, so I can translate O’Neill’s notational shorthand and adjust for personal taste.

[Shannon plays the first four bars again]

I also know that a lot of us call this tune the Steampacket, even though O’Neill calls it by another name, The Mount In Lark. Whatever it’s called, if I weren’t busy making this podcast, I’d play the tune a few more times around. And each time I’d follow little twists and turns, based on my mood. Or based on how much or how little I feel like breathing. 

And I’d play it differently still if I were playing it with a friend. 

[ Shannon plays the tune another few times ]

I wouldn’t get any of that from reading.

>> Mike: It only works in a relationship with living practitioners. I think that’s right.

>> Ronan: To be honest the book I use, quote unquote, is the Or you know, that app, TunePal.

>> Shannon: Yeah. And why would you put a preference, um, for say the or TunePal over O’Neill’s?

>> Ronan: We’re in this internet age now, right? Where you have all this information ready to hand. But it is one of the kind of source documents for all that stuff, right? I do think he was kind of a pioneer in that regard, right? Like he made an internet of Irish tunes and put ’em on paper, if you like. So, yeah!

[ Music: “G Meditation,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: O’Neill’s books are, indeed, a central source for modern apps and tools, even without the stylistic guidance. But there seems to be an appetite for indicating ornamentation, and articulation, and sample variations.

In 1976, banjo player Miles Krassen put out what he called a “revised” edition of some of O’Neill’s tunes with some fiddle bowing ideas. And Miles also adjusted key signatures to better represent the modal tunes.

And piper Brendan Breathnach put out three volumes of Ceol Rince na hÉireann. Not related to the O’Neill books, but still with this idea of transcribing performances of various tunes to show how different players incorporate melodic variation.

But really, even if you notate all that stuff, it’s still not gonna sound Irish by reading transcriptions. Like… it’s not like you go to play a tune and think “I have to roll here, or I’m going to cut here.” I mean, you might approach things a little bit more systematically, a little bit more this way if you’re trying to teach someone how to play a tune. 

And Brendan Breathnach understood this. He wrote about that very thing in iss lovely little book Folk Music and Dances of Ireland. He wrote, “the performer playing a tune or singing a song is not conscious of these ‘rules’, just as when we speak we are not conscious of the rules of punctuation or of the spelling of the words we are using. Punctuation and spelling are devices for the eye: music and speech are subjects for the ear.”

Using his ear—and the ear and hand of James O’Neill—Francis O’Neill captured just one version of each tune.

[ Music: “After Hours Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Mike: When he would be collecting, he would have to get a standard version of a tune. And presumably he’s collecting it from somebody who just does not care one bit about a standard version of the tune. And he’ll play it how he pleases as he pleases. And O’Neill says no, no. Play it again the same way <laugh>. And then play it again the same way so I can memorize it. 

And O’Neill had a good ear. He knew what was well played and what wasn’t. He had a very discerning ear. And so he knew what was good. And he would try to make that person play it the same way over it. So he could come up with the version that was gonna be the final version.  It’s an artistically violent act.

>> Shannon: Well, like many other tune collections, O’Neill was after just one basic, square transcription. I suppose he wanted to keep the size of the collection manageable, otherwise I would have broken my foot by now. I don’t really think these tune transcriptions were intended to replace the practice of real-life music making, or in-person learning. Like many other modern tunes books, he was trying to make an orderly index of tunes, for reference.

Which was made even trickier by the fact that players don’t always have names—or the same names—for the tunes. We still don’t. So O’Neill did a lot of cross referencing of printed sources to try to track music and names down. In the process he probably got tunes from those earlier collectors like Edward Bunting, who notated Irish harpists in 1792; and O’Farrell, who Collected pipe tunes in 1804; and George Petrie and Patrick Weston Joyce who focused on sung melodies in the early 1900s.

The late great Belfast writer Ciaran Carson—also a flute player—wrote about O’Neill in his book Last Night’s Fun (which I talked about in Episode 48). Carson called O’Neill “immensely more equipped than the likes of the academically respectable Petrie, Joyce, and Bunting, whose classical training and antiquarian bent led them to ‘arrange’ the music to conform to conventional European tonalities and harmonies.”

Carson went on to explain how O’Neill wasn’t using music literacy, instead he was using a “phenomenal musical memory. He came to the music as a traditional musician. He didn’t impose a foreign character on it, since he was a native.”

O’Neill also got tunes from William Bradbury Ryan’s Mammoth Collection published in Boston in 1882.

>> Mike: He gets more than 200 tunes from Ryan’s. And sometimes he modifies them. And he often renames them to give them a more Irish sounding name. But he also had things that came from other manuscripts. Sometimes he knew it and didn’t say it. Sometimes he didn’t know it. Because he’s only gonna know that it’s in a manuscript if he has the manuscript. And these manuscripts are rare and hard to come by.

[ Music: “Fisherman’s Lilt,” from The Wheels of the World. Early Irish-American Music. Classic Recordings from the 1920s and 1930s. Vol. 2. ]

Artist: James Morrison (fiddle) ]

He’s not aware, in his writing, of the great records that come out of America, starting in the 20’s. You know, the Sligo fiddlers, McKenna. He’s not aware of those. He doesn’t write about them. And those people—I don’t think Morrison or Coleman had learned tunes from O’Neill. 

>> Shannon: As this 1928 recording demonstrates, there were definitely parallel tracks going on. Fiddle players James Morrison and Michael Coleman, and flute player John McKenna were putting tunes down on 78 RPM records in New York. Like this one here. Morrison called Fisherman’s Lilt. And there are a few tunes in O’Neill’s 1903 and 1907 collections that seem like versions of this same tune. The closest is probably Tune 555 in O’Neill’s 1001.

Without O’Neill there were certainly tunes being played and documented, and circulating around America, and making their way back to Ireland. But still, without O’Neill, a lot of music could have been lost. Right?

>> Mike: Would it have been lost? Some tunes certainly would’ve been. But …

Shannon: But on those recordings, if you put all of those tunes together, I mean, what is it? Like 300, 400 tunes maybe? That’s no 1, 850. And even if he got 170 or 200 from the Ryan’s Mammoth collection, and even if he incorporated stuff from the Bunting collection, there’s still 1,850 in here. And they’re all in one place

>> Mike: I mean, there’s no doubt it’s a magnificent accomplishment. The scale of it is really big.

[ Music: “Awakening,” from Raven

Artists: John Williams & Dean Magraw ] 

>> Shannon: Like Mike said, the scale of it was really big. Especially at that pre-internet, pre-modern filing system point in history. There was a lot of information. And as Ronan pointed out, there were a lot of people from all parts of Ireland. 

>> Ronan: O’Neill argued that he would have a better ability to kind of document these different regional, all these tunes from different parts of Ireland in Chicago, because there were so many people who had migrated over there. And he didn’t have the resources to, or many people didn’t to go around, you know, Ireland itself at the time and try and do that. 

It’s an interesting argument. I think it kind of justifies itself because he was over there. But I think there’s something to it, too.

[ Music: “The Gypsy Queen,” from Raven

Artists: John Williams & Dean Magraw ] 

>> Shannon: There’s something to pooling resources. And compiling a community’s knowledge. Thanks to my guests for helping me pull a few thoughts together in one space, and for helping me continue to consider O’Neill’s tune collections.

And thanks to the support from listeners, to help me pull this podcast together. Before we talk about evocative tune titles, and before we hear O’Neill’s very own voice announcing one of his favorite performers, here’s my kid Nigel to recognize this month’s underwriters:

>> Nigel: Thank you to Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Gerry Corr, Jonathan Duvick, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, John Ploch, Brian Benscoter, Chris Murphy, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, David Vaughan, Suezen Brown, Paul DeCamp, Bob Suchor, Tom Frederick, Leslie Stack, Andrew Westphal, Roland Hebborn, Chris Armstrong, Ralf Wolfgarten, and James Falzone.

>> Shannon: Thanks a lot everybody. And thanks to John Williams and Dean Magraw for this really lovely version of the Gypsy Princess. John lives in Chicago. And that’s where O’Neill settled.

[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

As a musician and as a cop, O’Neill was well poised to capture tunes. Wearing his folkie flute player hat and his policeman’s peaked cap, Francis, with James O’Neill’s considerable assistance rounded up tunes that he suspected conveyed a coherent picture of old Ireland.

>> Mike: I think you could say that without, um, condemning him necessarily just that his work was complicated. And the work of a collector is kind of a colonial enterprise. He’s surveying the territory, mapping out where the resources are, collecting them, codifying them, purifying them in some cases. And if you think of him, he’s like a colonial administrator.

>> Shannon: Interesting theory. Interesting way of looking at it…

>> Mike: I think that tunes belong to a village, or a family, or a heritage. And he’s kind of breaking that. He’s breaking that community. He’s alienating the tunes from that particular way of knowing and having,

Shannon: Because he’s presenting them in this disembodied collection, that’s all mixed together?

>> Mike: Right. I think one of the things that comes out of thinking about O’Neill’s collection is thinking about where the spirit of music lives. Does it live in the practice of people doing it? In communities that do it? Or does it live in Clare? You know, Clare is always the big dog when, when this comes up. And from a Donegal family, I simmer with resentment <laugh>

Shannon: Oh, I’d say there’s a long standing tradition in Donegal as well. 

>> Shannon: Many Irish tunes have multiple names. And many tune titles include names of towns in Donegal, and Clare, and Sligo, and other storied music counties: the Humours of Castlefin, the Humours of Ennistymon, the Famous Ballymote.

And there are tunes that refer to the landscape of Ireland: Cliffs of Moher, the Green Cottage, the Cottage in the Grove, the Mountain Top.

O’Neill renamed a lot of tunes to evoke rural Ireland, to give his collection more consistency, to give it a green sheen. 

This is still a fascination—even a selling point—with Irish music. There are charismatic performers today who are revered not only for their music, but for the way they weave nostalgiac stories about rural Ireland into their sets. And this gives a sense of place and ‘Irishness,’ no matter where people are playing or hearing the tunes.

As my friend Josh Shank noted, so much of Irish music looks on Ireland from afar—like the land itself is the legend. That’s definitely the image that one of O’Neill’s favorite musicians, Patsy Touhey spent his life promoting. Touhey arrived in Boston at the age of three (that’s where he first learned to play the pipes). And he lived the next 85 years in the States. But he remained steadfast and proud of his homeland, Mother Ireland. 

Eventually O’Neill got into promoting musicians that he thought people should be hearing—people like Touhey, and fiddle player Eddie Cronin (who contributed a lot of tunes to O’Neill’s collections), and James McFadden, and other musicians he admired.

>> Ronan: He did pioneer things like these Edison wax cylinders. And they’re only like a minute or two long. But you can hear his voice at the start. He kind of barks out the title of the tune and the person playing it. And then you have a minute or so of Patsy Touhey or whoever. Eddie Cronin and people like that.

>> Shannon: So you’ve got this great scene in the book where captain Francis O’Neill and his wife, Anna are listening to a wax cylinder recording that O’Neill had just made. I loved reading the scene. I think it really paints a snapshot of this wild time in history when people are like hearing recorded music for the first time. I just think that’s there must have been a wonderment. 

>> Ronan: Exactly. Yeah. 

>> Shannon: And on the recording, you hear O’Neill say the Shaskeen Reel, played by Patsy Touhey… 

>> Ronan: Yeah. 

>> Shannon:  I was wondering if you, would you read a little bit of that section?

>> Ronan: I’d love to.

>> Francis O’Neill (via archival recording): “‘The Shaskeen reel’, played by Patsy Touhey.”

>> Ronan [reading]: “Francis marveled at the sound of his own voice coming back to him from the trumpet of the Edison cylinder phonograph.  Anna, sitting on the other side of the machine, gasped with delighted surprise. 

[ Music: “The Shaskeen,” from Ward Archives

Artist: Patsy Touhey ]

This was the first one he had recorded. Patsy and himself had been half-afraid of the thing, spoiling two of the fragile wax cylinders as they tried to understand it. He resumed turning the handle, and the stylus picked its way again along the wax cylinder. Touhey’s intricate playing filled the library. The possibilities of the device had impressed him back in the World Fair over ten years ago but only now could he afford it. 

“I can’t believe it, Frank,” said Anna, after the tune finished. “It’s like Patsy’s here in the room playing for us.” 

“Quite the thing, isn’t it? I’m making recordings of all the best players in town: Barney, Mac, Early. Eddie Cronin too, of course.” 

“Better not do it with all of them together,” she said with a knowing smile. “Another fight might break out.” 

Anna got up from the table. I think I’ll go check on Rogers, she said. He said his fever was getting worse. Francis only nodded back lost in concentration categorizing the next cylinder.

[ Music – “Tralibane bridge,” from IMS Studio

Artist: Shannon Heaton ]

>> Aedin: When I show students the collection and I talk about him, I always have to mention the fact (because we take our health— until the pandemic, we took our health for granted) that three of his children died in one day. That to me is just heartbreaking. And that was part of life at that time.

>> Shannon: Yeah. A lot of dimensions to his story, for sure. And fascinating that what we know as Irish studies today continues to be shaped by O’Neill’s collection. 

>> Shannon: By O’Neill’s collection that Aedin Clements oversees today at the Hesberg Library at Notre Dame.

>> Aedin: I find it interesting that a man in the 1880s/1890s was  working with these books, collecting these books. And also gathering with, you know, the Chicago Pipers and other musicians. 

[ Music: “Swallow’s Tail,” from The Francis O’Neill Cylinders

Artist: James McFadden ]

>> Shannon: And then he handed over this extensive and very personal collection to a library… in Indiana.

>> Shannon: How curious. O’Neill, based in Chicago, right—University of Chicago is right there. And yet the collection comes to Notre Dame. 

>> Aedin: He wrote a letter to the to the university at the time. And he said that after much consideration he had thought that the University of Notre Dame would be the very best place for people who are interested to have access to his books. His idea was that these books would be available for people to come and borrow and use. And he makes some comment about some more academic musicians, not wanting the ordinary people to have access to their books. So he really wanted them to get around. 

His book collection, he had an inventory. And he had divided his inventory. And the two main sections were music and what he called Hiberniana. 

[ Music: “Grupai Ceol Memories,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

And the Hiberniana collection — it’s a fabulous collection of Irish history books from the 18th and 19th centuries. So he wasn’t just collecting books that were published in his time. He was actually collecting antiquarian books.

 One of the interesting things about his books is there are little pencil markings through many of the pages. It might be just a little X or a little check mark on the top of the page, but sometimes he mentions a different name for the tune. Or a comment on, you know, that this is a good marching tune or something. And this is of great interest, you can imagine, to musicians who visit and want to see the collection.

>> Shannon: Well, yeah. And it really shows that he was using these. And interacting with these collections as a musician.

>> Aedin: Yeah. And there are books that are not music books. Like there’s a collection of magazines, a periodical that came out of New York called An Gael, it was a bilingual magazine. He had them bound himself—and this is something he did with other books, too, having them bound, but having some spare copy book pages bound in at the back, and then an index. And anywhere there’s any mention of musicians or tunes in An Gael, he has it marked. So he didn’t just collect books. He used them.

>> Shannon: Wow. That’s a really great hack. Haha. So what do you think his aim was with this collection?

>> Aedin: I think he probably just wanted to encourage musicians and encourage their interest. But as well as that, encourage and interest in Ireland and Irish history.

[ Music: “Blackbird & Poll Halfpenny,” from Lovers Well

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton with Dan Gurney ]

>> Shannon: O’Neill built this collection—his monument to Ireland— while enduring tragedy at home. And while serving and protecting neighborhoods…. in Chicago

>> Laura: There’s a book called Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. And it is this whole idea that the nationalism is this imagined construct, right? Tradition is itself imagined. 

>> Shannon: I was speaking with fiddle player Laura Flanagan in Texas. And right before we spoke, I’d heard Mike Meyers on the Smartless podcast saying “There’s nobody more Canadian than a Canadian who no longer lives in Canada. You get super Canadian when you come down here.”

Maybe O’Neill—like Patsy Touhey—got super Irish when he came to the States?

>> Laura: You know, one of the things about Irish music is that, for me, this gray area between holding onto that tradition and what we think it is, and allowing it to be a living tradition, right? And trying to control the way that the music changes over time. If we view O’Neill through that perspective as being part of a living tradition, the music wasn’t the same after him, where he touched it. It’s not the same after any of us, when we touch it.

>> Mike: It’s possible to critique his motives. And it’s possible to critique the work that that collection does in the context of a living tradition, but the magnitude of what he accomplished is stands the test of time. Like any human endeavor it’s complicated and mixed. And the effects it has are interesting. 

He himself was increasingly alienated from the Irish music community as he rose in the ranks, as he grew more prosperous, and as he gained more political authority. And he felt that. Keenly. 

I think every year that he succeeded in America, he left Ireland behind. He’s in this dirty, smoky, stinky, violent industrial city that is also totally great. It’s both those things. And it’s so far from Ireland. And the more he succeeds, the more he’s a prosperous man of business, and the more he’s got the esteem of the capitalist, the more he’s thinking about the Ireland he left behind. 

And he can’t quite embrace the actual people, you know, of Ireland. Because they’re the criminals. They’re the poor. They’re the people he has to police. He can’t quite get his hands dirty that way. And he’s pretty clear in his writing about that. So I think the tune collecting was a way of keeping in touch with what he’d lost. Reinventing what he’d lost. 

>> Shannon: Reinventing what he’d lost. Processing what he’d lost. What he’d lost from leaving Ireland, from losing six of his ten children, and becoming more distanced from the community that supported him in his early years in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood.

>> Mike: His warmest writing is for the community of Bridgeport right after the fire when he’s starting in life. And the other guys are helping him build his house, and there’s a lot of mutuality in the working poor. 

[ Music: “Belle of the South Shore,” from Blue Skies Above

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton with Sam Amidon

And they’re generous, and they’re donating, they’re exchanging favors. And he loves that mutuality. He loves it. You know, a Swede builds his stairs. Another guy builds his chimney. He gets lumber at a discount. All those things. And then when he becomes a landlord, he’s taken out that community. And he has to assume a different relationship to it.  And he never gets over that sense of loss either. I don’t think. And I think Irish music was partly replacing that.

Ronan: When you’re in a different country, there’s a feeling of exile, right? I think it was a way  to kind of connect to home and to keep that alive, right? So for me, for example, I didn’t get into Irish music until I was in Chicago. And, you know, I was a teenager and kind of missing home and things like that. And it was a connection to home.

Built in to Irish music is this kind of immigrant story, I think. And, um, he’s such an epitome of it. But the fact that he made such an effort to preserve it is really, I think, interesting. 

>> Shannon: In Ronan’s novel, “Chief O’Neill,” we get a portrait of Daniel Francis O’Neill: from his childhood in County Cork where he played music with his family; through his sailing years; to his early days in America, and his rise in the police ranks, and his music collecting. Ronan drew his details from existing printed sources and from O’Neill’s old notebooks that his great granddaughter had kept. It’s well researched. And it’s a novel: there are cinematic cut-backs and poetic license to throw us right into this tumultuous era of emigration, when thousands were leaving Ireland. And using, losing, or reinventing language and tunes and memories outside of Ireland.

>> Ronan: This is why I was attracted to his story. There were some parallels—nothing as heroic and, and exciting .

>> Shannon: O’Neill came from Tralibane, just outside the harbor town of Bantry in West Cork.

Ronan grew up in the next county over.

>> Ronan: I grew up in Tralee in County Kerry. And then when I was 12, my dad’s job, we went to Chicago. So we immigrated to Chicago, and I went to high school there. That’s how I found out about Chief O’Neill of course. But I was of the generation that, I suppose, was able to come back. So I went  to university,  To UCD. 

Shannon:  So unlike O’Neill, you’ve gone back and forth and not just one trip back over.

>> Ronan: Yes, that’s right. Yeah. 

>> Shannon: O’Neill left Ireland not because he was starving, but because he felt trapped at home. He didn’t want to stay on the family farm to work, he didn’t want to become a priest. So he split. And he ended up working on ships, sailing to England, Egypt, Portugal, Japan. His ship wrecked between Hawaii and Australia (he actually swam to shore with the ship’s monkey on his head).

>> Mike: He’s just an itinerant sailor. He’s just roaming freely across the globe. He has no attachments. Um, but he gets married. He moves to Chicago. He’s married at this point and he has to earn a living. He tries packing houses, and he tries freight warehouses, he works on the great lakes. And his advancement is blocked at every stage he finds. 

>> Shannon: When O’Neill got to the States in 1866, he encountered people from all over. He was in New York. Everybody was living in close quarters and just trying to get by. And through the struggles there was a lot of culture mingling. 

[ Music: “Mountain Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

People were congregating and playing music together: sailors blended dance and music they knew from Ireland with the traditions of people they encountered on their travels. Irish and African American dancers challenged one another—some dancing, others improvising rhythms and whistling tunes. There were vaudeville and minstrel performers adapting Irish music with new sounds. And flute and fiddle players were gathering to share common tunes together.

These were just a few of the dynamic, living ways that music from Ireland and other nations were continuing in the States. When he first arrived in New York and then in Missouri, O’Neill seemed amused by the company Irish music was keeping.

>> Mike: One of the most interesting times in his life, he lives in Edina, Missouri in 1870. And that’s pretty close to the frontier. I mean, this is the wild west era. He’s not in the wild west, but he’s not that far. And he’s living in a log cabin teaching school. But he talks about barn dances, weekly barn dances. And the community there is about one third Irish, and then it’s French and German and American. And there’re gonna be a lot of African Americans there too. And those dances, the music, he says, it was, they were joyful. There was no strain. 

What’s interesting in his account is none of them have trouble dancing to the other people’s music. He doesn’t say, oh, then the Irish people stopped, because the Germans got up, you know. Or the Germans walked out when the Irish started. There’s a folk tradition of rhythmic music played on melody instruments that they can all speak, I guess.

[ Music: “Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig),” from Genuine Negro Jig

Artist: Carolina Chocolate Drops ]

And there’s African Americans playing tunes. And you know, the term jig dancing was used in the United States to mean any kind of dancing where the feet were making rhythmic action. And it’s used all the time, “Jig dancing.” And it’s really clear that Black people and Irish people would do dance offs, contests on the waterfront. It’s well documented where they would sort of square off and try to out dance each other. Is that Irish music? 

>> Shannon: Is this Irish music? This is a tune called “Genuine Negro Jig,” otherwise known as Snowden’s, after the family that wrote it. This is the Carolina Chocolate Drops performing it in 2010; but the two fiddle players who came up with it were part of The Snowden Family Band who  farmed and performed all over Ohio, starting around 1850. 

>> Shannon: So jig dancing, though: those steps and the tunes maybe that went along with them, or the way that the tunes were played, this was invented in America. Wasn’t O’Neill’s idea to come up with stuff that came from Ireland?

>> Mike: He was a little bit torn between loving the expressive music of folk culture and then wanting it to be purely Irish. 

His fondness for Ireland develops when he’s far from it. And when he’s actually achieved a great deal of success in America, then he becomes nostalgic about Ireland. 

[ Music: “G Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Later in his, later in his life, I think he opens up a little more to, you know, Scottish English, Irish, African American, popular music and dance tradition as it’s expressed in the United States. He opens up a little bit more to it, I think later in his life.

>> Shannon: So O’Neill’s musical palette did open back up. Surely all the days at sea, and his time in New York, and Missouri informed that. Well, right after Edina Missouri, he reunited with and married Anna Rogers.

>> Ronan: They had a relationship early on. But because of the times they got disconnected. And a few years later he ended up in the Midwest. He kind of went out looking for her, I think. And they got married. And then he went to Chicago, uh, around 1871 just before, like literally a month or two before the great fire. Which if you’ve any connection to Chicago, everyone knows about the great fire. It’s still a major part of the lore of the history, all of the city. 

>> Shannon: And it was in Chicago, O’Neill became increasingly invested in remembering, preserving, and defining Irish dance music. 

[ Music: “Ode to the Irish,” from Hidden Treasures: Irish Music In Chicago

Artist: Brendan McKinney with The Michael Reilly Orchestra ]

>> Ronan: A lot of trials and tribulations, he finally became a police officer and worked his way up through the ranks, eventually to become chief of police. 

>> Mike: It’s not clear exactly when he starts collecting. But he does talk about the cops playing music in the station house, and dancing at the station house. You know, there is a community of police who play music. But there’s definitely a connection between his work as a cop and his work as a collector. As he rises in the police, he’s in more and more of a managerial position. And I think it dawns on him that he’s got all of Ireland sort of at his command. There are cops from every county. 

>> Ronan: He would even employ people onto the police force who were musicians. He would give him a job, because there was a lot of Irish immigrants in Chicago. And he would say, you know, would you like a job? And by the way, can you gimme all your tunes? <laugh> 

>> Mike: The collecting itself, I think, if you read what he wrote about it, it’s an interesting combination of very fond reminiscences that are very warm. And then moments where he’s using the authority of the badge. And suddenly this guy in a uniform comes in and says play me some tunes. And play it again, because I wanna write it down. I wanna take that tune.

>> Shannon: Hmmm… so asking someone to play a tune on repeat so that he and James O’Neill could write it down. Hopefully he said please? Or maybe he brought over some cookies?

[ Music: “Heartstrings Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Maybe it can be a tricky thing to gather these tunes. And then find a way to book ‘em. Here’s my husband Matt.

>> Matt: If you’re trying to write things down, there’s no perfect way to do it. I mean, you can be too simple and give this very skeletal thing with no context. Or you could get too complicated, and then it’s unreadable, and inaccessible and no one will use it. So it is pretty hard..  it’s a hard task to write down aural tradition music, I suppose.

O’Neill did a great thing. Like, whether or not he saved all these tunes, he definitely made it much, much easier on us to if nothing else get an approximate age. I mean,  if it’s in O’Neill’s you know it’ s at least 120 years old.

>> Laura: You’re talking about somebody who was not an academic.

>> Shannon: Says Laura Flanagan who is involved in academia.

>> Laura: And yes, he clearly had an editorial hand. But loved the music and was collecting it in every way that he possibly could. This was during the beginning of the 20th century. And there was this huge movement—in lots of different ways, not just in Irish traditional music—towards preservationism. Like there was this fear of losing a tradition. You see that in the collections of people like John Lomax and Alan Lomax. You know, Edmond Curtis was doing it with his photography. And all of them can be problematized, in terms of both exploitation and appropriation. And this idea that something’s gonna disappear. 

I think O’Neill is interesting because you’re talking about somebody who was Irish who was collecting this music. And who was a player. And he had a huge love for the music. He did value these manuscripts. But he also valued the oral tradition of it. And getting tunes from all of these different people. And he felt like he had to reconcile the fact that he had all of these different versions of the tunes without putting down like five different versions of the same tune.

>> Mike: He’s inspired by the Columbian exposition. This is the huge World’s Fair of 1893. And there are two fake Irish villages. And they have turf fires and comely maidens weaving, and thatched cottages, and reproduction castles at three quarter size. And I think he saw Ireland differently. Because as a kid, he never went more than a few miles from Bantry. But now he’s seeing, oh, Donegal castle. I never heard of that in Ireland, but that’s a thing. That’s an Irish thing. That’s what we do. Or Blarney Castle. 

[ Music: “The Donegal Traveller,” from Classic Recordings Of Irish Traditional Fiddle Music

Artist: Hugh Gillespie ]

>> Shannon: So maybe O’Neill was enchanted by these medieval castles—the Blarney Castle and Donegal Castle. But he also recognized that Irish music isn’t all some ancient construct. In 1907 he wrote:

“Without questioning the wisdom or erudition of those who, animated no doubt by newly kindled patriotic fervor, will tolerate nothing in Irish music but that which they conceive to be ancient and traditional…..  it may be well to inquire how far we are justified in claiming any considerable antiquity for Irish dances and dance music.”

>> Mike: He also is inspired by Douglas Hyde and the vision of the Gaelic league. So Hyde is Anglo, Irish, um, kind of an upper class guy, sort of a minister. And very interested in the revival of Irish language, and Irish tradition, and Irish dance, and Irish sports. And he’s really committed, because he was trying to unite Ireland around Irish culture. And it would include the Protestants and the Catholics. It was a vision of pan Irishness. 

And O’Neill’s very taken by that, because it’s respectable, and it’s not explicitly political. And if you revive the culture, then maybe, you know, nationalism will stem from revived culture, rather than politics first and then culture.  

>> Shannon: Without editors, arbiters, and presenters—without people inspired and motivated to compile and organize and document—life would look a lot different.

[ Music: “Midnight Sojourn Intro,” from Heaton Living Room

Artist: Matt Heaton ]

If O’Neill and Douglas Hyde, and the other Gaelic League and Celtic Revival leaders (like Yeats) hadn’t had these visions of a national music and culture… If they hadn’t imagined and rendered Ireland in tunes and tales…. and if they hadn’t sent it all back to Ireland (where arts and people were fading), would stuff have been lost? Forgotten? 

[ Music: “My Love is in America,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

When O’Neill visited Ireland in 1906, almost 40 years after he’d left it, he thought Ireland was turning away from Irish music. In a 1911 letter to his friend William Halpin, he wrote “Few of our people care a snap for Irish music. Time and again have I been disgusted by the tittering and mockery of Irish audiences when a piper strikes up a merry tune. And this disconcerting conduct comes not from the American born but from the Irish born mainly.”

If O’Neill hadn’t codified and preserved these tunes, would Irish music in Chicago have been absorbed or lost?

Would everything be less homogenized—in Ireland and in the U.S.? 

Would regional styles be more distinct? 

Like linguists who tried to merge (or ignore) dialects to make national languages, O’Neill imposed a kind of standard. And if he hadn’t done this, and if all those New York 78 recordings hadn’t made it back to Ireland, would Comhaltas have ended up forming in Ireland, and then hopping back across to America to impose standards on Stateside players?

Like… where would Irish music be today?

120 years after O’Neill published his Music of Ireland, people are still sharing these same tunes. Some nights they’re playing them at Cruise’s Pub in Ennis. Some nights at the Warrior Celt in Tokyo. Some nights at Brendan and Siobhan McKinney’s pub on Elston Avenue. (The McKinneys, both flute players, named their Chicago pub after Chief O’Neill. They shared their story in Episode 04 of Irish Music Stories.)

No matter where you find Irish music, there is more-or-less agreement of what constitutes traditional repertoire and style, shaped in large part by O’Neill’s collections. 

[ Music: “Maud Millar,” from Live Session from Session at the Druid, circa 2017
Artists: George Keith (fiddle), Tina Lech (fiddle), Shannon Heaton (flute) ]

Despite some awkward, heavy-handed, human processes and editing choices—choices that were informed by or blinded by early 20th century practices and conditions—O’Neill’s collections have connected many people with old tunes. And they continue to connect players with a past that we can engage with and learn from. 

And here I am, holding my copy of O’Neill’s, defending this old white guy, who may not have acknowledged his own privilege, or used it mindfully.

But I still appreciate and love O’Neill’s books. And I love thinking about what the tunes in there mean to players like me. And to players all around the globe. And I don’t think precludes continuing to define Irish music, what it looks and sounds like now, and how it relates to the nation of Ireland and a sense of culture and mythology for today’s diverse trad music community.

[ Music Viva Cariad reprise ]

Daniel Francis O’Neill left Ireland at 17. Carrying the music from his childhood and memories of home, he worked on ships, railways, schoolhouses, and slaughterhouses. While he built apartments using found materials; while he clawed his way on to the police force; while he had and lost children, he kept track of the tunes. Tunes that he knew, and the tunes he was hearing around Chicago.

By piecing together all of these tunes with James O’Neill—by documenting tune by tune by tune by tune—he promoted the music that had been a comfort for him since childhood in Cork. It was his link to Cork, and to the home that probably felt more distant, the longer he lived in Chicago.

[ Music: “Slip Jig Dreams,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: In your book, there’s an early scene with his wife—at that time, his future wife, Anna. And she says, you really are mad for the music. And he says, “especially when it’s music from home. But then, ‘Home’ isn’t home anymore.”

>> Ronan: Yes. Exactly.

>> Shannon: He understood sort of, uh, this need to preserve… it was a life preserver of his identity.

>> Ronan: You know, when you’re in a—especially a culture like America, which is a blend of all different cultures—there’s a tendency to want to preserve your identity. And some people go extreme in it. I think his way of doing it was a way of saying, look, here’s a type of music that is dying in Ireland. It was dying because of all the the history. It was still quite living in Chicago, although also dying because of popular influences and things like that. And he was starting to say, look, I’m gonna record all this, like as much as possible, try and preserve it. And then you can see the value of it.

>> Laura: He was publishing these books, and then he was giving them to people. That’s that’s the other thing: he wasn’t making money off of these publications. He was giving them away as much as selling them, right?

>> Mike: And it is a magnificent accomplishment. There’s no doubt about that. It took enormous amounts of energy and drive and discipline and focus.

>> Shannon: So what do you make of the O’Neill story? Like, um, you know, this guy comes…

>> Aedin: Comes to America

>> Shannon: He comes to America, and ends up, here I am. I’m going to preserve, um, my concept of what I think is Irish culture. With all of these people who’ve come from all parts of Ireland, here in Chicago.

>> Aedin: Um, I appreciate it very much. I’m sure his sort of his impulse was different to mine, for example. But as an immigrant in America, I was kind of shocked to the first time I walked to my child’s kindergarten to my child’s kindergarten classroom in March and saw all these, “I feel lucky because” pictures on the wall <laugh>. 

[ Music: “Irish Washerwoman,” from The Blue Dress

Artist: Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon: For our Irish listeners, brace yourselves. St Pat’s celebrations in the States—well, maybe of you already know this—but Paddy’s day over here can involve lucky pots of gold and green cartoon characters in tall hats. It’s an amazing way to celebrate Irish heritage and culture…  and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.

>> Aedin: Consequently, I always offer to go into classrooms for St. Patrick’s day. So I think we all want to sort of preserve and convey what is really Irish, to sort of fight the stereotype. I don’t know… in his time, the stereotype of Irish might not have been even cute <laugh>. So he would’ve been trying to maintain and show that Irish people had culture. That would probably have been important.

And I imagine that there was quite a number of people in Chicago who were trying to, you know, hold onto their Irish culture. And also you know, lead a good life in America. 

[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ] 

>> Ronan: I mean really, identity is a story we tell ourselves, you know. There’s this fictional side of it, too. There’s no doubt about it. But, it’s important. Where would we be without stories?

My thanks to Ronan O’Driscoll, Michael O’Malley, Aedin Clements, Laura Flanagan, and Matt Heaton for helping me build this collection of thoughts about O’Neill. Thank you, too, to Joshua Shanks for feedback and encouragement. Thank you, Matt, for the production music. Thank you Nigel for acknowledging our sponsors. And thanks again to the supportive listeners who have kicked in. Because of your thoughtfulness, this episode is available to everybody.

Donate and find videos and much more at

[ Music: “Newmarried Couple,” from Lovers Well

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Shannon Heaton


World-reared, Boston-based flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 

Michael O'Malley


Philadelphia born scholar who teaches history at George Mason University

Ronan O'Driscoll


Kerry-born, Halifax-based author of Chief O’Neill and Poor Farm

Irish Studies Librarian and Curator of Irish Collections at Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Libraries

Fiddler from Lubbock Texas, playing Irish traditional music and pursuing a musicology PhD at Texas Tech

Matt Heaton


Pennsylvania-born, Boston-based guitarist and bouzouki player who also plays music for families

The Heaton List