Traditional Irish music has a long, rich history of being handed down orally from one generation to the next. In this letter we will introduce the man responsible for making sure it was written down and published for future generations to enjoy. The music of Chief O’Neill.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week! As I write, I can hear the Autumn winds giving the trees their first real shake of the season. An “Indian” summer may be ahead of us, but there is no sight of it at the moment! How is the weather behaving in your own part of the world today? I’m on to my second cup of Lyon’s tea as I write – and I do hope you will join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into today’s letter.
Do you have the surname O’Neill in your family tree? Or maybe it’s a variant – such as O’Neal, MacNeill, Nihil or even Nelson?
The ancient Irish given name, Niall (sometimes pronounced Nile or Neel) – comes from the Irish for “warrior”. As you might imagine, that was a very desirable first name back in the day for a boy – and as a result, many families across Ireland had a Niall in their midst by the 400s.
When surnames came to prominence in Ireland about the 900s, we followed a system where a surname derived from an illustrious ancestor – by calling the descendants in a family “O” (descendants of) or “Mac” (sons of). As you might imagine, this resulted in a number of distinct O’Neill and MacNeill families springing up in separate parts of Ireland. We have the famous O’Neill clan of Ulster – but there are also unrelated O’Neill families in Counties Clare, Waterford, Carlow, Cork and Kerry – to name just a few. How about you? Do you have an O’Neill or MacNeill – which county did they come from?
Daniel Francis “Frank” O’Neill was born in 1848 in the townland of Tralibane, near enough to Bantry town in County Cork. He had the good luck to be born into a musical family – his parents were accomplished musicians and often hosted fellow musicians and sessions in their house.
From a young age, Frank was exposed to this music through the partition in his bedroom as he drifted off to sleep – a memory that stayed with him right into his older age. As he grew, it seemed natural that he would develop a skill at both the flute and pipes himself. Like many musicians of the time, he had to rely on his ear to learn a tune – and never developed an ability to read and notate music himself.
By the age of sixteen, he was on his way to Cork city where he joined an English merchant ship as cabin boy – eventually arriving in the city of Chicago where he married a lady by the name of Anna Rogers. They settled down and he eventually became a police officer at the age of twenty five. One of the attractions in Chicago, for Frank, was the high number of musicians arriving from Ireland and Scotland every month. He played with them, they exchanged tunes and brought together music from the four corners of Ireland into one great city.
Frank O’Neill quickly moved up the ranks in the Chicago police force, and eventually topped out as the Chief of Police in 1901 – a position which he held until his retirement in 1905. By that time he had set about publishing his collection of Irish dance tunes into a set of volumes – starting off with “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland” which contained an astonishing 1,800 pieces of music. His biographer, Nicholas Carolan, felt that O’Neill was “the greatest individual influence on the evolution of Irish traditional music in the twentieth century”.
Indeed, it’s hard to guess just what a state Irish music would be in today, if it were not for the musical and organisation talent of this one individual – and the opportunity and resources that the City of Chicago provided to him over the decades. So, thank you Chicago!
Today, a full-life statue of Chief O’Neill stands beside his home place – with the man himself in full flight on the flute. Carina and myself will head there later today to catch a very special event. There is now an annual Chief O’Neill music festival held in Bantry town – but on the Sunday we head out to his homeplace in Traliban. There, some wonderful musicians will set up and we’ll have some storytelling as well as dancing at the crossroads.
You can see Timmy McCarthy (in full Chief O’Neill regalia), informing and entertaining the crowd at last year’s event:
Maybe we’ll see you there one of these days – and we’ll have a dance or two at the crossroads?
That’s it for today – as always, do leave your comments below and share any questions or stories you might have yourself.
We’ll see you next week!
Slán, Mike and Carina
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