Méabh Ní Fhuartháin
University of Galway

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In the context of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American emigrant and social histories, O’Malley’s The Beat Cop: Chicago’s Chief O’Neill and the Creation of Irish Music is an important intervention. The grand claim of the subtitle (resonant with a previous monograph title in the general field, The Making of Irish Traditional Music by O’Shea) binds Francis O’Neill (1848-1936) to the genesis of Irish music as a modern, nationalized concept. That assertion is argued by O’Malley through an interpretation of the life and work of O’Neill, a figure that looms large in the practice and discourse of Irish traditional music. As “the consummate Irish music collector/author” (Dillane 66), O’Neill is remembered, refracted, and mythologized through his work of collecting and publishing Irish traditional music dance repertoire, to the extent that “he and his works have become musical monuments” (Dillane 66). Though there were several strings to O’Neill’s publications’ bow (Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913), Irish Folk Music a Fascinating Hobby (1910) and other tune collections among them), it is his 1907 compendium, The Dance Music of Ireland 1001 Gems, which garners and sustains most attention within the Irish traditional music community. Typically, O’Neill’s life is understood as the foil for 1001 Gems, rather than being the focus of critical attention. Well documented, O’Neill’s life story from his strong farmer origins in Tralibane, County Cork, to emigrant sailor, to labourer and finally, to superintendent of police in Chicago, is by any measure an extraordinary one, but it also reflects “a general pattern of Irish-American upward mobility, particularly for post-Famine immigrants” (Nicholsen 126). Carolan’s A Harvest Saved: Francis O’Neill and Irish Music in Chicago and a life story account largely based on O’Neill’s unpublished memoir (Skerrett and Lesch) are the key biographical texts available to date. However, expanding Aileen Dillane’s foundational work, The Beat Cop is the first lengthy study which explores O’Neill’s life and work not primarily from musical start and end points, but from the perspective of social and cultural history in Ireland and Chicago during the period.

What distinguishes O’Neill from many (though not all) earlier collectors is his insider cultural status, complicated as that may be by his position as chief of police in Chicago as he collected tunes from his emigrant community (Nicholsen). Taken with the fact that his ambitious works were published during his lifetime, O’Neill is singular. Prior to O’Neill, the work of the “trio of what may be styled the antiquarian school of Irish music” (Breathnach 111), Edward Bunting, George Petrie and Patrick Weston Joyce, approached the traditional music repertoire from an outsider perspective. James Goodman, also a musician-collector in the nineteenth century, occupied a particular positionality as he perched between cultural outsider and insider during his life, but is distinct from O’Neill as his substantial collection remained unpublished until the late-twentieth century. Traditional music scholar-priest Richard Henebry was a contemporary of O’Neill’s and a cultural insider but did not produce a tune collection. O’Neill’s publications therefore are among the earliest examples of a particular kind of collecting by a traditional musician and cultural insider considered “genuine and authentic” (7). In an Irish emigrant community in the United States, where musicians from Donegal to Kerry were sources, the nationalizing consequences of his work as a “particular expression of modernity as an organizing principle” redrew the map of traditional music knowledge “distribution” and created an Irish music framework of understanding (Dillane 65).

Rich in primary historical detail, using O’Neill’s own archive traces and a wide array of sources, the structure of The Beat Cop follows the chronology of O’Neill’s life, beginning in Tralibane. The societal infrastructure supporting traditional musicians (travelling, artisan and others) was embedded in the post-Famine years through house dances taking place in homes just like O’Neill’s. Reg Hall identifies these early decades as beginning the “hey-day” of traditional music and dance practice in Ireland (79); O’Neill’s own recollections at the distance of a lifetime and an ocean echo that. This practice was not simply, as suggested, an “artifact of both British colonial rule and the poverty and colonial status of Irish people” (42). Rather, the altered soundscape resonated with and in a changed rural social landscape and drew on a much longer historical practice of scoraíocht or cuartaíocht (visiting). The description of “patrons” by O’Neill, which O’Malley reports, is a vernacular of patterns, the celebration of saints’ feast days, with attached socializing, dancing, and music making (28). Confirming this rural experience, O’Malley provides interesting comparative detail between O’Neill’s own life story and those of the Fenian Patrick O’Brien who, like O’Neill, “also attended the National School at Dromore and also emigrated at seventeen” and published a memoir of the same period (39).

A key argument interwoven throughout the biographical arc is that O’Neill experienced and participated in colonizing systems on both sides of the Atlantic. Born during the Famine, that O’Neill was a colonized person in that site is indisputable, nuanced by the fact that his was a strong-farmer household (“colonialism’s middlemen”), a social group protected to some degree from the horrors of the Famine and its aftermath (16). As “the youngest son of a prosperous farm family” he had some “limited class privilege” in Ireland (62). Structures of politics and class in the United States were “complicated by different understandings,” in particular of race (62). As a mariner, before he settled in the windy city, O’Neill worked side-by-side with (at times “likely an assistant” to) African Americans (62). O’Neill’s own words recall those interactions, “the memory of which…never failed to react favourably,” in his encounters with African Americans in the new world (61). However, the terra firma of American society “offered O’Neill advantages it would never offer to his [sailor] co-worker” (62). O’Malley compares Irish music to yoga in the United States, both imports from colonial sites “representing a kind of displacement” (6), but of a non-threatening ethnic kind. Likewise, O’Malley’s discussion of O’Neill’s time in Hawaii (the result of a shipwreck), draws a comparison between two island nations where the colonized “were shunted to marginal land and poverty, finding work on the colonizer’s ships, required to speak English” (76). Further, both places had in common the “outsized influence” their “music had on the rest of the world” (77), both examples of musics engaged in and propelled by commerce in modernizing settings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (77).

O’Malley proposes that O’Neill experienced colonialism of a different order, “by industrial life and the multitude of new ideas and technologies it offered” in the United States (4). It was a colonizing process in which O’Neill held a distinct vantage as he “patrolled Chicago as an agent of the state, part of the apparatus that organized and administered the city” (4). To survive and thrive in Chicago in the gilded age and progressive era routinely demanded of the “nostalgic scholar” that he choose to align himself with the civic administration (4).The context of a wider information revolution (125) and expanding systems of order (“in 1883, Chicago adopted central standard time, one of four standard time zones introduced that year”) benefitted O’Neill, a “bright and precocious learner”, nicknamed “Philosopher O’Neill” as a child in Tralibane (19). Before Chicago, his experience on ships and the high seas consolidated his commitment to order in the face of chaos, or worse. As chief of police (from 1901 to 1905) in a city of more than two million people, among his many bureaucratic tasks he “wrangled statistics into reports,” while as music collector he “tracked down fugitive tunes . . . [and] formally organised them” (4). (It’s hard to resist the question raised by this analogy: are some tunes criminal?). O’Neill’s administrative and detective work in the police force was the perfect apprenticeship to his collecting of tunes.

1001 Gems was consciously distilled to exclude material which O’Neill adjudicated as having non-Irish associations (98). O’Malley correctly concludes this is part of creating a national music identity, a wider process in which O’Neill is a key figure. The “idea of a national music…arises not from isolation but from its opposite, from contact with the larger world” (98). For O’Malley, O’Neill started to “police” the music “precisely because of the blurring of lines and the merger of traditions, the portability of citizenship and identity” (99). O’Malley notes a particular repertoire that O’Neill omitted from his canonical collection in an effort to create a taxonomy of authentic Irish music. Material that “had too much of the American stage” did not make the grade for O’Neill, which Henry Chapman Mercer discovered when in a response to the possible inclusion of “Kitty O’Neill’s Jig,” O’Neill demurred on the basis that it was “modern” (64). His wished to “fix the tune’s citizenship”, notwithstanding the blurry edges of origins that are part and parcel of that. Collecting these tunes, which he heard “face-to-face” or “while on duty”, was not “unorganized” (155), despite what O’Malley suggests; rather, it was a different kind of organization, based on “personal circulation and local community” (155), reflecting historical transmission practices, albeit in a different environment. The intersubjective context of oral music transmission is never static, but in the teeming city of Chicago and other diasporic spaces, Irish traditional music was responding to its new context; O’Neill’s modernising impulse, to organise and standardise repertoire is part of that response. Collecting and publishing of Irish traditional repertoire “offered immigrants an apolitical way to retain or recover Irishness without hindering one’s American prosperity” (5) and offered O’Neill and his emigrant fellowship the opportunity to reconsider the relationship between the old world and new” (62).

While O’Neill saw himself as a reformer, dedicated to the principle of a meritorious system of public administration, he nonetheless was also subject to that favour system to join and advance to the top of the police force ladder and people the ranks of the force under his management (110). O’Neill’s life in Chicago was inextricably bound with the “favor market” (69), where municipal jobs (including in the police force) were in the gift of aldermen (ward bosses). Chicago, in O’Malley’s words, “wore police reformers out” (115). There was a complex set of contradictions for O’Neill and others of a reforming stripe (120). Their efforts to control crime and social disorder in the rapidly expanding city collided with “patronage favoritism” (112). Jobs in the police force were in the gift of aldermen who often themselves had interests in shadowy economic and social worlds. Within the force, the number of Irish police officers that filled the ranks of Chicago police under O’Neill’s stewardship is frequently noted as a demonstration of the favour politics which O’Neill himself participated in, the piper Barney Delaney’s recruitment being a prime example (162). Not just a member of the police force family, Delaney became O’Neill’s brother-in-law, but the relationship soured when Delaney no longer felt obliged to O’Neill. O’Neill supported fiddle player James O’Neill’s bid to join up because he could read and transcribe music, skills which O’Neill needed (but did not have) for his tune collection aspirations. Significantly, O’Malley concludes that while “the Irish cop became a stereotype” the broader process “allied them with an idea of civic authority rather than simply ethnic tribalism,” as they became “agent[s] of the state” (112). Complicating contexts arose when politics, ethnic loyalties, and civic duties intersected, such as in the murder of Henry Patrick Cronin who was a member of the Irish republican organization, Clan na Gael. Irish police officers were removed from the investigation for fear of prejudice, but notwithstanding the fact one among their own ranks was also one of the accused perpetrators a “platoon of Chicago police marched” in the funeral procession (168).

O’Malley reflects on the concept of tune ownership, noting that O’Neill sometimes needed to persuade musicians to play tunes for him. O’Neill’s own words “I have about 1800 tunes of music” (211) reveal less about ideas of propriety as it is understood in the English language (as O’Malley concludes) but more about the phrase’s linguistic origins in the Irish language. To know something in Irish, “tá sé agam,” literally translates to “I have it” and remains the phrasing in Hiberno-English. Separately, there is a long historical practice of songs or tunes having association with (and a resulting propriety attached to) individual singers or instrumental musicians in Irish traditional music. The assertion that O’Neill’s work would “alienate” tunes from individuals that he collected from, that he was somehow hoarding repertoire, fails to acknowledge a parallel consequence, that his tune collections were not an end point but rather another stage of deformation and motion in the cultural world of Irish traditional music. O’Neill the policeman “viewed himself as the protector and defender of property” and his work as collector in the same way (217). The comparison of O’Neill as collector of Irish tunes to rogue collectors of Native American religious artifacts is an unfair one. While O’Neill was in a privileged position as chief of police with leveraging potential, he was not outside this community of practice, simply raiding tunes as artifacts. Critically, while O’Neill collated, nationalized, and concretized repertoire in 1001 Gems, following publication the afterlives of those tunes were again animated and reanimated in face-to-face, intersubjective encounters in communities of practice, from Chicago to Cahersiveen.

This monograph adds significantly to the cultural history of emigrant lives in early twentieth-century America. Though O’Neill is the guiding story throughout, contextualizing discussions in The Beat Cop shed light much further afield, on other lives and stories providing a fresh and expanded interpretation of the lived experience of Chief O’Neill and his emigrant peers.

Works Cited

Breathnach, Breandán (1983 [1971]). Folk Music and Dances of Ireland. Reprint. Cork: Mercier Press.

Carolan, Nicholas (1977). A Harvest Saved: Francis O’Neill and Irish Music in Chicago. Croyden: Ossian Publications.

Dillane, Aileen (2016). “Irish Traditional Music Dissemination at the End of the Long 19th Century: Francis O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1903) and the City of Chicago”. Knowledge Dissemination in the Long Nineteenth Century: European and Transatlantic Perspectives. Eds. Marina Dossena and Stefano Rosso. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars. 65-89.

Hall, Reg (1996). “Heydays Are Short Lived: Change in Music-making Practice in Rural Ireland, 1850-1950”. Crosbhealach an Cheoil: The Crossroads Conference, 1996. Eds. Fintan Vallely et al. Croyden: Ossian Publications. 77-81.

Nicholsen, Michael D. (2012). “Francis O’Neill, Music Collection and Irish Traditional Musicians in Chicago, 1898-1921”. Crafting Infinity: Reworking Elements in Irish Culture. Eds. Rory T. Cornish and Marguerite Quintelli-Neary., Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars. 119-148.

O’Shea, Helen (2008). The Making of Irish Traditional Music. Cork: Cork University Press.

Skerrett, Ellen and Mary Lesch (2008). Chief O’Neill’s Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful

Life in Chicago. Dublin: Brandon Books.