Irish music and Chief Francis O’Neill

The Roaring Kelly Band proudly performs Irish traditional music and on Sunday, August 21, from 4-6pm, we make it happen at O’Connor’s Pub in Delray Beach. We wouldn’t have these wonderful tunes except for the contributions of those who have kept the tradition alive.

There is no doubt that a great deal of cross continental cultural exchange exists between the Americas and Ireland.  Many in the US and Canada look across the Atlantic to the ‘Old Sod’ with a misty-eyed reverence especially when traditional Irish music is the subject.  An argument could be made, however, that the incentive to preserve Irish traditional music did not come from the homeland but in America.  In fact, it can be directly attributed to one man, Chief Francis O’Neill, of Chicago.

The youngest of seven children, O’Neill was born in Tralibane, County Cork, in 1848, the last year of Ireland’s devastating Potato Famine. Pushed by ambition and pulled by adventure, the spirited young man passed up a chance to become a teacher. Instead, at the age of 16, he set out to seek his fortune on an English merchant vessel.

On one voyage O’Neill and his fellow crew members were shipwrecked and faced the prospect of starvation, marooned on Baker Island in the middle of the Pacific. An accomplished musician, O’Neill showed a native crew member on the ship that rescued them how to play Irish tunes on the native’s crude wooden flute and, in exchange, he received extra rations of food. When they arrived in San Francisco, O’Neill was one of the only members of his crew who didn’t have to be hospitalized for malnutrition.

It was an early example of the power, spirit and allure that Irish music has to connect people all over the globe.

On one of his voyages, he met Anna Rogers, an Irish girl he then married in Bloomington, Illinois. The couple moved to Chicago soon after the Great Fire to start a family.

In 1873, O’Neill signed on as a Chicago policeman, and distinguished himself from the start. O’Neill’s intelligence and political savvy helped him rise in the ranks quickly. In 1901, he was named General Superintendent, where he earned respect for his efforts to reform what had been a corrupt police department.

At the same time, O’Neill was also pursuing his other passion, the performance and collection of Irish music. He retained strong memories of his childhood in Ireland where he learned to play the flute and listen to the musicians at Crossroad Dances near his home. In later years, he wrote, “traditional Irish music could have survived even the famine if it had not been capriciously and arbitrarily proscribed and suppressed” by the English and some elements of the Church. O’Neill went to great lengths to unearth the music — and musicians who could play it. Siobhan McKinney, a native-born Irish musician and co-owner with her husband Brendan of Chief O’Neill’s Pub in Chicago, explains, “As soon as he heard of pipers coming to America, he would bring them all to Chicago. And immediately he would snap ’em up, put ’em on the police force, and write down their music.” Historian Richard Lindberg adds, “He would travel the streetcars of Chicago in civilian clothing, listening to people on the street cars humming and whistling little tunes. He really collected these songs in much the same way an archeologists digs for things in tombs.” O’Neill’s great granddaughter Mary Mooney Lesch concludes: “He’d go back to his office and play them for his sergeant, who would write them down.” O’Neill eventually published eight books of some 3,500 traditional Irish tunes, most of them after retiring from the police force in 1905 when he could devote himself to the cause on a full-time basis.

Francis O’Neill is revered today because at a critical time for Irish culture, his books helped to keep Ireland’s music alive.

On Sunday, August 21, come to O’Connor’s Pub in Delray Beach for a full-bore of Irish music from 4 to 6pm.  The Roaring Kelly Band keeps the flame burning bright and is delighted to bring these well-known tunes to life so you too can enjoy the power, spirit, and allure of traditional Irish music.  Featuring traditional acoustic instruments (violin, wooden flute, tin whistle, Irish bouzouki, guitar, and banjo), we perform hard-driving reels, vicious jigs, jumping hornpipes, lilting waltzes, and enchanting airs as well as singing traditional ballads, Irish rebel songs, and rowdy drinking songs. We’ll deliver the music for heaps of rambunctious fun.

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