O’Neill was born in Tralibane, near Bantry, County Cork, in 1848, during one of the worst years of An Gorta Mor (The Great Famine), where he was surrounded in the family home by Irish music and tradition. There he learned to play the wooden flute. O’Neill took to the sea, as a cabin boy, at 16, and after many adventures, married fellow immigrant Anna Rogers in Illinois. They made their home in Chicago in 1873, where he joined the Chicago force and rose through the ranks to become chief, a job he held from 1901 to 1905.
“Music Mad,” which opened May 6, runs Sundays and Thursdays through June 28, at Chief O’Neill’s Pub, at 3471 North Elston, in Chicago. Its cast includes Laurence Nugent (Irish flute and whistle), Jim DeWan (guitar), Kathy Cowan (vocals), Farley Masterton (fiddle and whistle), and Joe O’Regan (Bodhran). Brett Tewell plays Chief O’Neill. Others actors include Mike O’Brien, Kathy Cowan, John Moran, Tim O’Sullivan, Paul Brennan, Katie Mae Cochran and Deirdre Kozicki.
The Wild Geese Preservation Editor Belinda Evangelista posed some questions to Whiteman about O’Neill, the Chief’s love of Irish music, and the play “Music Mad.”
The Wild Geese: There were periods in Irish history that were not conducive to the preservation of music. Can you tell me briefly about those times?
Adam Whiteman (left): In 1848, the year of O’Neill’s birth, Ireland was suffering from a widespread blight of its potato crop. Starvation and disease were rampant throughout the countryside. This period of deprivation came to be known as The Great Famine.
At this time in history, by virtue of an Act of Union passed in 1800, Ireland was a subject of the British crown. In the context of this occupation, the Irish peasantry, and Irish Catholics in general, did not receive equal treatment from the British parliament. They were often subject to repressive laws which denied them property rights and equal representation. The manner in which the British reacted to the potato blight is considered by many to be inept at best and intentional genocide at worst.
Much of Ireland was owned by “absentee landlords”, that is, landowners who lived in Britain. It is documented that these individuals were overly harsh in evicting starving Irish tenants from the land by burning down their houses and sending them into the cold winter with no provisions whatsoever. Many British of the time declared that God had sent the famine, and, therefore, interference with the effects of that famine (public assistance) should be limited. In other words, ‘providence’ demanded the expulsion of the Irish peasantry from Ireland. Some believe this line of reasoning was simply window dressing for the true intentions of the British, which was to colonize Ireland and convert it to Protestantism.
In 1848, the Roman Catholic Church was also in turmoil. A revolution had occurred in Italy that resulted in the temporary exile of Pope Pius IX. Upon the Pope’s return to Rome, he adopted a more hard-line, conservative approach to leading the Roman Catholic Church. In Ireland, this policy resulted in the promotion of strict Roman Catholic practices and the discouragement of traditional Irish customs, music, and language.
The physical trials brought by the famine, the social restrictions imposed by the British government and the cultural oppression exercised by the Church had a devastating effect on the music of Ireland and its practitioners. Those who survived these trying times fled to America and other parts of the world, and the songs of the Irish nation were scattered to the wind. Further injury was then inflicted by powerful forces of racism and assimilation in those lands where immigrants took root. It was only through the enormous efforts of dedicated musicians and aficionados like O’Neill that the music of Ireland was prevented from being lost to the ages.
The Wild Geese: In what ways did Chief O’Neill go about preserving the music history of Ireland?
Whiteman: In the 1880s, O’Neill befriended a young man named James O’Neill. Although not related, the two men shared an unyielding passion for the music of Ireland. Recognizing the young man’s [extraordinary musical] skills, O’Neill enlisted him onto the force. It was discovered that James O’Neill had an ability to record the notes of any tune he heard with great alacrity. O’Neill thus recruited him to notate all the tunes Francis remembered from his childhood in Cork. Over time, the project expanded, and soon the two men began collecting tunes from other musicians.
The search for tunes to notate knew no boundaries. Players of renown and even some of ill repute were visited for purposes of notating their tunes. An ‘Irish Music Club’ was formed of like-minded officers and musicians to assist with the venture. Melodies were captured as they were overheard in barber shops, trolley cars and railway crossings.
After years of dedicated effort, using his own personal funds, O’Neill published the collection in a masterwork titled, “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland: Eighteen Hundred and Fifty Melodies. Airs, Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Long Dances, Marches, Etc., Many of which are now Published for the First Time. Collected from All Available Sources.” The book identified “Capt. Francis O’Neill” as the editor and James O’Neill as arranger. To this day, “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland” is widely recognized as the bible of traditional Irish music.
Following his retirement, O’Neill redoubled his efforts in this area and authored a good number of collections and treatises about Irish music and Irish musicians. One book, “Irish Minstrels and Musicians,” recounts, in short-story format, brief reminiscences about the life and times of various Irish musicians, each containing a spark of humanity and pathos such that one feels a real connection to these colorful personalities of the past.
The Wild Geese: How did you become interested in Chief O’Neill, and what compelled you to write “Music Mad”?
Whiteman: I am the founder of Big Chicago Records, a record label dedicated to exploring Chicago’s musical landscape. I have produced a number of albums in a variety of genres, including, blues, jazz and Latin music in Chicago. One album I produced is called, “Hidden Treasures: Irish Music In Chicago.” As its title suggests, this album is a compilation of the best Irish musicians in Chicago. While putting the music together for this album, I befriended Brendan McKinney, a local piper-trad flute-player, who also is the owner of Chief O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant. McKinney taught me that O’Neill was one of Chicago’s unsung heroes. As an attorney, I was naturally curious about this interesting historical figure that played a central role in preserving a style of music I had come to deeply appreciate. So I spent countless hours pouring over his books and other historical documents. I came to realize that his was a story that needed telling.
Whiteman: “From the heart it has come, and to the heart it shall penetrate.”
The Wild Geese: Because of the success of the play to date, do you see it running indefinitely?
Whiteman: That is my sincere hope. But, having removed my playwright hat and donned my producer hat, I have come to realize that the forces of finance, availability, preparation and timing can have much to do with the course of providence. I have created a line to the past, but it must now be pulled by many others in order to retain its relevance in the collective consciousness.
Like a song, a play must be heard. Please go towww.MUSICMAD.net, buy a ticket. No. First call a friend. Then buy TWO tickets, and share the MUSIC MAD experience!
The Wild Geese: Would you like to see it staged in Ireland at some point?
Whiteman: That would truly be a joy. WG