O'Neill, Francis (1848–1936), policeman, traditional musician, and music collector, was born 28 August 1848 in Tralibane, Bantry, Co. Cork, youngest among five sons and two daughters of John O'Neill (c.1801–67), a prosperous and educated farmer, and Catherine (‘Kit’) O'Neill (c.1812–1900), of Drimoleague, Co. Cork. His mother imbued the household with her singing and lilting of tunes learned in the home of her father, Donal O'Mahony (‘An Cianach Mór’) (c.1777–1857), of the west Munster sept of Mahony Keans, an extensive landholder who maintained open house for itinerant musicians. With a keen ear and astonishingly retentive memory, O'Neill absorbed the rich musical traditions of his childhood environs. Educated at national schools in Dromore and Bantry, and a school monitor from age fourteen, he combined concentrated studiousness with physical daring, traits retained lifelong. Sent by his parents to Cork city to seek admission to a seminary (1865), he went off instead to sea, embarking on ‘an early life that belongs to the novels of Conrad and London’ (Carolan, 3). After working his passage to Sunderland, he served as cabin boy on voyages to Odessa and Alexandria, then sailed on American ships to the Caribbean and South America. Voyaging to Yokohama via the Cape of Good Hope on the Minnehaha of Boston, on the return trip eastwards he was shipwrecked with fellow crew on a Pacific island, until rescued by a passing brig and brought via Honolulu to San Francisco. After working as a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada foothills, he returned to sea and rounded Cape Horn to New York, thus completing a global circumnavigation. He taught school in Missouri and sailed on Great Lakes freighters, before settling in 1871 in Chicago, where he worked in a railroad freight house, a lumberyard, and a meat packing plant.
Commencing a distinguished career in the Chicago police force (1873–1905), within one month of enlistment he was shot by a burglar, and carried the bullet encysted near his spine for the rest of his life. With his adroit secretarial skills, fearlessness, and incorruptible probity, he advanced steadily through the ranks. Appointed captain after scoring unprecedented marks in civil-service examinations (1894), he was soon cited for coolheaded service during the bitter Pullman strike. Named general superintendent (chief) of police (1901–5), he cracked down with mixed effect on police indiscipline and corruption, and was scrupulously fair in his handling of several major industrial disputes. His reappointment by a new mayor – a rare event under the prevalent patronage system of American municipal politics – was a testament to his reputation.
An avid practitioner and devotee of Irish traditional music, during his police career O'Neill initiated an ambitious personal project to collect and preserve music representative of the entire range of the tradition, continuing with greater application after his retirement in 1905. While his principal instrument was the single-system wooden flute learned in childhood, he was also adept on the fiddle, and the uilleann, Scottish lowland, and Scottish highland pipes. In collaboration with fellow Chicago policeman James O'Neill (1863–1949), a trained fiddler from Co. Down, he began notating the vast store of tunes remembered from his Cork childhood and his years of wandering and police work. Lacking musical literacy, Frank would play tunes from memory for written notation by James, who would then play back the tunes from the written text to allow Frank to check for accuracy. As other musicians assisted the project, contributing tunes from memory, or from manuscript or printed collections in their possession, the compendium burgeoned to embrace the array of regional variations in style and repertory circulating within a large, urban, émigré community. Conceived as a source book for performers, O'Neill's music of Ireland (1903), a deluxe hardbound edition, comprised 1,850 melodies classified according to type: airs and songs, marches, compositions of the eighteenth-century harpist Turlough Carolan (qv), and various genres of dance tunes. Acclaimed by most critics, and above all by practitioners, it remains the largest single published collection of Irish music. Approaching the material as practising musicians, not as ethnomusicologists, the two O'Neills selected what they judged to be the best version current of any given tune. Inventing titles where none existed, frequently amalgamating scraps of variation into a single piece, composing segments of tunes to fill gaps in the memory, they notated basic melody alone, devoid of variation on repeat or ornamentation. They thus produced an eclectic, practical document, uneven in stylistic range and notational accuracy, but reflecting the living practice and ethos of an orally transmitted tradition.
O'Neill's subsequent collections addressed aspects of market demand. The dance music of Ireland: 1001 gems (1907), a cheaper and more readily handled volume, replicated many pieces from the earlier work (some in corrected form), and added new material. It attained a wide circulation and unparalleled authority among musicians, referred to simply as ‘the book’, and latterly as ‘the thousand and one’. O'Neill's Irish music: 250 choice selections arranged for piano and violin (1908), an attempt to attract a broader audience, proved a commercial failure and a musical disappointment, owing largely to James O'Neill's inexperience at harmonising the single melody lines of traditional pieces. Frank O'Neill's new-found collaborator, Selena O'Neill (also unrelated), an American-born teenage prodigy and violin student, arranged piano accompaniments for the fifty-two pieces of Popular selections from O'Neill's dance music of Ireland (1910), intended for dance classes and step dancing competitions. She also collaborated on an enlarged edition of the 1908 collection, O'Neill's Irish music: 400 choice selections … (1915), and the two editions of Waifs and strays of Gaelic melody (1922, 1924), which included both Irish and Scottish melodies, with descriptive and historical annotation by O'Neill. O'Neill wrote two valuable studies of the Irish musical tradition. Irish folk music: a fascinating hobby (1910) combined a musical autobiography with historical material on the music, the musicians, and previous collectors. Irish minstrels and musicians: with numerous dissertations on related subjects (1913) is a biographical compendium, arranged by instrument and chronology, concentrating on pipers and pipe makers, and addressing the social milieu of the music. O'Neill photographed numerous musicians, and from 1902 utilised an Edison cylinder phonograph to produce some of the earliest sound recordings of Irish traditional music. In 1931 he donated much of his extensive library of Irish interest to the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, where it forms the O'Neill Irish Music Collection in the university's Hesburgh library.
O'Neill married (1870) in Bloomington, Illinois, Anna Rogers (d. 1934), of Feakle, Co. Clare, whom he met at sea on his first voyage to America in 1866. They had five sons and five daughters, but suffered considerable tragedy in their domestic life. One daughter and all their sons died young, three sons of diphtheria on the same day. After the death of their youngest son at age 18 of spinal meningitis (1904), O'Neill, in deference to his wife's lasting grief, never again played music in the home, and stored his cylinder player and recordings with a friend. Abstemious in his habits, with ‘no dissipations but books and music’ (Breathnach), O'Neill, who during his policing career had amassed considerable wealth through shrewd property speculation, received little financially from his publications. Residing early in his marriage in the Chicago central city, he moved in the 1880s to the fashionable suburb of Hyde Park. In later years he also maintained an eighty-acre farm in Palos, Illinois, and a winter home on the Mississippi coast, where he fished in the Gulf of Mexico. He died 28 January 1936 of heart failure at his home, 5448 Drexel Avenue, and was interred in the family mausoleum in Mount Olivet cemetery, Chicago.
‘The greatest individual influence on the evolution of Irish traditional dance music in the twentieth century’ (Carolan, 58), O'Neill preserved some 700 dance tunes previously uncollected. The scope of his major published collections, avidly circulated and endlessly copied, assured their enduring currency within the traditional fraternity in Ireland and America, and influenced the repertory of commercial sound recording and radio performance of the 1920s, and of the céilí bands of mid-century. The explosive revival of traditional music in the second half of the twentieth century occasioned facsimile reissues of all his works, scholarly appraisals of his career, and tribute events in Tralibane (where a bronze statue stands in his memory), Chicago, and elsewhere.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).