Francis O’Neill (August 28, 1848–January 28, 1936) was an Irish-born American police officer and collector of Irish traditional music.
General Superintendent Francis O’Neill
Appointed: 30 April 1901
Re-Appointed: 26 June 1905
Served: 1901 – 1905
O’Neill was born in Tralibane, near Bantry, County Cork. At an early age he heard the music of local musicians, among them Peter Hagarty, Cormac Murphy and Timothy Dowling. At the age of 16, he became a cabin boy on an English merchant vessel. On a voyage to New York, he met Anna Rogers, a young emigrant whom he later married in Bloomington, Illinois. The O’Neills moved to Chicago, and in 1873 O’Neill became a Chicago policeman. He rose through the ranks quickly, eventually serving as the Chief of Police from 1901 to 1905. He had the rare distinction, in a time when political “pull” counted for more than competence, of being re-appointed twice to the position by two different mayors. On 5 April 1905 he appointed William F. Childs, a colored patrolman, to desk sergeant. Childs was the first man of his race to hold a rank higher than patrolman.
Captain Francis O’Neill’s Collection of Traditional Irish Music
Chicago Tribune, 10 June 1923
Former Chief of Police Francis O’Neil writes from Ocean Springs, Miss., to an old Chicago friend that he is fast losing his eyesight. One eye is totally blind, he says, and the other is dimming. It is only a question of time when he will no longer be able to see the sunlight.
The unwelcome news was told by the friend who received the letter to several of Capt. o’Neil’s old cronies, and messages expressing sympathy for him in his affliction were yesterday dispatched to Mississippi.
Captain O’Neill, by which name he prefers to be called, was a member of the Chicago police department about 32 years. He joined the force in 1873 and rose through every rank to captain. Mayor Carter H. Harrison appointed him superintendent of police in April, 1891, and he served until August, 1905. Mayor Harrison was was succeeded in 1905, by Mayor Dunne, but the latter kept Chief O’Neill on account of a teamsters’ strike that was in progress when he took office.
At the conclusion of the strike, Chief O’Neil asked to be relieved of his task, and his registration was accepted. He served longer as head of the department of the police department than any other chief.
Friend of Irish Music
Capt. O’Neill is known to lovers of Irish music all over the world. He has rescued hundreds of old Irish airs from oblivion, in the pursuit of what he calls a “fascinating hobby.”
He is recognized by the best musicians of Ireland an authority on Irish music. The greater part of his life has been devoted to gathering and compiling Irish airs. He also is the author of the more elaborate history of Irish music ever produced. This volume, which was the cherished ambition of his career, leaves nothing to be added on the subject which it treats. The work, which is entitled “Irish Minstrels and Musicians,” was dedicated by the captain “To the memory of my parents, whose tuneful tastes and memorized melodies are cherished as a most precious heritage.”
Himself as a performer of no mean merit on the flute and violin, Capt. O’Neill was particularly fitted for the self-imposed task of rescuing old Irish airs from oblivion. He compiled four or five books of these old reels, jigs and airs, and they were given a favorable reception, especially in the music centers of his native land. The last book of this nature, issued last Christmas time, was “Waifs and Strays of Irish Melody.” In this work he showed that such tunes as the “Arkansaw Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw” were played by the fiddlers and pipers of Ireland many years before they were heard in America.
Trailed Down Quaint Tunes
When O’Neill was chief of police, he would go to any part of the city where he was told some one “had a tune.” Sergt. James O’Neill, who by the way was no relative of the captain, usually accompanied him on these jaunts. The sergeant was a good musician and had an aptitude for “putting down notes.”
One day, while a sensational murder case held the attention of the police department, Chief O’Neill received a telephone call from a sergeant “back of the yards.” The sergeant, Dennis Dillon, had found a woman 93 years old who “had a tune.”
“She got it from her grandmother,” explained Dillon over the telephone, “and I’m sure you never heard it. Will you be out?”
Sending for his driver (it was before the police department had automobiles), the chief made ready for the trip. He telephoned Sergt. O’Neill at the Brighton Park station, to meet him at some point “back of the yards.:”
“Hot Tip” for Reporters
Reporters who saw the chief leaving his office hurriedly figured that he was going out on a hot tip concerning the murder case. All the evening papers gave this story a “scream” head.
Upon his return to the office he was besieged by the reporters.
Calling the boys into his office he told them of his trip. He brought back with him the notes of a tune he had never heard. And he called it “The Little Red Hen.”
Capt. O’Neill was born in County Cork, Ireland. He is 75 years old. His Chicago home is at 5448 Drexel avenue.
O’Neill retired from the police force in 1905. After that, he devoted much of his energy to publishing the music he had collected. His musical works include:
O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1903)
The Dance Music of Ireland (1907
400 tunes arranged for piano and violin (1915)
Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody (1922)
Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby (1910
Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913)
Captain O’Neill was recorded on cylinders playing his flute and violin . This collection is available through iTunes.
Francis O’Neill was re-appointed to a new term as General Superintendent of the Chicago Police on June 25, 1905. It didn’t last long.
Chicago Tribune July 26, 1905
John M. Collins, author of the popular romance, “Mike Smith, or the Adventures of the Phantom Ship.” will succeed Francis O’Neill, author of “Songs of Ireland,” today as general superintendent of the Chicago police force.
The appointment was yesterday morning by Mayor Dunne, though announcement of it was withheld, and in the afternoon the formal papers making the selection were drawn up and signed In the mayor’s office.
A special meeting of the city council has been convened for 10 o’clock this morning for the purpose of receiving the appointment at the hands of the mayor. The appointment will be confirmed and Capt. Collins will at once furnish the bonds and take the desk. Then Chlef O’Neil will be free to pack his trunks for his eastern trip and to plan fall work for his arm at Pales.
Mayor Admits Choice Is Made.
Mayor Dunne was disinclined last night to admit that John Collins, long time and trusted family friend, was to be at the head of the police force, preferring to give the name first to the council. All he would say was this:
I have selected the man for the place. It will not be made known until .morning When he takes office he will enforce the laws.
O’Neill Has Little to Say.
The retiring chief spent the day in winding up his affairs. He was not in an amiable mood, and refused to become ” reminiscent,” as his friends, who flocked to his office, wished. He would not discuss the respective merits of the men mentioned for his office.,and professed to have no information as to the identity of his successor.
The chief to be is famous for two things, either of which, according to precedent would fit him for the office to be upon him. One Is the immortalizing of Patrolman Mike Smith, while Collins was detailed at the Rogers Park station, and, the other is Collins’ own record. as a police officer. The combination of the two has turned the balance in his favor.
The outgoing chief, in addition to his lyrical talents, plays the flute, and his penchant for Irish minstrelcy he will be able to cultivate to its fullest extent as a farmer. Capt.Collins smokes his “dream pipe.” There never was a man on the police force who broke the pencils of so many “cub” reporters trying to get down the weird tales he gave them as this well educated Irish-American, John Collins.
General Superintendent John Collins
Appointed: 26 July 1905
Served: 1905 – 1907
Chicago Tribune, April 6, 1905