Chief O’Neill’s, the Irish bar on Elston Avenue, takes its name from Francis O’Neill, the emigrant from County Cork who was Chicago’s police superintendent from 1901 to 1905. O’Neill’s most enduring legacy was as a collector of traditional Irish songs, some of which are still played by Irish musicians. Michael O’Malley, a historian at George Mason University, has just published a biography of O’Neill, The Beat Cop: Chicago’s Chief O’Neill and the Creation of Irish Music. On June 25, at 7:30 p.m., O’Malley will read from the book at Chief O’Neill’s, accompanied by local Irish musicians who will play O’Neill-collected songs, including “Rakish Paddy,” “Out on the Ocean” and “Rolling on the Ryegrass.” (For South Siders, O’Malley and his band will appear at Lanigan’s, 3119 W. 111th St., at 3 p.m.) The author spoke with Chicago magazine from his home in Virginia.
Do you have a connection to Chicago or to Irish music?
Really, neither. Originally, I was just a historian of the U.S. And I was really fascinated by O’Neill, and the combination of being a cop, and then being a collector of Irish music. And also, he had such an odd life, because his early life was footloose. He’s an itinerant laborer, a sailor, not tied to anything. And then he becomes an agent of state authority.
Why were Irish immigrants so attracted to police work? The Irish cop was a 19th and 20th century stereotype.
Irish cop with a mustache? Yeah, it’s always the same, right? When O’Neill gets to Chicago, he has trouble advancing. He’s a pretty well-educated guy. And he’s smart. He tries clerking for a while in a mercantile firm, and he works in a packing house, he does a couple of things. But he said his advance was blocked. I think it’s partly because he was a Catholic. There was still some lingering anti-Catholic bias. The police were a good deal for the Irish because there was a pension, there was a path to advancement, there was some degree of social prestige and authority. He would complain later in his life about how police work was difficult for a man of refined sensibility. That’s what he’d become by the end of his life. It was a chance for him to use his talents in a wider field.
And I think that it’s also argued that the police are a major reason why Irish Americans turn away from radicalism. There’s a lot of Irish radicalism and a lot of anti-landlordism, there’s a very strong labor movement. And being on the police tends to put people on the side of authority. O’Neill was very definitely on the side of authority. He was instrumental in breaking a couple of different strikes. He was at the Pullman strike and played a really important role. And he wrote about it extensively. He was sleeping on a mattress at the station house, every night he was out there. And it becomes difficult to tell who’s a striker, who’s a looter and a mob, and who is sent by the packinghouse companies to disrupt the strike. He’s very busy. I think it’s six weeks, he’s sleeping on the mattress at the station house.
How did the fact that he was the police chief help him collect songs?
He had a lot of people helping him. They were his subordinates on the force. There were people he had helped to get jobs. He didn’t hire everybody who could play, but he could tell those people what to do. If they heard tunes somewhere in Chicago, they’d say, “Oh, I heard a guy who has a lot of tunes.”
I think you also mentioned that he would just show up in his uniform when he wanted a song out of somebody.
Yeah, sometimes he shows up in his uniform to intimidate. But let me say one of the most interesting things about this is that he claimed all the time that people were unwilling to share their tunes, it was a constant complaint for him. That they felt they belonged to their family or their community or their hometown. And he had to bribe them sometimes or kind of coerce, intimidate them a little bit, or sometimes, he would have one of his officers hide somewhere and write the tune down secretly. There’s one incident where he shows up in full captain’s uniform; that has the desired effect on persuading.
You write that he wasn’t much of a musician himself. So why was he so obsessed with Irish music?
He had good taste and a good ear. We might consider him to be on the spectrum. He had a really prodigious memory. He could remember these tunes his whole life. And he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, and he didn’t gamble. He was a little bit apart from his community. I think he was obsessed with the music. He did play it, he could play it. There are two recordings of him playing. They’re not very clear. He’s not very audible, but he’s playing a tin whistle. And he was a competent player, but he said himself, “I’m not really a performer.”
Did his collecting contribute to the canon of Irish music? Are the songs in his books still being played today?
Oh, absolutely. You can find people on YouTube right now, during COVID, there were two people who were working their way through all 1,001 tunes in his collection Dance Music of Ireland. They’re useful now partly because they’re written down a little differently from the way tunes are typically played now, so they give insight into how people thought about it in the past. It’s not so much that in the U.S. he saved Irish music. His influence might have been bigger in Ireland than it was in the United States. He’s definitely a major figure in the history of Irish folk music, for sure.
How has Irish music been integrated into American musical forms?
I think the sense of swing as a feel in music comes partly from Irish musicians. O’Neill used the term swing all the time in the early 20th century long before it’s commonly used to describe the quality that makes you tap your feet or dance. And we think of the swing era as being jazz in the ’30s, and ’40s. But he’s using that term and insisting on it as an essential characteristic of Irish music much earlier — 20 or 30 years earlier. Irish musicians now tend to use the word lift sometimes, rather than swing. But I think you could make an argument that some of the swing feel in American music comes from the Irish influence, and of course, the African influence. Those two have often been closely related.
Has Irish music been consistently popular in this country, or was there a revival?
There’s a revival, I think, with the Clancy Brothers in the folk music revival in the ’60s. And then with the Chieftains. By the ’50s in American cities, it’s still being played a lot by the continued Irish emigration. In Chicago, the great example is Kevin Henry, who recently passed away. He was a flute player who came to the states in the ’40s. He was a very big fan of O’Neill’s and used to play an annual concert at his tomb in his honor. He was a very important influence on Irish music in Chicago.
So why did O’Neill’s wife ban Irish music from their house?
I think it’s the death of their oldest son. They were very social in their younger days, and they went to the houses of other Irish Americans who played music a lot. They had a terrible time. They had 10 children, and six of them died, most of them before the age of five. The really crushing blow for them was their son Rogers, who died when he was 17 of meningitis. They had high hopes for him, and he was their last male child. And he says that after his death, she banned Irish music. She didn’t want to hear it anymore. Rogers played the fiddle. He was part of the Irish Music Club. And he said grief had really silenced music in his house.