About Chief O'Neill
Francis O’Neill was born the youngest of seven children in Tralibane, outside Bantry in West Cork, and rose to be the General Superintendent of Police in the city of Chicago, a post he held from 1901 to 1905.
‘Chief O’Neill’, as he became known, is still remembered fondly for his legacy as an officer of the law, but it’s his dedication to traditional Irish music, and the work he did to sustain it, that gives the true measure of the man.
For a tribute in poetry to the life and work of Francis O'Neill by Eugene McSweeney please click here
O’Neill’s life as a sailor – inspired perhaps by the sights and scenes of Bantry Bay – was fraught with drama. He fell overboard on a trip to Odessa, and fractured his skull. Rescued in that instance by a lifeboat crew, he moved to America but was drawn to a life at sea again, only to be shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
When O’Neill and his fellow crewmen were rescued from a coral island, they were in a state of near-starvation, and their rescuers brought them on an onward journey via Honolulu to San Francisco. The musical friendship O’Neill struck up with a flute-playing Kanakan crewman on that journey helped him to ward off malnutrition: the young Francis was able to exchange his musical knowledge for food rations!
Despite these setbacks, O’Neill’s sailing days weren’t over, and, after a spell as a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada mountains, he tried his hand at sailing on the Great Lakes before heading to Chicago in 1870, still aged only 22.
In the City of Chicago
It was in that city that he planned to make his life with Anna Rodgers who he married in the autumn of that year.
Their lives in Chicago were dogged by tragedy. Of their ten children, six died young, three boys on the same day of diptheria. O’Neill never played music in his own house after 1904 out of respect for their loss and his wife’s grief. Yet O’Neill kept striving to make a life in his adopted homeplace and to keep alive his passion for the music he knew from home. O’Neill worked as a labourer and a lumber yard supervisor in Chicago before joining the city’s police force in 1873 and he quickly made an impression there. In a city where unrest and corruption were never far from the surface, he was moved from his initial station for being “too busy” and “too good.”
A shooting left him with a bullet permanently lodged near his spine, but his bravery, efficiency and application saw him steadily promoted, and though politics and policing were dirty businesses at the time, O’Neill built a reputation that stood to him.
Becoming ‘The Chief’
In 1901, when he was promoted to the role of General Superintendent or ‘Chief’ of Police, the local press described him as a man of ‘clear mind, independent character, broad education, and thorough integrity.’
O’Neill’s concerted efforts to force out corrupt officers, and crack down on prostitution, gambling and crime met with difficulty.
‘Every man knows how to manage a woman until he gets married. I had some of those ideas myself until I got to be Chief, and then, like the man who gets married, I found out.’
Still, his work was recognised when he was twice re-appointed to the superintendent role, under different administrations, and he retains a strong reputation in the Chicago force to this day. His dedication to his work meant that only one of his books was published before he retired in July 1905 at the age of 57, but after that retirement he devoted his life entirely to music.
For more information on O’Neill’s fascinating life, see Nicholas Carolan’s A Harvest Saved (Cork: Ossian, 1997), a brilliantly-researched and absorbing book to which we are indebted.