Preserving Irish Traditional Music in Chicago: Francis O'Neill


This project examines the role played by Francis O’Neill, Chicago’s Chief of Police from 1901-1905, in the collection, promotion, and publication of Irish traditional music in Chicago. Having left Ireland in 1865, O'Neill arrived in Chicago in 1871 after extensive world travels. He quickly realized the wealth of folk music surrounding him in the Irish immigrant communities of this growing city, and he set about gathering and preserving the tunes that, to this day, make up a large part of the canon of Irish traditional music around the world.

This website looks at the life of Francis O’Neill – the man, the Chief, the musician – and examines the roles played by the city and the people of Chicago as the impetus behind his extensive collection of Irish folk music.

The site features two maps. The first outlines O’Neill’s travels at sea that saw him circumnavigate the globe before he settled in America at the age of twenty-one, while the second map provides an outline of where in Ireland O'Neill's collected music originated. As you hover over the featured counties, you can hear Irish traditional dance tunes that were either donated to The Chief for his collection by Chicago-based musicians who hailed from those counties, or dance tunes that are named after towns, villages, or local characters in selected locations. 

In a city that has been at the heart of Irish music in America for many generations, Chicago is home to communities of dancers and musicians – including internationally-renowned performers – whose investment in the tradition contributes greatly to the preservation of Francis O’Neill’s legacy. 

Trad in the Windy City’ offers samples of tunes from the O’Neill collections played by solo and session musicians at Chicago locations.

Key to this project has been an extensive range of artifacts – photographs, books, letters, medals and other personal  possessions of Francis O’Neill – together with many wonderful insights, kindly shared by his great-granddaughter and native Chicagoan, Mary Lesch.