The Chief


Way back in 2013 I wrote about our chance discovery of the Captain Francis O’Neill Memorial – out in the deep countryside west of Bantry Bay. Just to remind you, O’Neill – always referred to locally as The Chief – was a West Cork hero who championed Irish traditional music, and many students of The Music have a copy of ‘1001 Gems: The Dance Music of Ireland’ – O’Neill’s best known collection of tunes, published in 1907. I acquired my copy over thirty years ago and so far I have learned only a fraction!

Birthplace and Homestead of Francis O'Neill, Tralibane

Birthplace and Homestead of Francis O’Neill, Tralibane

Ireland has a great tradition of honouring its heroes, and ‘The Captain Francis O’Neill Memorial Company’ was set up in 1995 to do just that for The Chief. It was timely, as the 150th anniversary of his death came in the summer of 1998, and the Company was responsible for erecting a plaque at Tralibane Bridge – the place of his birth – and on that day also reviving the ‘pattern dancing’ at the crossroads by the bridge, after an absence of very many years.

Dancing at the Crossroads, Tralibane Bridge

Dancing at the Crossroads, Tralibane Bridge

I’d better briefly recap on the man himself… He was born on August 28, 1848 at Tralibane in the Parish of Caheragh – the youngest of seven children. His parents had a very strong background in Irish music, and Francis grew up in a household which was a gathering place for musicians sharing and exchanging tunes, and accompanying the dances. Like so many of his peers he left home at the age of 16, embarking in Cork city on a sailing vessel bound for England and from there found work on other ships which took him around the world. Among his many adventures was a shipwreck while aboard the Minnehaha in the South Pacific. He was rescued by a passing ship which eventually docked in San Francisco, where he decided for the time being to stay on dry land. His journeyings took him on to Chicago, where he joined the Police Force in 1873. At that time 40,000 residents of the city were Irish: by 1900 there were over a quarter of a million there: a huge reservoir of Irish music for Francis to garner – something he revelled in. During his first months of service he was shot and seriously wounded in the course of duty. One of the bullets lodged in his spine and could not be removed: he carried it with him for the rest of his long life.


Francis was good at his job: he was promoted to Lieutenant, Captain and, finally, to Chief of the Chicago Police in 1901. He had 3,300 men under his command – the vast majority of them were Irish, and one suspects that many of them were employed by The Chief because of their musical abilities and resources! All through his adult life Francis O’Neill collected and wrote down tunes; he was also an early champion of the phonograph, which helped him in his transcriptions.

Timmy McCarthy as The Chief

Timmy McCarthy as The Chief

We went out to Tralibane today and – sure enough – enjoyed music and dancing at the crossroads, but we were also entertained by The Chief himself, resurrected by Timmy McCarthy – a descendant and a fund of information. I am indebted to him for the above and for many tales and anecdotes which I don’t have room to include here. He was dressed the part: a Police Chief’s uniform complete with polished badge – and he wielded a truncheon! He walked us from the Bridge (where we had been treated to outdoor music and dancing) to the house where Francis had been born, and then on to the site of the O’Neill Memorial. There was food, drink, tales and more music and dancing. It’s the middle of November, and the sun beamed down on us, lighting up the mountains in the distant view. You must tire of me telling you how beautiful it is here in rural Ireland, but we can never get enough of this wonderful landscape.

The Parish of Tralibane

The Parish of Caheragh

O’Neill’s tune collections have been published under different titles in his lifetime and ever since. They are considered the most valuable source material for all students. Some say that The Chief ‘saved’ Irish music, but I am inclined to think that it would have survived regardless. It is certainly very much alive today, as our weekly sessions demonstrate – along with the very many festivals which we are fortunate enough to have right on our door step.


Francis and his wife Ann had ten children, but sadly five died young. After an active retirement which was filled with fishing, pottery and photography as well as The Music, the Chief died of heart failure at his Chicago home: he was 87.

Plaques at the Memorial Site

Plaques at the Memorial Site

Statue of The Chief at the Memorial Site

Statue of The Chief at the Memorial Site

Francis O’Neill has left a legacy which is commemorated at Tralibane. There is a life-sized statue of him looking out over his own family countryside: he plays his flute throughout eternity. The large Memorial site often hosts meetings, music and dancing. We will return again next year…



Music Mad


When we set off to find the Road Trotting we travelled roads we had never seen before: out to the east of Bantry. We were intrigued by a sign to ‘Tralibane Memorial’ and duly diverted to investigate. Up the hills and around a sweeping bend in the road: the first thing we saw was Mary, looking down over her modest garden – but that wasn’t the memorial; we found it a little further on. Our immediate view was a man playing a flute on top of a rock, approached by an ornate staircase. As we took in the whole site we had the impression of a huge plateau carved out of the hill summit – somewhere you could park a hundred cars or assemble a mighty crowd. It had the feel of a place where a Pope might come to give the Mass: there is an ornate Commemorative Wall surmounted by grand light fittings and with room for 120 granite name-plaques on each side.

commemorative wall

It’s a place waiting for something to happen. On the day of our visit it was deserted – and a little bleak. But, on other days, things do happen: crowds arrive and pay tribute – they come from all corners of the world. They also dance, and great craic is had. What is it all about? Well, once we’d worked it out we realised that this is a very important shrine for me, and for all other players of Irish Traditional Music. This is a memorial to Captain Francis O’Neill, a man who was born in the townland of Tralibane in 1848; ran away to sea at the age of 16; worked his way around the world and survived a shipwreck; became a policeman in Chicago; survived a gangster shoot-out, and eventually attained the rank of Chief of Police in that city. But he is famous for his greatest achievement: a collection of Irish tunes which numbers nearly two thousand, and which probably forms the repertoire basis of most of the musicians keeping the tradition alive today. The O’Neill collections were certainly my own introduction to The Music, and the several volumes in my own sheet music library are still the most valuable resource I have, bar only the internet.


O’Neill was imbued with the music of his native West Cork while growing up. He played the flute himself but, like many traditional musicians, he didn’t read or write music. The transcriptions which now appear in his collections (which are still all in print) were made by another O’Neill – James: unrelated but a colleague in Chicago. If you want to read a fuller account of O’Neill’s life try Ronan Nolan’s comprehensive article, where you can also find links to many of the wax phonograph cylinders recorded by Captain Francis during his collecting years (edit 2019: this link is no longer active!).

Robert + Francis