Did Francis O’Neill, an Irish police Captain out of Boston, visit Kings County in the early 1900s to collect music and visit relatives?
My father Carl believes that such a man came here, an O’Neill who said he had Irish relatives in Kings County. “He said he collected music for a book,” I remember my father saying and he had served as a policeman in Boston. “He told us he was from the same area in Cork as my grandfather and he wondered why we had dropped the ‘O’ from our name,” my father said. “He didn’t get much music from here though, just a little.”
If it was the same Francis O’Neill who published several large collections of Irish music, then perhaps a few tunes in his books did come from the Kings County Irish. O’Neill was cut from the same cloth as the Carter family who spent a lifetime collecting and recording the folk music of the Appalachian Mountains. Only O’Neill’s forte was Irish music. Like the Carters he spent decades collecting Irish music and it can truly be said that without him, much Irish folk music might have been lost for all time.
So who was this the same Francis O’Neill and did he really come to Kings County to visit and collect music? Possibly he did. Many years ago, in an Antigonish book store, I found a collection of music called O’Neill’s Music of Ireland. The cover boasted that the book contained 1,850 melodies; in it were airs, jigs, reels, hornpipes, long dances and marches, collected “from all available sources” by Capt. Francis O’Neill and arranged by James O’Neill.
Later I discovered a second collection of Irish music – The Dance Music of Ireland – also by Capt. Francis O’Neil, with arrangements by James O’Neill. This was another massive collection of over one thousand Irish tunes containing jigs, reels, hornpipes and dance pieces. Both books had the names of the tunes in Gaelic and in English.
It was only speculation on my part but it seemed too much of a coincidence that there were two Irish policemen Captains by the name of Francis O’Neil’s collecting music to put in a collection. It was after I showed my father my find in Antigonish that he recalled the Irish policeman who visited here. This would have been circa 1908, he said, when he was in his teens.
With St. Patrick’s Day upon us I thought I’d mention O’Neill, his collections of Irish music and the possibility he visited here more than a century ago. Then came Christmas last and the gift of a book on the history of Irish music. Capt. Francis O’Neill (1848-1936) was written up in the book and I learned as mentioned above that his lifetime hobby was collecting and publishing books of Irish music. The article on O’Neill said he travelled extensively (after he left the Boston police force) to pursue his hobby and he is saluted as the man who saved Irish folk music.
Perhaps he did visit Nova Scotia and saw his Irish relatives here in Kings County; and perhaps a tune or two from some of the Kings County Irish did end up in one of his collections. I have this in mind and wonder which ones they might be every time I play one of the many Irish tunes from his books.