Friday, 11 May 2012

The police chief who saved Irish folk music

At the dawn of the 20th century, Ireland’s traditional music was in danger. English occupiers and Catholic authorities frowned on those old Celtic tunes. Waves of emigration scattered Irish musicians around the globe. And no one was publishing their melodies.

No one, that is, other than the police chief of Chicago.

Francis O’Neill, an Irish immigrant who was chief from 1901 to 1905, did more than anyone to save Irish folk music from extinction. Even as he led the police force, he kept his ears open for tunes played by people from all over Ireland who had come to Chicago with their flutes, fiddles and pipes. He compiled 1,850 of those songs in a 1903 book, O’Neill’s Music of Ireland. It’s still considered the bible of traditional Irish music.

Highland Park resident Adam Whiteman, who practices law in the Loop, discovered all this when he was producing the album “Hidden Treasures: Irish Music In Chicago” for his record label, Big Chicago Records. He decided it was a story he needed to tell on the stage.



After eight years of writing scripts during his daily train rides, Whiteman says he has found the way to bring Chief O’Neill’s life and accomplishments back to life: by letting O’Neill tell the tale in his own words.

Of course, it won’t actually be O’Neill who’s speaking during the new play “Music Mad” — actor Brett Tewell plays the role — but most of the words come straight out of O’Neill’s writings.

“You are hearing him speak. It’s chilling,” Whiteman says. “I wrote the entire show in an interview format. Imagine Dick Cavett interviewing Chief O’Neill. Every once in a while, we segue into dramatic re-enactments of a story.”

O’Neill’s memories also prompt performances by musicians including Laurence Nugent, a master of the Irish flute. “He can capture the emotion of a song in such a way that you are mesmerized,” Whiteman says.

“Music Mad” is directed by Stefan Brun and co-produced by Prop Theatr, which has staged other Chicago-centric shows, including Neil Giuntoli’s smash hit about Mayor Richard J. Daley, “Hizzoner.” And starting May 5, “Music Mad” will be performed inside Chief O’Neill’s Pub and Restaurant — a Northwest Side establishment named in honor of the police chief who saved Irish music.

“This guy really did rescue the very spirit of the Irish people as it was preserved in their music,” Whiteman says. “His book, O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, is not just a collection of tunes. It’s the collective consciousness of a people. It took someone like O’Neill to recognize the importance of it, so it could be documented and not lost to the ages.”

One of Whiteman’s key sources for the play is O’Neill’s memoirs, which Northwestern University Press published in 2008. O’Neill’s great-granddaughter, Mary Lesch, who edited the book with Ellen Skerrett, sat in on a rehearsal for “Music Mad” and was wowed by what she saw and heard.

“I was really astonished. The choice of actors and musicians couldn’t be better,” she says. “We like to perpetuate the role of O’Neill and what he’s done for Irish culture. And this is the best of all vehicles, really.”



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