His Pencil Poised...

James O'Neill

His Pencil Poised...

One hundred years after the publication of The Dance Music of Ireland. 1001 Gems…, Caoimhín Mac Aoidh's book on James O'Neill throws new light on the O'Neill collections.
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Caoimhín Mac Aoidh, The Scribe – The Life and Works of James O’Neill
Manorhamilton, Leitrim, Drumlin Publications, 2006, 192pp

I first came across the name James O’Neill in 1973. That was the year a book called The Dance Music of Ireland. 1001 Gems… arrived in our house. The book was edited by Chief Francis O’Neill and arranged by Sergeant James O’Neill. That book still sits on my bookshelves – back then indeed it already seemed to have the look of an heirloom about it. In my mind the names of both O’Neills were conflated until they became, when I thought of James at all, brothers: but more often, they seemed a single entity. It was many years later, in London, that I heard the story of Francis O’Neill from the late Michael Donaghy. Michael was appropriately from Chicago and was a musician and a poet. He related Francis’ life of high adventure – leaving home at sixteen to become a cabin boy, shipwreck and survival, arrival in America, heroism and his rise through the Chicago police force. It was the stuff of a Hollywood script. By comparison his ‘brother’s’ name was like the scratching in the margins of a manuscript.

Caoimhín Mac Aoidh, the Donegal fiddle player and author, has set out to rehabilitate this life from those margins, in his book, The Scribe – The Life and Works of James O’Neill. While the life of Francis may be how we imagine ourselves when we daydream, James’ is far more representative of the millions of Irish who emigrated from this country. It was a life of labour. That of a man who was, by all accounts, quiet and decent and who sacrificed areas of his personal life – disappearing as a musician for years at a time – so that he could bring his brothers and sisters to Chicago from Ireland, or rear his own family. In its way this life is also heroic but it is, by comparison, prosaic. It was James’ facility as a musician and more importantly his ability to transcribe music that lifted him beyond all of this. It’s for this reason that he is remembered – his collaboration with the other O’Neill.

In one of the best passages in the book, Mac Aoidh writes of how the two O’Neills reconstructed tunes from fragments of music they heard or remembered. Quoting from a report in the Chicago Tribune of that era he demonstrates how they often moved backwards from a fragment to a beginning or an ending. It’s an apt metaphor for what Mac Aoidh has achieved himself. This is a life reassembled from fragments. For any writer who strives to write factually about history the main barrier to success is in the way meaning becomes distorted over time. Just as it is almost impossible now to imagine a world without multiple ways of transmitting a tune, the nuances of language too change. Francis wrote effusively about James. He used terms like ‘educated’, ‘trained’ and ‘violinist’ in some cases when describing him. In our times those words have become loaded, they’ve come to suggest that James was perhaps a classical musician, who brought those sensibilities traditional players associate with classical music to traditional music. Mac Aoidh argues persuasively against this interpretation. He places ‘educated’ and ‘trained’ in the context of the time. James, he says, wasn’t a tap-room performer. He played at high profile concerts. He was perhaps educated within the tradition where training had its own value. This in one instance of the empathy Mac Aoidh demonstrates, a willingness to adjust his perspective.

From our perspective now it is difficult to imagine what Chicago at the turn of the century was like. Some of us may remember the concerns of the early sixties and before when it was believed that traditional music was believed to be close to extinction. Much of the O’Neills’ work was done in similar circumstances.

For those there, it felt – for a while – as if there was a bloom of music in Chicago, but tastes, as Mac Aoidh points out, changed. The First World War intervened. Then the roundabout picked up again and the Sligo men arrived. There was prohibition. James lived his life in front of a vivid backdrop. His achievement was monumental. He has long been in the shadow of his better known namesake. In this book he emerges briefly, his pencil poised. We can imagine him as a family man, by all accounts an honest cop, as an outstanding musician able to slash reels out. But James, I feel, would bow – as he must have done hundreds of times from the concert stage – and retreat back to the shadows. When he died, musicians in Chicago who would have been well aware of his importance were unaware that he was still alive.

It is not about one O’Neill or the other, it is about both: about a unique collaboration to which we owe – and will continue to owe – an inestimable amount. Likewise, we owe Caoimhín Mac Aoidh a great deal for telling us this again and for drawing that man out of the shadows and reminding us of his centrality. For that reason this is an important book.

The night Michael Donaghy told me about Francis O’Neill he showed me a poem called ‘The Reprieve’. It would feature in a sequence he wrote called O’Ryan’s Belt. It was a re-imagining of the lives and circumstances of forgotten musicians, a retelling of apocryphal stories; of musicians who got jobs with the Chicago Police; of people who were let off charges in exchange for a tune or two; of how O’Neill needed a tune repeated the same way to get it right. It ends:

….and O’Neill scratching at his manuscript like a monk
at his illuminations, And Nolan’s sweet tone breaking
as he tries to phrase a jig in the same way twice;
‘The Limerick Rake’ or ‘Tell her I am’ or ‘My Darling Asleep’.

Published on 1 May 2007

Peter Woods is a radio producer and is co-author of The Living Note: The Heartbeat of Irish Music (1996).

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