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Chief ONeills legacy to be celebrated at Bantry Festival

Tuesday, 6th August, 2013 2:51pm
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Chief ONeills legacy to be celebrated at Bantry Festival

By Jackie Keogh

THE remarkable legacy of Captain Francis O’Neill of Tralibane is to be celebrated with a traditional music festival in Bantry from August 22nd to 25th.

The event will mark the achievements of a man who helped to safeguard traditional Irish music at the beginning of the twentieth century, and who also made his name as an acclaimed leader of the Chicago police force.

O’Neill’s remarkable story began in Tralibane, near Bantry, where he learned to love the music and singing he heard around him at home and at the Colomane crossroads.

Although O’Neill decided to explore the world as a sailor, he never forgot the music he had learned to love in West Cork, and, when he settled in Chicago, he began to collect the tunes that were being played by the many Irish musicians who, like him, were striving to make new lives for themselves in America.

On his route to his new life, O’Neill had already proved himself to be a man of note, surviving falling overboard and shipwreck on a coral island before joining the Chicago police force with the aim of hunting out corruption as well as criminality.

Gained nickname

The Bantry man was later elected twice as Chicago’s head of police. It was in this role that he gained the nickname ‘Chief’, as well as a reputation for honesty and courage, which means that he is still a famous figure in the city he adopted.

Although Chief O’Neill was more than busy in his chosen career, he never lost his love for the music he had learned in West Cork, and he recognised that Chicago’s large Irish population would allow him to collect and pass on Irish tunes which were in danger of being forgotten in the bustle of emigrants’ new lives.

O’Neill began to collect traditional Irish music from Chicago-based musicians who hailed from across the whole island of Ireland, ensuring that he collected a wide variety of tunes, as well as a rich resource of regional variations. At the time, 13% of Chicago’s population was Irish, and O’Neill - with the help of a Scottish friend James O’Neill - set about collecting and transcribing tunes before making them available in a range of publications.

The festival this year marks the centenary of one of O’Neill’s most famous books, Irish Minstrels and Musicians. The book focused on the lives of Irish musicians who, as O’Neill acknowledged, play a vital role in passing on traditions from generation to generation.

In tribute to O’Neill’s interest in the musicians themselves, The Chief O’Neill Traditional Music Festival is offering a €1,200 prize to the winners of a competition for the best performance from O’Neill’s published works.

‘All traditional Irish musicians playing today owe O’Neill a great debt,’ according to the festival organiser and Bantry Comhaltas member, Mary Tisdall O’Sullivan. ‘Wherever traditional Irish music is played, people are drawing on the fantastic work he did to record and keep alive tunes that were at risk of being lost in the new world.

‘The Chief O’Neill Festival gives us a chance to celebrate the fantastic legacy O’Neill created for all the traditional musicians who have followed him. We will be delighted to welcome musicians and fans of Irish music to Bantry for the festival, and we will be hoping to inspire a new generation to keep that tradition going into the future too.’

The festival will feature a ‘Legacy Concert’ on Saturday, August 24th, in St Brendan’s Church, Bantry. A céilí by the hugely popular Abbey Céilí Band will be a highlight, and visitors will also have the opportunity to visit the O’Neill memorial in Tralibane.

‘As organisers, we owe a huge debt to the Captain Francis O’Neill Memorial Company,’ said the Mayor of Bantry, Aiden McCarthy, who chairs the festival committee.

Revive interest

‘Its members have helped to revive interest in O’Neill here in Bantry over many years. As well as establishing a monument in his memory, they have forged important links with O’Neill’s descendants in Chicago and England.

And, it is fitting, in this year of ‘The Gathering’, that we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate a man and a tradition that continue to unite people across the world.’

Members of O’Neill’s family will be travelling over from America and the UK to take part in the festival, and organisers hope that the celebration of O’Neill and his links with Bantry and Chicago will become an annual event.

The event is being organised by the Bantry Development and Tourism Association, in association with the Captain Francis O’Neill Memorial Company, and it is also being supported by Comhaltas. The full programme of events is available on the festival’s website at http://chiefoneillfestival.com.