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A Poet's Take

Michael Donaghy was born to Irish parents and raised in the Bronx. For a time he lived in Chicago and edited the literary magazine The Chicago Review. Donaghy played the flute professionally and knew Irish music well. His collection of poems Errata included a short cycle on Irish music, and one specifically on Francis O'Neill: it starts with a quotation from O'Neill.

A Reprieve
“Realizing that few of the many tunes remembered from boyhood days ... were known to the galaxy of Irish musicians domiciled in Chicago, the writer decided to have them preserved in musical notation. This was the initial step in a congenial work which has filled in the interludes of a busy and eventful life.”
Police Chief Francis O'Neill, Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby, with some Account of Related Subjects (Chicago 1910)

Here in Chicago it’s almost dawn
and quiet in the cell in Deering Street stationhouse
apart from the first birds at the window and the milkwagon
and the soft slap of the club in Chief O’Neill’s palm.
‘Think it over,’ he says, ‘but don’t take all day.’
Nolan’s hands are brown with a Chinaman’s blood.
But if he agrees to play three jigs
slowly, so O’Neill can take them down,
he can walk home, change clothes,
and disappear past the stockyards and across the tracks.

Indiana is waiting. O’Neill lowers his eyes,
knowing the Chinaman’s face will heal, the Great Lakes
roll in their cold grey sheets and wake,
picket lines will be charged, girls raped
in the sweatshops, the clapboard tenements burn.
And he knows that Nolan will be gone by then,
the coppery stains wiped from the keys of the blackwood flute.

Five thousand miles away Connaught sleeps.
The coast lights dwindle out along the west.
But there’s music here in this lamplit cell,
and O’Neill scratching in his manuscript like a monk
at his illuminations, and Nolan’s sweet tone
breaking as he tries to phrase a jig the same way twice:
‘The Limerick Rake’ or ‘Tell her I am’ or ‘My Darling Asleep’.

Just as music can express emotion more effectively than words, poetry can express ideas with concision that prose can't touch. My thanks to Geoffrey Beetles for bringing this to my attention. Readers might also enjoy Donaghy's short cycle of poems on Irish music, "O'Ryan's Belt," published in Errata (1993)