Francis O’Neill, from Tralibane near Bantry, in County Cork, left Ireland in 1865, at seventeen years old. The youngest child of a prosperous "strong farmer" family, he was educated in the National Schools England established in Ireland in the mid nineteenth century. A precocious colonial subject, he did well at school and served as classroom monitor and later, he said, as teacher himself. His family sent him to Cork, to become a priest, but instead he ran off to sea.
He spent four years as an itinerant sailor, circling the globe; in 1867 he was shipwrecked on a barren Pacific island and nearly starved. Baker Island was being mined for guano, the bird droppings which were several feet thick in some places. His ship, Minnehaha, was dashed on the rocks by a sudden swell and completely destroyed. The figurehead of Minnehaha, below, survived and is now in the Museum of Colonial Williamsburg.
Avoiding starvation thanks to the kindly Hawaiian sailor whose ship rescued him, he herded sheep in the Sierra Nevada foothills, sleeping under the stars for five months. He taught school for a year in rural Edina, Missouri; and spent a summer working ships on the great lakes. While returning to Edina from the great lakes he stopped in Normal, Illinois to marry Anna Rogers, a young Irish woman he had met while working as an assistant steward on the clipper ship Emerald Isle.
Settled in Chicago by 1871, he labored in meat packing houses, lumber mills and freight yards. When he found his advancement blocked he joined the police. A thief shot him in his first month on duty, but he survived and through talent, hard work, patronage connections and favors from friends he rose to General Superintendent of Chicago Police, the “Chief,” by 1901.
He worked during the Haymarket bombing, and the Columbian Exposition: during the Pullman strike he slept at the station house for weeks and daily confronted rioting crowds. The anarchist Emma Goldman praised his courtesy and intelligence. He navigated saloons and backroom politics; he got into a street brawl with a notoriously thuggish alderman that put him on the front pages, and he pulled bodies from the wreckage of the Iroquois theater fire, which killed 600 people. Late in his police career, and in a very comfortable retirement, he published a series of books on Irish music. These books made him a hero in Ireland: he preserved tunes that might otherwise have vanished, and more importantly he invented a way of seeing Irish music, a "frame." A memorial statue now stands near his birthplace, and a Chief O’Neill’s pub graces Chicago's northside. For decades Irish immigrant flute player Kevin Henry played an annual concert in the doorway of O’Neill's tomb, to honor “the man that saved our heritage.”
The book tells a story of adventure, intrigue and momentous events, but also a story about colonialism and what it does to people. O'Neill learned in school to see himself as a “happy English child.” The smart, bookish boy fled that colonial status for the sea, and escaped it altogether when he took the oath of citizenship to the US in 1873. But then a different kind of colonization took place, colonization by industrial life and the multitude of new ideas and technologies it offered. O’Neill patrolled Chicago as an agent of the state, part of the apparatus that organized and administered the city. He allied himself with the city’s business class, not the Irish men and women on strike. From his office in City Hall he then used techniques of the modern police force to map and colonize Irish music.