companion website

The Music

This page at present is mostly for those unfamiliar with Irish dance music. Readers with more experience might want to scroll down to hear the only two known examples of Francis O'Neill playing, with Edward Cronin and his friend Tom Kiley.

The Beat Cop describes some of Ireland's distinctive, rich and varied musical tradition. This includes a wide range of songs in the Irish language as well as in English, some derived from traditional Irish melodies, some adapted from other traditions. In O'Neill's youth he would have heard political ballads, minstrel show tunes, brass bands playing marches, hymns, and exhortations to sobriety. But O'Neill is best known today for his 1907 collection Dance Music of Ireland, a compilation of just over 1001 instrumental dance tunes, often referred to as the "bible" of Irish traditional music.

These tunes had varied sources and typically no known author. They had multiple names, or no name at all, and were played in different ways in different places and by different people. Musicians in a given community would often just play a tune they all knew and not bother giving the tune a name. Musicians would also improvise on the tunes' melody, adding "ornaments" or changing phrases. One of O'Neill's tasks was sorting out what was a distinct tune and what was just a variation on an existing tune. In the process he imposed a degree of standardization on this musical practice. But Irish traditional music still plays fast and loose with tune names and still stresses variation and improvisation. Irish dance music should have a sense of "lift" and set your feet to tapping: O'Neill frequently used the term "swing" to describe a well played tune.

Most commonly, these tune forms will have a "A" section, played twice, and a "B" section, played twice. A good player will add variation while keeping the basic melody intact.

There were and are three main kinds of Irish dance tunes: Jigs, Reels, and Hornpipes. Then and now people would play other forms: waltzes, or polkas, for example. But jigs and reels were the two most common forms.

Jigs. In Ireland the US, and across Europe, "jig dancing" originally meant any kind of dancing that featured rhythmic rapping with the feet. Jigs in Irish music came to refer to tunes in 3/4 or 6/8 time. You can tell it's a jig if you can say say "em-pha-sis, em-pha-sis em-pha-sis" and have it fit the melody. Or if you are hungry for Irish breakfast, you can say "rashers and sausages, rashers and sausages."

The Beat Cop mentions several jigs: one often called "Out on the Ocean" provides the title for chapter two. O’Neill wrote that he learned it in Chicago from a police patrolman, Patrick O’Mahony. “‘Big Pat’s’ tones were clear and full, for his wind was inexhaustible. From his playing I memorized the double jigs ‘Out on the Ocean,’ the ‘Fisherman’s Widow,’ the ‘Cliffs of Moher,’ and several others.”

Matt and Shannon Heaton, Out On the Ocean
Here Shannon and Matt Heaton play a gently paced version, meant for learning, kindly shared as an excerpt from her tutorial collection of frequently played tunes found here

The Irish Band Planxty played an ensemble version in 1980.

O'Neill often mentioned a jig known by the endearingly optimistic title "Banish Misfortune." If "Out on the Ocean" is cheerful and bright "Banish Misfortune has a more ambiguous feel, sitting in between standard keys and perhaps a bit more strange-sounding. Misfortune might be the spell it casts. The Heatons kindly provided another gently paced version from their instructional book: Banish Misfortune.

Your can compare this version to the version by Edward Cronin which O'Neill recorded early in the 20th century, on an Edison cylinder. This version, preserved at the Ward Irish Music Archives in Milwaukee, is low fidelity and full of scratches, but preserves the tune as O’Neill would have heard it in 1900. O'Neill depended heavily on Edward Cronin in his collecting.

In O’Neill’s day harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment was rare: Irish dance music was much more typically a solo performance, or two or more people playing the melody in unison.

While living in Edina, Missouri in 1870, O’Neill heard a tune he named “Nolan the Soldier” after a local man who played the tune at dances. He published it in 1903 in his first collection, O’Neill’s Music of Ireland. The tune was criticized and being “un-Irish” and O’Neill removed it from his 1907 collection. But “Nolan the Soldier is substantially the same as a tune  which had appeared in other collection as “the Miners of Wicklow.” O’Neill’s friend, the Vaudeville piper Patsy Touhey, played the tune, and here Boston piper Joey Abarta plays his version as part of a tribute to Pasty Touhey recorded in early 2021.

O'Neill played the flute, which he wrote was the instrument most commonly played by by ordinary people in Ireland, but he very highly esteemed the Uillean pipes, and instrument with a long history specific to Ireland

Below are links to two versions of “King of the Pipers,” taken as the title for chapter seven. The first is from Catherine Ashcroft and Maurice Dickson, starting at 3:29,  and the second from Michael Cooney and Pat Egan.

The Beat Cop’s Epilogue takes its title from “Happy to Meet and Sorry to Part, here played by Canadian musician Kyle Borley, who since the Covid epidemic has been working manfully through all 1001 tunes in Dance Music of Ireland

Reels tend to be played fast and are in 4/4 time. The phrase "Doubledecker Doubledecker Doubledecker" could describe the rhythmic feel of a reel

Chapter three, “Rolling in the Ryegrass,” describes O’Neill’s time in rural Missouri. He wrote that he learned the tune as a boy from a blind widow, Mary Ward, who sometimes stayed at his family home in Bantry. This version was recorded at Matt Molloy’s pub in Westport, County Mayo: compare it to the version linked here by Jackie Daley and Matt Cranitch

O'Neill learned “The New Policeman,” title of Chapter four, from a Bridgeport neighbor, Jim Moore, when O'Neill was himself a new policeman and Moore would come sit by the stove in the O'Neill's kitchen to play tunes

Here Matt Malloy, one of the greatest flute players in Irish music, lays into the tune

Chapter five, “Rakish Paddy,” takes its name from a commonly played tune sometimes given the same name. O’Neill wrote to an Irish collector  calling it “a well known reel in Leinster and Munster variously named Rakish Paddy Sporting Pat etc. See No 749.

The version here is the second of two tunes recorded in New York by the fiddler James Morrison. The recording was part of the cycle of influence in which tunes recorded by Irish Americans made their way back to Ireland.

A similar example, recorded in 1926, and linked her with permission of the Irish Traditional Music Academy, comes from Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock Band, a Boston band popular in dance halls.

A final example of the tune, an unaccompanied, informal recording of the the Irish piper Felix Doran sometime between 1950 and 1970.

While herding sheep in the Sierra Nevada foothills, in 1867, O’Neill learned a tune he called “Far From Home” from a fellow shepherd. “Scotty” Anderson. Here Boston flute player Shannon Heaton plays the tune through at a moderate speed at 0:43, then  breaks the tune down for learners.

There is considerable overlap between Irish traditional music and American traditional music, something  O’Neill grew more interested in later in his life. O’Neill included a tune he called “the Village Blacksmith” after someone he knew in Edina. The same tune had already been written down as “The Merry Blacksmith.” American fiddlers know this tune as Eminence Breakdown


Hornpipes are often broadly understood as “Sea Shantys” and in 2021 there was a popular vogue for people singing “the Wellerman” on TikTok. Irish hornpipes might be said to sit between reels and jigs: in 4/4 time, they have some of the accenting of a jig

Chapter six takes its name from a tune O’Neill learned from Chicago fiddler Edward Cronin. Cronin had no name for it and since O’Neill liked it Cronin named it “Chief O’Neill’s Favorite
Here is a solo version, on concertina, and this version from The Dubliners

One of the most commonly played hornpipes is a memorable called “the Boys of Bluehill.” O’Neill said he learned it from an orphaned boy, George West, whom he briefly befriended in Chicago. West said he learned it “from a strolling fiddler named O’Brien.” The tune may actually have origins in North America, not Ireland, but it's now a standard hornpipe in Irish music.

You can see an example of how playing styles vary in these two versions, the first a typical "Irish session" version from le Ceoltóiri Cultúrlainne, and the second, the majestic, melancholy and rolling version played by Chicagoan Jimmy Keane on accordion.

And if you scroll down you can hear O’Neill himself  playing the tune in the only two known recordings of his playing. The quality is poor and O’Neill, playing a tin whistle, is marginally audible.

Several other tunes are discussed extensively in the book, particularly tunes like “Turkey in the Straw” and “the Arkansas Traveler” that blurred the line between Irish music, American music, and the Minstrel show.

O’Neill actively tried to police the boundaries of what was Irish and what was not: he wanted to be able to define an “authentic” tradition. The book describes his rejection of a tune called “Kitty O’Neill’s Champion Jig,” named after a celebrated Irish-American dancer of the same name. Though O’Neill rejected it as “too modern,” the tune was later adopted by musicians in Ireland. often under the name “Kitty O’Shea’s.”

In this YouTube video fiddler Kevin Burke’s version of the tune is played with marvelous visual accompaniment.

Chapter one takes its name from a tune O’Neill associated with both childish memory and deep sorrow. “Tralibane Bridge” is a “air,” a tune meant to be played at a slow or moderate tempo. It takes its name from the bridge, still extant, near his birthplace. O’Neill rarely spoke of the many personal tragedies that befell his family, but he recalled the tune on the death of his son Rogers, age 17. “When affliction beyond the power of pen to describe cast its withering blight on our home, this weird and fascinating air obsessed my waking hours for days un-numbered. To me no other strains in the whole range of wailing dirges so deeply touches the heart or so feelingly voices the language of sadness and despair.”

There are two known recordings of O'Neill himself playing a tin whistle, with his collaborator Edward Cronin on the fiddle and Cronin's friend Tom Kiley on the mandolin. The audio quality is very poor--these were surely made from badly deteriorated wax cylinders--but you can hear O'Neill himself introduce the tunes and the players. Transfer from the original cylinder recordings in collections of Na Píobairí Uilleann, Dublin: thanks to NPI for sharing these rare recordings

"The Boys of Bluehill"

A reel, "The Fermoy Lasses"

This tune appears under this name in manuscript collections of Canon James Goodman, an Irish musician and priest. O'Neill would not have known about the Goodman manuscripts at the time he published his collections.


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