The Man Who Saved Celtic Music

Familiar with the name "Francis O'Neill"? The current wave of interest in Celtic music owes him a great debt -- he's the person who collected and published the music for thousands of Celtic tunes, making them available to musicians all over the world.

O'Neill was born in 1848 in Ireland. When he was 16, he emigrated to the United States. During his life, he was a rancher, a teacher, a Chicago policeman, and fathered ten children. He also played the flute!

O'Neill (also known as "Chief O'Neill") loved Celtic music. At that time, the music was passed down tune at a time from one musician to another. Little had been written transcribed in written form.

O'Neill did not read music -- he played by ear -- but he became convinced of the value of saving Celtic tunes for prosperity by transcribing them into musical notation for future generations. With the help of a fiddling seargeant in the Chicago police department who did read music, he managed to do so. He would play the tunes he had learned from other musicians; the sergeant would transcribe them into musical notation.

By the time O'Neill died in 1936, he had collected and transcribed nearly 3,500 tunes -- many of them dating back hundreds and hundreds of years!

He eventually published eight books -- including the now classic "The Music of Ireland". This book is still easily available in most bookstores. This book alone provides notation for 1,850 tunes! (Note: You can find these transcriptions for free at !)

Noel Rice offers this comment that illustrates O'Neill's contribution: "He recalled reading about some boys who would sit at the feet of an old musician, thinking they were learning the music the way generations before them had. "And this old man," he said, "was playing these lovely Irish tunes right out of O'Neill's book."