“There is a charm, a power, that sways the breast;

Bids every passion revel or be still;

Inspires with rage, or all our cares dissolve;

Can soothe distraction and almost despair -

That Power is Music.”

Photo of the Reverend James K. Fielding

PRIOR to the organization of the celebrated “Irish Music Club,” when our meetings were harmonious and altogether enjoyable at Sergeant Kerwin’s hospitable home, a new and welcome element favored us with their appreciation and friendship. Although not a musician himself, we had the encouragement and moral support of Rev. John J. Carroll, an eminent Irish scholar, who is the author of Fiorsgeul na n-Errione, a history of Ireland in the old language of the Gael, and several other works, including a translation into Irish of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Rev. James K. Fielding, an energetic worker in the cause of a regenerated Ireland, came among us, accompanied by Rev. William Dollard and the learned Rev. Richard Henebry, Ph. D., professor of Gaelic in the Catholic University at Washington, D. C. Earnest advocates of an Irish Ireland, they were all three musicians and interested in the preservation of traditional Irish music. Father Fielding’s favorite instrument was the flute, on which he brought out the notes with a round, full tone. Dr. Henebry’s execution on the violin was a revelation. Had his practice kept pace with his knowledge of the subject, our champions would be feeling uncomfortable. The amiable Father Dollard, who was an expert on both instruments, introduced to us several new tunes, among them being “Father Dollard’s Hornpipe” and “The Mooncoin Reel.”

Decidedly reactionary in his ideas concerning Irish music, Dr. Henebry strongly advocates a return to strictly bardic tones and traditions.

In a work entitled, Irish Music - Being an examination of the matter of scales, modes and keys, with practical instructions and examples for players, which he published in 1903, after his return to Ireland, Dr. Henebry very ingeniously and learnedly describes how he has discovered the lost scales and modes by the use of which the Irish harpers of old excelled all others in the art of musical expression.

Modern Irish music, including the world-wide favorite, “Killarney,” according to our reverend author, is Irish in name only, and breathes not the true spirit of the Irish school, traces of which are to be found still surviving among the peasantry, uncontaminated by modern influences.

To his astonishment and joy, he found a healthy vein of it also among our best pipers and fiddlers, whom he heard play at a gathering convened for his edification at the writer’s residence. From an article on Irish music printed in several periodicals, we quote his impression formed on that occasion: “Lovers of Irish music generally will be surprised and delighted as I was to discover that there exists in Chicago a lively activity in this matter and in the right direction. An influential and numerous body of experts devote their leisure time to the cultivation of traditional Irish music in this city. This happy condition is due to the interests and efforts of Mr. Francis O’Neill, General Superintendent of Police.” Modesty forbids further quotation in relation to the writer, so we will pick up the thread of the reverend doctor’s story further on. “I was astonished at the wonderful proficiency of the players and the inexhaustible extent of their repertoire. All the reels, hornpipes and doubles I had learned to fiddle as a boy, together with all the airs I had learned from my mother, were there, and a thousand others. I wish to say that I know nothing in art so grand, so thrilling, as the irresistible vigor and mighty onrush of some reels they played, filled with the hurry of flight, the majesty of battle strife, the languishment of retreat, and the sweep of a rallying charge, with a laugh at fate, though yet the whole was ever still accompanied by the complaining magic of a minor tone like the whisper of a faraway sorrow. I have heard much of the music of Ireland, and heard it often, but never yet better than that played by the Chicago pipers and fiddlers at Captain O’Neill’s.”

A slashing reel - ”The Bank of Ireland,” I believe - which Bernard Delaney was playing with great abandon on the Union pipes, caught his Reverence’s fancy. Seizing a violin, he accompanied the piper with spirit. Not to be merely an onlooker, Father Fielding sailed in with his ever-willing flute. The humor of the situation seemed contagious, for Adam Tobin got into action with his pipes. To restore the balance, John McFadden with his fiddle reinforced Dr. Henebry. Of course, Sergeant Early could no longer remain inactive with his pipes on his lap, so he also helped to swell the concert. There being no apparent prejudice against odd numbers, “yours truly” lost no time in rallying to Father Fielding’s aid with a second flute.

This impromptu concert, unique in its way, and prolonged by encouragement and applause, was thoroughly enjoyed by every one present.

At another such gathering at my house, arranged in honor and for the benefit of the reverend professor, John K. Beatty, before mentioned, was present. The old man was certainly a picturesque figure, with his snow-white hair and mustache, while a magnificent set of Taylor’s pipes, buckled on ready for business, gave him a rather formidable appearance.

At first he played naturally, until the courtesy of applause fired his brain. Regardless of tone, tune or time, he broke loose and, in an exuberance of enthusiasm, clouted the regulators, contorted his body, and beat time with both feet in unison, until exhausted.

After the deafening applause which followed this exhibition had subsided, Mr. Beatty announced himself as the “king of the pipers,” a claim which no one seemed inclined to dispute.

From various sources we were favored with manuscript collections of Irish music, but in those much winnowing of chaff was necessary in order to find a few grains of wheat. By far the most important were those obtained from Father Fielding and Michael McNamara, originating in Counties Kilkenny and Tipperary, respectively. Both contained a surprising number of unpublished tunes. Another important manuscript collection was contributed by Philip J. O’Reilly, a native of County Cavan. It contained the “Two-penny Jig,” which Dr. Hudson obtained from Paddy Coneely, the famous Galway piper, over seventy years ago.

A rather large collection, kindly forwarded from San Francisco, California, by a priest, seemed at first sight a treasure, but what were hastily believed to be rare and unpublished airs were later found to have been mainly copied from Bunting’s first and second collections.

Another manuscript collection, the cherished property of Mr. John Gillan, contained not alone rare tunes, but uncommonly good florid settings of others, from County Longford and County Leitrim.

Meeting an Irish-American of prominence one day, who was quite in sympathy with our musical vagaries, he generously offered to send us an old book of music which from his conversation we took to be an heirloom in his family. His father, whom I had known for years, was a fine type of the Irish emigrant who attains substantial prosperity in America. Taking those circumstances into consideration, there were good reasons to anticipate the discovery of a rare volume in the possession of such people. When the carefully wrapped package arrived, Sergeant O’Neill, with a tenderness bordering on veneration, untied it and disclosed the precious treasure – soiled and tattered, of course, from the handling of generations, as we supposed.

What our feelings and remarks were can be better imagined than described, when we found that in his innocence of music our patriotic friend had sent us a modern copy of Moore’s Melodies, which had evidently served many a day as a plaything for his children. That unsophisticated promoter of Irish music has since been elected and served as president of the “Irish Choral Society” of this city!

Occasional mention had been made of a large bound volume of music manuscripts in the possession of the widow Cantwell, but nobody believed that we could get more than a glance at it, under any circumstances. There was nothing to be lost by trying, so I called on the bereaved lady, wearing the full uniform of a Captain of Police, by way of introduction. Without hesitation the heirloom was produced, and, finding certain numbers suitable for our purpose, I asked permission for our scribe, Sergeant James O’Neill, to call and copy them. To my great delight, the obliging widow told me to take the book along, but to guard it carefully and return it, uninjured and undiminished, at my convenience.

She explained her reluctance in lending the volume to others. One seeker for hidden treasures, like the writer, to whom she had entrusted it, finding that copying music was tedious and tiresome, overcame the difficulty by just clipping out an odd leaf here and there, to save trouble.

In our social chat the identity of the late lamented Mr. Cantwell was disclosed.

At an Irish picnic at Willow Springs some years before, I recollected having seen him play a flute in the midst of a circle of admirers. Mosquitoes of the large gray timber variety were so numerous, ravenous and unafraid, that they perched on his quickly moving fingers in groups and tapped him assiduously for his blood. Mr. Cantwell, much as he loved music, could not endure this torture very long; so to give him a chance to resume the entertainment, one of the audience waved a handkerchief steadily over his hands while it continued.

Another sympathetic contributor was Mr. I. S. Dunning, former city engineer of Aurora, Illinois. Subsequent correspondence revealed him as an educated musician, particularly well versed in Scotch and Irish strains.

An instance of generous aid from an unexpected source was a call at my office at Police Headquarters, in 1901, from Edward Howard Mulligan, who brought with him a copy of Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Irish Airs, harmonized by Beethoven - two volumes in one. Mr. Mulligan was a high official in a large corporation, and, being the grandson of an Irish exile, racial friendship prompted his unselfish act.

I came near forgetting that Sergeant James O’Neill also possessed several volumes of manuscript music compiled by his father in Belfast and vicinity.

Notwithstanding the tendency to modernization in that great city of the North, the volumes were rich in characteristic Irish airs as truly traditional as those from the southern provinces. In his memory, also, as in the case of others of similar taste, the tender, plaintive songs of the crooning mother found tenacious lodgment.

Selections were made also from such scarce old printed collections as fell into our hands; and while many of our tunes had been previously printed, the settings obtained from our band of experts were preferable and not infrequently much superior to the printed versions.

The editor of Levey’s Dance Music of Ireland announces in a, footnote that he took the tunes without alteration from the street players of London, merely changing one sharp in one tune only. Monotonous and unattractive versions of many of the numbers in that work discredit the result of his conservatism. How much of the dance music originated will be explained later, so that it all depends on individual taste as to which version of a tune is the most meritorious; and as it has been transmitted orally, in most cases, from one generation to another, variants and diversity of settings have naturally multiplied.

Who, then, can lay claim to perfection; and why should palpably inferior versions or variants of traditional tunes be exempt from correction or alteration?

To compare, eliminate and revise the immense amount of material accumulated, became a question of such magnitude that it was deemed prudent to enlist the aid of an advisory committee. For this purpose Sergeant Early and Messrs. Delaney, McFadden, Cronin and Ennis were selected and a meeting arranged for at Sergeant James O’Neill’s residence in Brighton Park.

Our scribe played from his manuscripts, but there was scarcely an air or tune that was satisfactory to all. Changes were suggested and opposed so frequently that little progress was made. The more modest, but by no means the less skilful, gradually subsided, not caring to be engaged in continuous debate, until one opinionated and domineering member had it all to himself. One meeting demonstrated plainly that our scheme of consultation was a failure, and the “inquest committee,” as it came to be facetiously called, convened but once. The two O’Neills were obliged to exercise their own best judgment in continuing the work undertaken.

Ordinarily the music first noted down with pencil from the playing, singing, lilting, whistling or humming of the contributor, was played over by Sergeant O’Neill, and corrected or accepted, as the case might be. All strains considered worthy of preservation were subsequently copied in ink into books classified for convenience.

After over two thousand numbers had been so recorded there developed a general desire to have them printed. Then the question arose as to how comprehensive the work was to be. Were it to be confined to airs and tunes not generally known, leaving out those in common circulation, many music lovers would be disappointed - for every one realizes the inconvenience of being obliged to consult a number of books under such circumstances. And, again, how about such classics as “Kathleen Mavourneen” and “Killarney,” and others of Balfe’s composition, which are declared by some to be not Irish music at all? Besides, there were several of Moore’s Melodies, which every lover of the music of Ireland would naturally expect to find included in any large printed collection of Irish music.

The consensus of opinion was in favor of a popular work comprising such a variety as would be most likely to satisfy the preferences of all; and so that plan was adopted.

Then came the trying work of comparing various settings, eliminating the least desirable, and detecting duplicates. This may seem easy to some people, yet we found it a task of no ordinary difficulty. In some instances it was decided to print two and even three settings of the same tune, derived from different sources, each possessing some special merit.

Having listened to everything in our manuscripts played frequently, all strains were more or less familiar, new ones alone being easily detected, and it required great caution, aided by an acute ear and a retentive memory, to determine whether it was an hour or a month ago that a strain was heard among the hundreds played at a sitting, in quick succession. Duplicates, not infrequently written in different keys, are liable to pass undetected and add to the complexity of our problems.

Transcribing copy for the engraver was no small task; neither was proofreading, to persons burdened with the cares and importunities of official life all day, and occasionally all night. Exasperation hardly expresses one’s feelings when engravers and printers ignore or overlook corrections, and in some cases aggravate an error instead of correcting it.

When published, O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, financed and edited by the writer, was well received by the press and public, and the motives of its promoters justly appreciated. There was one discordant note, however, from an unexpected source, voiced by a clergyman of the city of Cork. His Reverence, of whose existence we were entirely ignorant, lectured on Irish Music in that famous city, warning his audience against the great danger to Irish music by the efforts of those who had not the advantage of being born and bred in the real traditional atmosphere, like himself.

Why, bless his simple soul! What could have led him to imagine that Watergrass Hill had a monopoly of the traditional atmosphere of County Cork, not to mention the rest of Ireland?

Although Petrie got as many as fifty notations of one melody, his Reverence dogmatically would tolerate no deviation from “old” settings. What strange patriotic fervor has awakened certain champions to almost deify Bunting and Petrie now, after more than half a century of silence and neglect! Their collections have to be sought, and are seldom found, in antiquarian bookshops, at almost prohibitive prices. Of what avail was it to the lover of his country’s music to know that copies of such music still exist?

With an array of titled patrons, including six Right Honorables, Petrie undertook the harmonization and publication of his collection of The Ancient Music of Ireland. One volume reached the public in 1855, followed by a small supplement many years after his death, and the project was abandoned. Why? Perhaps our reverend critic can tell. It takes money as well as zeal and skill to publish Irish music. Strangely ignoring all mention of the dance music and marches, which constitute nearly two-thirds of the collection, he directs his batteries at the airs. “There were Scotch airs,” he says, “such as `Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon,’ included in the collection as Irish.’ But were they Scotch? Anyone who will take the trouble to read the footnotes on page 80 of Wood’s Songs of Scotland, first edition, edited by George Farquhar Graham, will learn that the melody was claimed as being Irish long before Robert Burns appropriated it as an air for his verses. As a climax to dispose of the collection without benefit of clergy, he says: “All that was good in it was copied from Petrie, Bunting or Joyce” - a statement which would lead us to believe that the eighth commandment was suspended in Cork. The truth is that only the third volume of Bunting’s collections and the first part of Petrie’s were in the possession of the editor when O’Neill’s Music of Ireland was being compiled. Many manuscript collections, as well as old collections printed in Edinburgh, London, and New York, were on hand, such as Smith’s Irish Minstrel, Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Irish Airs, Crosby’s Irish Musical Repository, Forde’s Encyclopedia of Melody, and Haverty’s Three Hundred Irish Airs.

How, then, could airs derived from such sources be consistently credited to Petrie or Bunting, even though said airs were to be also found in their collections? Besides, more than one-half of the contents of O’Neill’s Music of Ireland was noted down from the singing or playing of residents of Chicago, and varied more or less from the settings of Petrie or Bunting.

There is no dearth of skillful Irish musicians in Chicago who were nurtured in “an Irish musical atmosphere” as favorable to a true appreciation of Irish music as that inhaled by our Cork critic. What have the Irish in Ireland done for Irish music since Petrie’s death? “By their fruits you shall know them.” Now, when Irishmen in America have invaded a long-neglected field, lo! a guardian of “true Irish music” is aroused to warn the people of Cork that “Irish music was in great danger.” It was, and is, in great danger - but from what source? The people who never do anything but criticize, or those who strive to keep Irish music alive by giving it publicity and prominence?

How peculiarly applicable to this case is the following quotation from an American editorial: “It is a curious trait of human nature that sometimes leads workers in an important cause to criticize most vigorously the very co-workers who are accomplishing the most for it.”

Every honest effort rightly directed deserves commendation and encouragement, even though the highest ideals may not be attained.

More and better Irish music can be heard in dozens of American cities than in Cork or even in Dublin. Why? Because it is encouraged, appreciated and paid for, and because the musician’s calling is in no way suggestive of mendicancy.

The recollection of the delightful times we enjoyed at Sergeant Kerwin’s hospitable home on Wabash Avenue will ever remain a milestone in our memories, and many are the vain regrets because they are no longer possible. In an evil moment an aggresive enthusiast conceived the idea of forming a permanent (?) organization, with monthly meetings in a rented hall, etc. Picnics and balls were to vary the anticipated pleasures and provide revenue which was to be disbursed among the musicians.

The prospectus being reasonable, no outspoken opposition developed and it was not long before the “Irish Music Club” was born and christened. It would appear that the officers of the new organization had been already selected in private caucus, the wheels ran so smoothly and the election therefore was a mere formality. One prominent piper who had conspicuously flung his initiation fee to the treasurer, left the hall in high dudgeon, when he had not even been nominated for any office, and never returned.

The club prospered, however, and increased in membership. Many citizens with Irish sympathies, though not of Irish ancestry, attended the monthly meetings, and the free midsummer picnics at “Leafy Grove” and everything went along swimmingly for a time. The members of the Club, men and women, vied with one another in the sale of tickets for the grand ball. Tactless management caused several unpleasant incidents and defections at that entertainment, but the storm did not break out until after the distribution of the proceeds. The President was criticised by one of his most intimate friends, yet in justice to the former, it must be admitted that he followed the plan as announced and accepted long before.

Instead of calmly discussing a trivial misunderstanding, for such, in fact, it was, moderate counsel could not prevail against the intemperate zeal to expel the critic from membership in the Club. Violence was narrowly averted, but the rift enlarged and disclosed the beginning of the end. The musicians began to drop away from that forth. Still a few excellent ones maintained their membership with great pertinacity for a year or two, but there came a time when tactless and undiplomatic outbursts could no longer be endured and the “Irish Music Club” was left without musicians worthy of the name.

Acknowledged energy and zeal on the part of a presiding officer could not condone the fatal failing of temperamental infirmities. Even in this emasculated condition, new members, impelled by their unquenchable love of Irish music and dancing, continued to come in and replenish the treasury for a time.

After less than eight years of inharmonious existence, the most enjoyable, companionable and representative association of Irish musicians, singers and dancers ever organized in America degenerated into a mere shadow of its former prominence, until its disruption in 1909, following a clash of mercenary interests. A reorganization since effected has endowed it with a new lease of life but the absence of a staff of competent musicians from its membership, renders the Club’s name an anomaly, and its potency for good not all that could be desired.

Irish music, however, is neither dead nor dying in this great western Metropolis, for a young generation of Irish-American musicians bids fair to rival their progenitors in the divine art “which gentler on the spirit lies, than tired eyelids upon tired eyes.”

Photo of Selena O'Neill, with Violin

Pre-eminent among them is Miss Selena A. O’Neill, a prize-winner at the Chicago Musical College. A violinist of phenomenal talent, she is equally proficient as a pianist, and while her training has been exclusively in the classical courses, such is her instinctive grasp of the peculiarities and swing of all varieties of Irish music, that her astonishing ability in playing the most difficult dance music in perfect time and thrilling spirit has attracted wide-spread attention. From a prize-winner at sixteen, what may we not hope for at maturity?

In the language of the poet Brooke she was

“Music to the tips of her fingers,

And interpreting with reverence her music;

She was touched from note to note.

With momentary moods of her own nature,

So that he that heard,

Not only loved her music, but herself.”

The seeds of revival sown by this pioneer club have germinated, however. An interest in Irish music and dancing had been awakened, and instead of one, there are now several correlated organizations conducted harmoniously in different parts of the city. To believe that an Irish piper would be the chief attraction at entertainments given by the “Chicago Athletic Association” and by a Presbyterian congregation would severely tax our credulity a few years ago, yet such is the fact in this year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and nine.

We must not forget, however, that success invites secession and rivalry. Whether prompted by egotism or mercenary motives, the desire to commercialize offshoots from a parent organization, betrays a sordid human frailty from which the Irish are by no means exempt. Such trivial devices as green ink, delusive letterheads, and whimsical stationery can never be as effective in arousing national sentiment or advancing the interests of a cause as unselfishness, co-operation, and singleness of purpose.

Dissensions in the “Irish Music Club” did not interfere with our work to any appreciable extent. Unpublished and forgotten melodies were sought with unabated persistence from year to year. While Sergt. O’Neill devoted his attention to one portion of the city, Mr. Cronin was equally industrious in another district. Including some forgotten tunes discovered by the writer in certain antiquarian publications of the 18th century, the result of our joint labors was highly gratifying. Nearly two hundred tunes, many of them both rare and valuable, were obtained since the publication of O’Neill’s Music of Ireland.

Scarcely any attention had been paid by collectors and publishers of Irish music to the compilation and preservation of dance tunes. Bunting, the first great collector, almost entirely ignored them in his three consecutive volumes, and the few included in Moore’s Melodies were, of course, vocalized and not intended for dancing. Dr. Petrie’s Ancient Music of Ireland, containing 147 numbers and published under his personal supervision in 1855, includes but seventeen dance tunes, while less than one-fourth of the one hundred numbers in Dr. Joyce’s Ancient Irish Music are of that class.

The first tangible result of our many years of incessant effort - O’Neill’s Music of Ireland - includes over 1,100 dance tunes classified for convenience, an amount many times more than were supposed to be in existence altogether. The appearance of this surprising aggregation aroused much latent enthusiasm in the ranks of a certain class of Irish musicians. Letters of approval came pouring in, many suggesting the issuance of a smaller and less expensive volume devoted to dance music exclusively.

To satisfy this demand the preparation of a new work entitled The Dance Music of Ireland - 1,001 Gems - was undertaken. It consisted of selections from The Music of Ireland and the additional tunes collected since that work was published.

Its only competitor was Levey’s Dance Music of Ireland, consisting of 200 tunes collected and printed in London in two volumes in 1858-1873. In this work the tunes are printed promiscuously, with no attempt at classification, but it is worthy of remark that it was in England and in America and not in Ireland that practical efforts of this character were made to preserve and popularize the dance music of the Emerald Isle.

What influence such belated enterprise may exert in stemming the tide of decadence to which Irish dance music seemed fated, the future alone can determine.

The best settings, representing all varieties, had been selected to make up the contents of O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland and it was gratifying to hear from all directions that in arrangement and comprehensiveness the collection exceeded all expectations.

Although much accumulated material yet remained unpublished we felt that our work was ended. Not so, however, for a demand for an edition arranged and harmonized for the piano was being voiced insistently. In the meantime I had discovered some rare and forgotten Irish melodies in a lately acquired volume of manuscript music formerly owned by H. Hudson of Stephens Green Dublin.

The handwriting, much of which was in Irish script, was neat but almost microscopic and the notes and remarks showed that the 130 tunes contained therein had been collected prior to the year 1840.

A consignment of interesting music manuscript was kindly forwarded by Rev. Father J. T. Walsh, East Hampton, Connecticut, about this time. He was a violinist of ability, whose isolation in that part of New England had kept him out of touch with Irish musical affairs for a fourth of a century. Not finding in the index to O’Neill’s Music of Ireland the names of certain tunes known to him in his boyhood days in County Waterford, his patriotism and love of the music of his native land prompted his generous act. That nice traditional dance tune entitled “Father Walsh’s Hornpipe” in O’Neill’s Irish Music for the Violin or Piano was contributed by him but without a name.

Too late for publication came a nice selection of dance tunes sent us by Mr. Patrick Dunn, of Thurles, Tipperary. Quite a few of them were unsuited to our purpose, being well-known English and American compositions, but his public spirit and generosity was none the less appreciated on that account. Mr. Dunn has been repeatedly a prize winner at Feisana and some of his tunes hitherto unpublished will appear in our next Series.

McGoun’s Repository of Scots and Irish Airs - an extremely rare work published about l799 - had also come into my possession. Many fine old Irish airs with variations, some of which are unknown to the present generation, were included in this splendid book.

From the sources named and from our previously published collections, a classified selection of 250 numbers, including Airs, Marches, Double jigs, Single jigs, Hop jigs, Reels, Hornpipes and Long Dances, were harmonized and printed as the First Series of O’Neill’s Irish Music for the Piano or Violin. To avoid conventional monotony none of Moore’s Melodies are included in our selections. The rare setting of the “Coolin” with six variations, which is printed in this volume, obviously constitutes no exception.

The acquisition of a library of antiquarian musical works chiefly devoted to Irish music through Cork and London book agencies enriches us with an almost embarrassing wealth of excellent Irish airs and tunes so completely forgotten or unknown in this generation that none of even the old members of the “Irish Music Club” had any knowledge of them.

For the benefit of any and all who may feel interested in the revival of Irish music the second series of O’Neill’s Irish Music, arranged for the piano or violin, will again bring to light some of the most charming specimens in the whole range of Ireland’s renowned Melodies.

“Melting airs soft joys inspire,

Airs for drooping hope to hear;

Melting as a lover ‘s prayer,

Joys to flatter dull despair,

And softly soothe the am‘rous fire.”