The man

Francis O’Neill, from Tralibane near Bantry, in County Cork, left Ireland in 1865, at seventeen years old. He spent four years as an itinerant sailor, circling the globe; he was shipwrecked on a barren Pacific island and nearly starved; he herded sheep in the Sierra Nevada foothills, sleeping under the stars for five months. He taught school for a year in rural Missouri; and spent a summer sailing freight on the great lakes. Settled in Chicago by 1871, he worked in meat packing houses, lumber mills and freight yards. When he found his advancement blocked he joined the police. Despite getting shot in his first month on duty, through talent, hard work, patronage connections and favors he rose to General Superintendent of Chicago Police, the “chief,” by 1900. Late in his police career, enjoying a very comfortable retirement, he published a series of books on Irish music. These books made him a hero in Ireland: he preserved a heritage that might otherwise have vanished, and a memorial statue now stands near his birthplace.

The Music

O’Neill collected a wide range of the music he heard Irish immigrants playing in Chicago, and also avidly sought out published collections of Irish tunes. He specialized in dance music, the music of rural people.

These were instrumental tunes, typically played by a single person for dancers. The player should have a lot of what O’Neill called swing” or “lift,” a quality of rhythmic drive.

Most of these tunes had no formal names, and no author–different people called them different things. Players were expected to vary the tunes, adding “ornaments” or substituting slightly different phrases and notes.

Most commonly, musicians played Jigs, Reels, and Hornpipes. There are other forms–waltzes, polkas, slip jigs, barndances–but Jigs and Reels, and Hornpipes, are the most common. Most commonly, each tune has an “A” section, played twice, and a “B” section, played twice.


Jigs are in 3/4 time. You can tell its a jig if the word “emphasis, emphasis, emphasis” or the phrase “rashers and sausages, rashers and sausages, rashers and sausages” fit against the melody. Below is a commonly played Jig, “Out On the Ocean,” O’Neill would have played and included in his collections.

Out on the Ocean


Reels are in 4/4/ time. The phrase “double-decker, double decker” fits against the melody of a reel. O’Neill learned this one he said, from a blind widow in Tralibane

Rolling in [or sometimes “on”] the Ryegrass


Hornpipes are also in 4/4 but have, depending on the player, a dotted 8th note feel, a kind fo “gallop.”


This is the companion website to Policing the Jig: Francis O’Neill and the Invention of Irish Music, by Michael O’Malley, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in Spring 2022.

Chapter One: Bantry Bay

In late afternoon on December 30, 1903, Chicago’s lavish, ornate Iroquois theater caught fire. During a sold out performance of Mr. Bluebeard, a lighting fixture set the curtain blazing: smoke billowed into the theater and terrified people rushed for the exits. When they wrenched the outer doors open the cold winter air ignited a firestorm. People struggled desperately to escape, trampling each other; they leaped from the balcony and crushed those beneath them; they died at the exits, overcome by smoke and heat and flame. 

That very moment Chief Superintendent of Police Francis O’Neill sat a block away, in City Council Chambers, at a hearing into charges of graft; one of his lieutenants, a man he’d known for years, accused of coercing protection money. Show hearings like this happened regularly in Chicago, and O’Neill knew how this would play out. Outraged citizens demanded reform. Public hearings gave the appearance of action; officials testified, reporters reported, stories went from the front pages to the back, then things went back to normal.

As he sat there looking dutifully solemn O’Neill probably had an old Irish tune running through his head: he nearly always did. Part of it seemed familiar–what other tune did it remind him of? He couldn’t quite place it. It nagged at him. Then an officer appeared and whispered news of the fire in his ear: O’Neill excused himself and rushed to the scene. 

He arrived as the fire still burned. He and his officers made their way against panicked crowds in and up to the second balcony, where few had escaped. Working by lantern light they found the stuff of nightmares: the dead, hundreds of them, tangled in a mass, “piled eight or ten high,” many burned beyond recognition. Worse, they could hear sounds of people alive within the piles of bodies, and they worked in feverish despair to get them out.

About 600 people died in the fire: O’Neill supervised the removal of nearly all of them, and as the crisis eased reporters turned to the Chief for an official account of the scene. Exhausted and horrified, he told them: “If you ever saw a field of Timothy grass blown flat by the wind and rain of a summer storm, that was the position of the dead at the exits of the second balcony.”

From the cold and the dark, the char and stench of the ruined theater he reached back to memory of his childhood in Ireland: wind blown grass and summer storms: rain and sun, not fire and ice, the season of growth, not of death. Against a trauma particular to the industrial city he called up an image of rural life; asked to make a record for history he offered a memory of a different place and time.

The Music


Michael O’Malley


Department of History and Art History

George Mason University