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Adventure-filled life reimagined

"Chief O'Neill: A Novel," is the first book by Ronan O'Driscoll, a Kerry native currently living in Nova Scotia.

Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely

Folks, don’t forget about the Catskills Irish Arts Week’s “Virtual Taste of Irish Arts Week,” which will go online next week, July 12-16! You may remember that last year, Reidin O’Flynn put in the work to ensure that the CIAW would persevere; despite last fall’s pandemic projections and the current fluid post-ish pandemic moment, she’s managed to do the job admirably this year as well. The instructors she’s brought on board are top class (as always), so once again there is a lot to look forward to.

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Enrollment confers up to eight weeks access to a large number of pre-recorded master classes; to chat rooms to communicate with other students and to ask questions of your instructors; and to pre-recorded concerts, listening rooms, and lectures. That’s quite a bit of value and a great summertime activity, especially since not everyone is super comfortable getting out “as usual.” To learn more about the instructors and to enroll in CIAW, visit catskillsirishartsweek.com.

In other news, I’ve just caught the video for John Francis Flynn’s “My Son Tim,” the first single from his forthcoming album “I Would Not Live Always,” and it’s very, very cool. Flynn is the singer & flute player for the band Skipper’s Alley, who I’ve written about here in the past, and he’s given us a fabulous, modern-traditional take on a well-known song dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. The video, in which Flynn is joined by Skippers Alley bandmate Paddy Cummins, brings a cinematic “Repo Man”-type vibe to the table that I find very intriguing. (You’ll find yourself wondering what was it in the boot that brought about Paddy’s St Vitus' dance.) “I Would Not Live Always” will release on July 30, and based on the initial single it should be a very interesting album, indeed – I’m excited to hear the whole thing. To view the full range of preorder/presave options, visit ffm.to/johnfrancisflynn.

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This week I’ve been reading Ronan O’Driscoll’s “Chief O’Neill: A Novel,” a new work of historical fiction based on the remarkable life of the Chicago police chief Francis O’Neill. O’Neill’s name is well known to serious traditional music fans. His books “Music of Ireland” (1903) and “The Dance Music of Ireland” (1907) collected and preserved thousands of tunes and continue to be mainstays today, while “Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby” (1910) and “Irish Minstrels and Musicians” (1913) are captivating examinations of the music as it was played during the 19th and at the turn of the 20th centuries. It is fair to say that no single individual did as much for the tradition as O’Neill did.

Originally from Tralee, O’Driscoll has moved around a bit over the years, with stints in Chicago and Japan; he is now based in Nova Scotia. Professionally, he was in IT and taught computer programming at the university level, but he walked away from it mid-pandemic, exhausted by it all, to make a go at writing. This is O’Driscoll’s first novel. (A second has just been published.)

“Chief O’Neill” presents a gripping story that seems like a figment of O’Driscoll’s imagination until you learn that the framework for this novelization comes from O’Neill’s own accounts. He not only traveled around the world (including Egypt, the Black Sea, Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope, Indian Ocean, South Pacific, Hawaii, Mexico, West Indies, and elsewhere), he found adventure everywhere he went, and at times music played a critical role. O’Driscoll embellishes O’Neill’s travels by imagining the things that might have happened to him in these places. It’s a fun ride, well done, and a lovely way to better get to know O’Neill the person, presented here as a dauntless and moral man with a Zelig-like fortune.

O’Driscoll writes with clear, descriptive prose that captures the nuance of the period of which he writes, giving the book the throwback feel of 19th-century adventure fiction. The book divides O’Neill’s experience into two parts that represent the basic “phases” of his life. “Sea,” which encompasses four chapters, chronicles his travels around the world on merchant vessels; and “Fire,” which encompasses three, takes place in post-Great Fire Chicago. Individual episodes are headed by tune titles that would be familiar to anyone who knows traditional music and give an inkling about content. The prose moves quickly and in a way that brings readers into the action. Very entertaining stuff.

Prior to O’Driscoll’s novelization, there have been but a pair of books devoted to O’Neill’s life, Nicholas Carolan’s brilliant biography “A Harvest Saved: Francis O'Neill and Irish Music in Chicago” (1997) and “Chief O'Neill's Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful Life in Chicago” (2008), O’Neill’s own memoir annotated by his great-granddaughter Mary Lesch and the historian Ellen Skerrett. Both of these books are highly recommended to anyone interested in O’Neill’s life.

But what O’Driscoll’s book does that these books largely don’t is deliver O’Neill’s story the cosy readability of fiction. It lets us imagine what O’Neill was like to be around and the nature of the kinds of experiences the person who “saved” Irish music might have had as a young man. “Chief O’Neill” is an entertaining book that I can recommend to folks interested in traditional Irish music. But this isn’t strictly a book for folks of Irish heritage in general or the musically inclined in particular. Rather, it’s also a great book that can be recommended to anyone with an interest in historical adventure and travel fiction, or maybe anyone just looking for a good story. Check it out! To learn more, visit O’Driscoll’s website ronanodriscoll.com.

In closing, I want to take a moment to mark the recent passing of the great Martin Connolly. A noted accordion builder and photographer, Connolly was overall a musician’s musician. He came from a noted musical family in Clare, with both of his parents, two of his brothers (Michael and Seamus), and his son Damien all inheriting the musical gene. A multiple All-Ireland winner in his youth, he was included on several recordings over the years, and had two of his own, including the legendary “The Fort Of Kincora” (with Maureen Glynn, 1987). Connolly’s passing is a major loss to traditional music, but an even bigger loss to the Connolly family – my most sincere condolences go out to them.