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Monday, June 25

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At this time of year there are two kinds of Irish in Chicago: those who plunge headlong into the parades, parties and festivities marking St. Patrick's Day, and those who avoid the crowds and inebriated merrymaking at all costs. Readers who prefer to celebrate the city's rich Irish heritage with a quiet pint and a good book can curl up with two recently released volumes that illuminate the world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Chicago Irish.

Francis O'Neill's memoir, Chief O'Neill's Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful Life in Chicago, edited by Ellen Skerrett and Mary Lesch (Northwestern University Press), describes the life of an Irish immigrant who landed in Chicago nearly penniless just before the Great Fire of 1871 and went on to become the city's superintendent of police at the turn of the century. In addition to a 32-year career with the police department, he also managed to publish nine books of traditional Irish and Celtic music, a comprehensive cataloging of melodies that would have largely vanished with the immigrant musicians across the city who kept them alive. Every Irish musician playing in local bars over the holiday owes a debt of gratitude — one readily acknowledged: Chicago musicians Brendan and Siobhan McKinney named their Elston Avenue pub Chief O'Neill's in his honor — to O'Neill's "fascinating hobby" and enthusiastic tune collecting.

James T. Farrell's A World I Never Made is the first of five-volume series originally published between 1936 and 1953 and now being re-released by the University of Illinois Press, with introductions by Farrell scholar and Southern Illinois University professor emeritus Charles Fanning. The pentalogy traces the lives of the fictional South Side O'Neill and O'Flaherty families over two decades in the early 20th Century. Best known for the enormously popular Studs Lonigan trilogy of the 1930s, Farrell was a prolific writer whose work explored the ambitions and struggles of both the Irish immigrant and the emerging Irish middle class in Chicago.

Chief O'Neill's Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful Life in Chicago

Francis O'Neill's life would have made for an engrossing tale even if he had died at the age of 21 instead of 87. Born in Tralibane, Cork in the famine year of 1848, O'Neill begins his memoir with recollections of hearing his father read news of the Crimean War to neighbors who had gathered around the farmhouse candlelight — and then translate into Irish for the non-English speakers. After finishing school and narrowly missing an opportunity to teach for the Christian Brothers, Francis left Ireland and began five years of picaresque teenage adventures on land and sea, circumnavigating the globe as a sailor before settling in America. His memories are the stuff of Victorian boyhood fantasies: swimming from ship to ship with a pile of books to trade tied to his head, escaping a shipwreck with a pet monkey chained around his neck, and most Dickensian, being cheated out of three years' worth of wages by a crooked boardinghouse landlady.

After a short stint as a schoolteacher in Missouri, O'Neill, newly married, moved to the booming post-Fire Bridgeport neighborhood in Chicago, where he worked a series of low-paying jobs and eventually saved enough money to build a $100 wooden "box" on Wallace Street. In 1873, O'Neill's application to the Chicago Police Department was rejected despite written testimonials on his behalf from citizens, former employers and even a member of Congress. This being Chicago, all it took was a simple nod from a sympathetic local alderman a short time later to put O'Neill in uniform.

The bulk of O'Neill's memoir charts his rise to the department's top position while battling an entrenched culture of cronyism and turf protection, familiar territory to anyone in the habit of reading the Second City Cop blog. Although he penned the memoir 25 years after his retirement and had nothing to lose in the undertaking, O'Neill writes with the discretion and restraint of a man of his generation, only naming names in a few instances yet still fully rendering the "rivalries, antagonisms, and intrigues" attendant to his career on the police force. "Everybody ... is the son of someone, a brother-in-law or relative of someone else whose friendship is valuable, or possibly a member of an organization which it will be found desirable to aid or placate." O'Neill was speaking about the sequence of events set in motion once a lawbreaker was arrested, but the same held true for the inner workings of the police department. By all accounts an "honest cop," he was transferred from district to district seven times in the two years before he became superintendent in 1901, and he incurred the wrath of First Ward alderman Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna for his ultimately successful campaign to clean up the notorious Levee vice district on the near South Side.

O'Neill's career spanned a turbulent era in Chicago history, and his memoir includes accounts (written from a policeman's perspective) of the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Haymarket Riot, and the 1901 arrest of anarchist Emma Goldman. The arcane entanglements of Chicago politics from a century ago slow the narrative at times, but the text is greatly enhanced by abundant explanatory photographs and illustrations included by editors Skerrett and Lesch. Lesch is Francis O'Neill's great-grandaughter; Skerrett is a scholar who has written and edited several books on Chicago's Irish and Catholic history. Her excellent essay "The Irish of Chicago's Hull-House Neighborhood" (New Perspectives of the Irish Diaspora, Southern Illinois University Press) is both a de-canonization of Jane Addams and an engrossing look inside the world of a 19th Century Irish-Catholic parish. She is also the author of a forthcoming history of Loyola University.

Readers who only know Francis O'Neill as the man who saved traditional Irish music for future generations will be surprised by the memoir's near total absence of reminiscences about the local musical milieu that fueled O'Neill's extraordinary tune collecting. More understandably, he makes little mention of his family life: only four of his 10 children survived into adulthood, the others dying of the infectious diseases common in Chicago's early years. In a poignant note in the introduction, Skerrett reveals that out of respect for his wife Anna, O'Neill never again played music in the home after the 1904 death of their sole surviving son, Rogers. The full portrait — O'Neill the husband, father, musician and policeman — may have to wait, but until then, Chief O'Neill's Sketchy Recollections of an Eventful Life in Chicago tells the story as the Chief wanted it told, the tale of a young Irish seafarer who dropped anchor in Chicago and rose through the police ranks to become the city's top cop.

A World I Never Made

James T. Farrell's A World I Never Made begins the five-novel saga of the O'Neills and O'Flahertys, two Irish American families related by marriage but living in vastly different economic circumstances on Chicago's south side in the year 1911. The working class O'Neills — Jim, Lizz and five of their six children — live in a small, dirty cold water flat with outdoor plumbing, in an immigrant neighborhood around 25th and LaSalle (now vanished under the juncture of the Dan Ryan and Stevenson expressways). The O'Flahertys — Mary, the Irish-born matriarch, her single adult children Al and Margaret (or Peg), and Mary's 7-year-old grandson Danny O'Neill — live a few miles south in Washington Park and enjoy a more comfortable life in an apartment with separate bedrooms, steam heat and a telephone.

On the surface the two families exist in separate worlds: Al O'Flaherty is a successful shoe salesman who travels around the Midwest on business, Jim O'Neill is an overworked teamster who always smells of horse manure; Peg O'Flaherty holds a good position as a cashier at a downtown hotel, her sister Lizz, Jim's spouse, is an unkempt housewife who wears a dirty rag under her chin to assuage the pain of her rotting teeth. In the middle is young Danny, an O'Neill sent to live with the O'Flahertys with the hope that his mother's family can provide the boy with a better future.

What the characters share are the hopes, aspirations, regrets and insecurities of first generation Americans making their way in a world that offers opportunities denied their parents. Of all the family members, Al O'Flaherty comes closest to living up to the expectations such opportunities create, though not without a heavy dose of posturing. Obsessed with self improvement, he reads uplifting volumes like The Letters of Lord Chesterfield, likes to use recently-acquired words like bienseance and defugalities ("Ever hear of Nicholas Algonquin Webster?" he asks a fellow salesman.), and refers flirtingly to women as countess and peacherinoes.

The others lack Al's go-getting, typically American attitude. Peg lives in constant fear that her employers will discover that she's stealing from the hotel till, and she depends on lovers — one a wealthy married Protestant who is embroiled in a political scandal — for handouts. In drunken rages, she blames her unhappiness on her family and her lot as an unmarried daughter and sister. Jim and Lizz have no hopes for success in their own lives and project a brighter future on their children.

When the word sin appears on the first page of a novel, as it does in A World I Never Made, it's fair to assume that religion will be a major theme in the work, and Farrell is harsh in his portrayal of the superstitious Catholicism practiced by the O'Neills and O'Flahertys. Lizz uses money better spent on her ever-growing brood to buy masses for deceased relatives and purchase holy water from the nearby Italian church — this despite her contempt for the neighborhood "dagos" who attend the church. Peg sends stolen money to the Poor Clares sisters in exchange for prayers that her cash box pilfering won't be detected. And when Danny becomes ill with a fever on Christmas, his grandmother Mary furiously sprinkles him with holy water and screams "Begone Satan! Begone before I stick pitchforks in you!" During a drunken brawl that foretells the hysterical mother-daughter battles of Anglo-Irish writer Martin McDonagh's career-launching The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the sharp-tongued Mary falls to her knees and summons God and the saints to punish her daughter Peg:

"Holy Virgin, Mother of God, may the blackest curses of the Devil fall upon my sinful chippy of a daughter that came ass-end out of my backside on the day that she was born! May she live in want, die like a pig, and be buried in a potter's field! Blessed Jesus, may all your curses and evils be poured on her head like dirty water used to feed the pigs! Blessed Jesus, may her teeth fall out, and may she die blind!"

A few days later, when another drunken argument between the two leads to physical violence in the apartment hallway, Danny cowers in his room crying, praying to God to make them stop.

A young boy continually trying to make sense of a world that alternately comforts and frightens him, Danny is the character who ultimately becomes the focus of the O'Neill-O'Flaherty saga. He is the counterpoint to the protagonist of Farrell's earlier work, the Studs Lonigan trilogy, also set in Washington Park. Fortunately for readers who suffered vicariously through Studs Lonigan's relentless downhill spiral, Danny has better things in store for him. Although A World I Never Made doesn't end with a cliffhanger that will propel readers to the next volume in the series, No Star is Lost (now available from the University of Illinois Press), the characters are so richly drawn that we'll be reluctant to end our acquaintance with this Irish American family of early twentieth century Chicago.

 

About the Author(s)

John Gerard McLaughlin is a freelance writer and author of the book Irish Chicago. He last wrote for Gapers Block in 2003.

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