Honored June 16, 2018
John O’Neill grew up in the village of Labasheeda, County Clare and proudly spoke of it as if it were a major metropolis. One of 12 children, John emigrated at 19 via the RMS Queen Elizabeth, from Southampton, England to Ellis Island, arriving November 3rd, 1949. The ship’s manifest lists his destination as 157 W.98th St., NY.
John’s brother James emigrated shortly thereafter and the two immersed themselves in the Irish music scene; John as a musician, James as a singer. They turned to Irish music to offset their homesickness and, as for many with so much talent, a way to make or supplement their livelihoods. For both, music was their “side job”, but their passion. John worked as a Bus Operator and Road Instructor for Queens Transit Corporation (MTA) for 38 years and created many opportunities for Irishmen.
John was primarily a self-taught musician who played the button accordion, the saxophone, and drums. Early on he would often be found playing at the Jaeger House, The City Centre, and The Tuxedo Ballroom. John’s band frequented Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland to play at events and weddings of couples who met at these venues; John’s children would often hear, “your father played at our wedding”. Joining John were many friends and gifted musicians including Paddy Killoran, Charlie Mulvihill, Tim Carmody, Murt Collins, Jimmy and Paul Linehan, Tommy Mulvihill, Martin Mulhaire, Don Gallagher, Charlie McGee, Tony McDonald, Paddy Noonan, the Connolly’s (Mary, Mattie and Pete), Pat Melville and Adrian Flannelly. Musicians could be found many an evening at the O’Neill house practicing or meeting before a gig. Tommy Mulvihill, who began his Irish music career with John while in high school, speaks of being picked up on a Friday afternoon to play a Friday night gig, doubles on Saturday and Sunday, to be returned home just in time for school on Monday!
John regularly played at the Doonbeg Social Club, Kerry Hall, many County Dances and musical tours of Ireland. He attended the Willie Clancy Festival and Fleadh as it traversed Ireland. Clonmel, Derry, Sligo, Cavan and Thurles were among his destinations and a trip to Ireland was not complete without a stop to Cois na hAbhna. John was in his glory in 1976 when the Fleadh was in Ennis and held his breath annually as the Fleadh Committee decided where the event would go, more often than not making the announcement that Ennis was not awarded the Fleadh!! A lifelong dream came true when it was held in Ennis in 2016, a trip that would be John’s last to his beloved homeland.
John and his wife Beatrice (nee Fitzgerald) were married for 58 years. Beatrice loved Irish music and dancing sets and was a regular at Irish venues. They had 4 children: Tommy, Maureen, Geraldine (Tommy), and Kevin (AJ), and 10 grandchildren: Matthew, Brian (Julianne), Deirdre, Michael, Christopher, Daniel, Jacqueline, Lauren, Brixton, and Collins. John and Beatrice’s love of Irish music and culture is instilled in their children and grandchildren, John was often joined on stage by his musician sons, Tommy and Kevin.
John died April 12, 2017, six weeks after Beatrice, their funerals were a testament of their love of family, friends, Irish music and culture and exemplified how Irish music has passed on to the next generation, something that John adored. Joanie Madden, Tommy Mulvihill, Buddy Connolly, Frankie McCormick, John Vesey, Kenny Vesey, Mattie Connolly, Brian Bugsy Moran, Kathleen Vesey-Fee helped provide their “send-off”. The rector at St. Anne’s in Garden City, NY endearingly said, ”the O’Neill’s can have a funeral here any time; you come with your own priest and musicians…all we do is open the door!”
John has been honored by the American-Irish Musicians Society, the County Clare PB&S Association, the Doonbeg Social Club and others. This honor bestowed by Mid-Atlantic Comhaltas Ceoltoírí Éireann is a recognition he would be very proud of, his family is very grateful. It is even more endearing that this Hall of Fame was founded by John’s great buddy and fellow Clareman, John Whelan. There is no doubt there is no eternal rest if they are together; they are enjoying a Clare set with their wives, while waiting for the Fleadh to return to Ennis!!