For those in the know, Chief O’Neill’s is one of the best Irish pubs in the city. Avid pub-goers to suburbanites have all heard of fadó and the Irish Oak, but few have heard of O’Neill’s – so much the better. Formerly a dart bar called Oinker’s, O’Neill’s stands out on a desolate stretch of North Elston Avenue in the somewhat out-of-the-way Avondale neighborhood but that hasn’t impacted its popularity. The pub itself was named after Chief Francis O’Neill, who left Ireland to eventually become the Chief of Police in Chicago (no small task for a poor Irish immigrant). In his honor, O’Neill’s serves up excellent Irish fare, offers traditional Irish music almost every night of the week, hosts a pub quiz on Mondays that many have tried to imitate, throws events on every holiday, anchors the newly created Avondale Street Festival, and has one of the best beer gardens in the city.
Since December, 2000, O’Neill’s has been located at the corner of Roscoe and Elston. As Roscoe does not go through to the west, head west down Addison and then turn south onto Elston. There, Chief O’Neill’s navy blue sign and wooden harp hails you in. Parking is not a problem at all but don’t drink and drive. Head through the worn wooden doors, and you’ll find the ceramic tiled front room known as the “Public House” that harkens back to pubs back on the auld sod. Here, locals both American and Irish linger over pints of Guinness, particularly when the weather doesn’t support cavorting in the beer garden and the fireplace beckons. Around the room are several tables and booths, stained glass windows, and Chief O’Neill’s uniform nicely framed in a wood and glass case. A decent-sized wooden bar serves libations from the north end of the room, complete with another wooden harp behind it. There aren’t any televisions in the Public House, or the rest of the pub for that matter, so you might actually have to talk to someone.
Born Daniel Francis O’Neill in Tralibane, County Cork, Ireland in 1848, O’Neill was a free spirit, heavily influenced by the traveling musicians that took up lodging in his childhood home. After a falling out with the local church, O’Neill became a cabin boy on an English ship that took him around the world. In 1871, O’Neill got married and settled down in Chicago. Not long after, O’Neill became a cop and was shot in the back by a notorious criminal on one of his first beats. With the bullet lodged near his spine, which would remain in his back until he died, O’Neill was able to chase down the crook and arrest him. Partly due to his stoicism and his unwillingness to abide by corruption, O’Neill received numerous promotions and became Chief of Police in 1901. At that time, O’Neill led over 3,000 officers – two-thirds of which were Irish. O’Neill spent 32 years on the force and then went on to publish over 1,800 Irish songs he had collected throughout his lifetime in a work entitled, O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, in 1903.
Contrary to popular belief, Chief O’Neill was not actually a member of the Chicago Emerald Society, a.k.a., “Cops in Kilts”. As Dan Burke, an Emerald Society member, points out: “My dad was the founder of the Emerald Society of Illinois, the Irish American Police Association. The Emerald Society of Illinois was founded in 1975, and my dad served as President from 1975 to 1983. As much as we would like to claim Chief Francis O’Neill a member of the Emerald Society… it is virtually impossible. Although, I imagine he is a member in spirit because he is a good example of what the Emerald Society stands for: promoting Irish Heritage to the thousands of Law Enforcement Officers that are proud to be Irish. The Pipes and Drums of the Emerald Society was founded in 1982. I am proud to be a member and bagpiper with the Pipes and Drums and an unofficial historian of the Emerald Society by virtue of my heritage.” Thanks, Dan, for the clarification.
In addition to honoring fallen police officers and fire fighters, the Emerald Society marches in the annual South Side Irish Parade. Today, the Society marches with the McGann Clan from the South Side. For years, the Emerald Society didn’t march at all but, after simply being asked by Uncle Andy of the McGann family (formerly the state rep for the 18th ward), their bagpipes can now be heard loud and clear on their march down Western Avenue. I once had the pleasure of marching with the McGann Clan. In fact, we walked right behind the Emerald Society and listened to their music the whole way, which was quite fantastic. That was the same year when several New York City police officers were first invited to march with the McGann Clan, and all were in high spirits following the parade’s end when we headed to the McGann Funeral Home for food and libations.
Today, owners Brendan and Siobhan McKinney, along with other local musicians like Dennis Cahill and George Casey, keep the spirit of Irish music alive and well at O’Neill’s. Musicians play on a good-sized wooden stage in the spacious dining room. This room, with its many polished wooden tables, is a great place to have a meal. It is smoke free and boasts hardwood floors, an ornate Celtic-tiled ceiling, exposed brick walls, electric lights that look like the old-fashioned gas variety, a well-stocked back bar, a traditional Irish dancer’s dress behind a glass case, and lots of windows facing the beer garden. The dining room evokes the feel of a large Dublin pub. Sunday afternoons attract a family crowd, and I once witnessed the staff of O’Neill’s come out and sign Happy Birthday to a neighborhood patriarch complete with bagpipe accompaniment. Additional “entertainment” can now be found upstairs in the Chief’s nightclub, hosting a DJ and two dance floors, in the modern-day spirit of metropolitan Irish pubs.
While traditional Irish music has tremendous personal appeal for me, the Pub Quiz held every Monday at the Chief in the dining room has even more. Registration begins around 7:30 p.m. when teams begin congregating and registering clever names like “Kathleen Turner Overdrive,” “The Steve Perry Experience,” “Hello Vickar,” “Giraffes with Friggin’ Lasers on their Heads,” “I Love Ewe,” and “Three Oranges Please.” The cost is $5 per person, with a maximum number of five people per team. Ten teams in total are allowed. Winners receive 75% of the kitty and the remaining is donated by Chief O’Neill’s to the National Autism Research Foundation. From how my team played on the first night, I’m surprised we did not receive that 25%, if you know what I mean, as we came in last place out of ten teams by a comfortable margin after eight rounds. The team selected as having the best name also wins a prize. The contest begins around 8:00 p.m. or whenever the Scottish host, Ewan Dickson, gets there and it runs until about 11:00 p.m. A word of caution: the pub quiz is no Trivial Pursuit or NTN. The quiz is difficult. Very difficult. One has to know much about Ireland and an incredibly wide variety of trivia. Among the questions we were asked included: What city housed the federal prison where Al Capone stayed before his transfer to Alcatraz? (Atlanta); What disease killed 90% of Ethiopian cattle in 1989? (Rinderpest – that pesky, highly contagious morbillivirus disease of ungulates); What country bombed the U.S. ship “Liberty” during the Six-Day War? (Israel). There were also a few themed categories, one of which consisted of answers beginning with the prefix “con” and another where we had to match the state with the name of the military base located there. Adding to the difficulty of the questions is the maddening ability of the “regulars” (teams that have competed since the Pub Quiz started in August 2001) to get all or at least the vast majority of these questions right while the rest of us morons sit there horrified. And when they don’t, they like to argue the validity of the answers with Ewan who doesn’t want a bar of it. Even with this frustration, the Pub Quiz is a must-attend (at least once) for professional pub-goers. All in all, the American crowd knew a lot of trivia, but sadly and stereotypically little about geography. Other pub quizes can be found hosted at The Globe Pub, Ginger’s Ale House and at the Local Option.
Can you spot yours truly?
New Year’s Eve 2000
One thing that was salvaged after my first Pub Quiz experience was that a coat was exchanged two years after the initial mix-up. The year was 2000 and it was New Year’s Eve. The day started off innocently enough following a ride into the Ukrainian Village with a singing cab driver, a traditional lunch of Mexican food at Tecalitlan on Chicago Avenue, pints of Guinness and pool at the Charleston in Bucktown where we watched almost every country’s Millennium celebration as the clocks ticked over, and pre-gaming at my apartment with red wine and rum. We then headed over to a friend-of-a-friend’s New Year’s Eve party on Clybourn. Located above Jayson Gallery, his apartment measured over 5,000 square feet and featured stunning views of downtown. I had gone to a party there previously and, instead of being your boring old house party, our host invited the band Sticky who regularly plays at the Webster’s Wine Bar. Anyway, we were up for a party that could have up to 1,000 people. Instead, when we arrived after 10:00pm, we literally brought the party as a crowd consisting of six Australians, one Kiwi, my lone American friend, and myself. This was fortuitous as the party was catered for 1,000 people. As a result, we felt it was our duty to eat and drink as much as possible, which turned out to be second nature for the Antipodeans. Near the end of the evening, my American friend was so loaded that he passed out for 45 minutes standing up against a red couch with unusually high arms. When it was time to go, he repaid the gracious hospitality of our host by puking on the landing right outside his door and taking the wrong suit jacket, thinking it was the one he had brought. Sadly, a Teletubbies sippy-cup was also lost in the kafuffle. However, the cab ride back to Lakeview with one of the Australians yelling “Gnarly dude!” out the window for the entire ride made up for it. My vomitous friend then woke up early the next morning, on an air mattress that had deflated during the night, to make flight back to the Big Apple. The rest of us headed over to the Melrose on Roscoe for grease and coffee. Right before our order was taken, “Gnarly dude” did a runner from the table. He came back just as we were about to finish our “breakfast” (at 2:00 p.m.) and related the story of how he went to the Closet up the street on Broadway for a beer as part of his “hair of the dog” remedy, and how he only rejoined us in time after he was asked to leave for sleeping at his table. As for the suit coat exchange, because of various people moving, lost phone numbers and general apathy, it took two years for the coats to be exchanged (through intermediaries) and Chief O’Neill’s saw witness to this ridiculous event.
The expansive beer garden at Chief O’Neill’s, located just beyond the dining room, is framed with high wooden fencing and adorned with a variety of tables, a seal, a few ceramic pigs (a holdover from Oinker’s?), a garage that sports neon beer signs and that was recently converted into a bar, and a large grassy area in the middle manicured well enough to be considered a lawn. There is plenty of seating out there, with waitress service to boot.
While fadó, Cullen’s, The Grafton, and Galvin’s Public House serve excellent Irish food, I have not had better than O’Neill’s. The cheese & Guinness soup was sensational, the shepherd’s pie glorious, and bangers and mash that I would kill for. O’Neill’s also serves such specialties as Galway Bay mussels, Harp-battered onions, curry chips, Irish stew, corned beef, and of course, fish & chips. A lunch menu has recently been added. When Mother Nature beckons, head to the enormous bathrooms, labeled “Derry Air” for the ladies’ and “Chief’s Relief” for the gents’. The hallway opposite is decorated with Irish artwork, furnished recently by Ireland at a Glance – 5249 W. Leland, (773) 777-5289.
Thoughts of Irish travel stir the imagination while having a beer, a meal and a bit of craic at O’Neill’s. Traditional Irish music, pub quizzes, excellent food, a phenomenal beer garden, and a cool neighborhood crowd completes the picture. For information on upcoming Irish bands, to join their mailing list or to check out pictures of recent events, check out Chief O’Neill’s website. Erin go bragh!