Sunday, November 19, 2017

William O'Neill (1841-1868)


(Courtesy of Eril Wangarek)

In the early days of Melbourne, with its large Irish population, and often with a generation among them that were illiterate, there was a deep need (as with the English and Scots portion of our population) for those things that soften the grief of immigration. Indeed, my own great great grandfather's family held a wake when he emigrated to Australia, as they knew they would never see him again, and would probably never hear from him unless he paid a letter-writer (many time, a Priest, if willing) to send word home, which in turn, would have to put into the hands of the village letter-reader, for a fee.

The need in Melbourne therefore, for Irish songs and performances, with medicinal sentimentality accompanied by all the Hibernian ephemera and 'craic' was vital to the relationship of audience to performer. This phenomenon is nothing new, of course, but it was ritually observed here in Melbourne by people such a William O'Neill, a native New South Welshman (so history recalls). I will leave some of his details courtesy of 'Autolycus' of 1905:

“A correspondent desires information concerning William O’Neil, one of the notable Irish comedians of the ‘sixties.’ His first performance in Melbourne was at the Haymarket theatre on February 13, 1865, when he played Barney in the comic drama ‘Barney the Baron’, and ‘Paddy Murphy’ in the farce of ‘The Happy Man.’ Hoskins was then the lessee and manager of the Haymarket.  Barry Sullivan, being advised of O’Neill's coming to the rival house, had enagaged Shiel Barry for the Royal, so that for a time Hibernian plays filled the nightly bill at both houses.

Barry was a native of New South Wales. His experience was limited to Australia. He was youthful, and there was a strong flavour of that amateur crudity in his work. O’Neill, as an Irish low comedian was a very clever and entertaining actor. Excepting his predecessor John Drew, he was probably the best type ever seen in Australia. His brogue was smooth, mellow, and genuine. His face – lit up with bright, genial eyes – was radiantly humorous  He sang Irish songs, comic and sentimental, with great art and much expression. He danced the Irish jig with wondrous grace and agility. It was impossible to be dull when O’Neill sang the patter song ‘Paddy's Wedding’ an excruciatingly droll story, told with infinite humour. His rendering of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home,’ with his own drum compliment, was a brilliant effort, and the 'Birth of Saint Patrick' invariably drew many encores. Equally successful work ‘I Was Born a Janius,’ ‘Finnegans Wake,’ and the always welcome “Cruiskeen Lawn.”


O’Neill was not merely a comic vovalist. He sang ‘Will Thou be my Bride, Kathleen?’ (in ‘Rory O’More’) with much sweetness and tenderness. As Miles-na-Coppaleen, in ‘The Colleen Bawn,’ he made the ballad ‘Eily Dear’ a delightfully melodious item. His comic songs ended, or were blended with step dancing, and this feature in the performance was very popular. O’Neill’s Irish jig was a work of art, in grace and rythym of movement. It was one of those intoxicating thins that put an audience in a frenzy of delight. Hundreds of feet kept eager time to the lively music, and, when the dance ended, hundreds of excited spectators stood up and wildly clamoured for more. The jig was often repeated, for it was only when O’Neill was visibily exhausted that his admirers were satisfied.

In dramatic work he equally good, his enactment of a drunken scene was realistically natural as to be almost an examle of genius. During his first engagement, which terminated on March 23, O’Neill appeared in a variety of parts. Besides those already indicated, he played Tim More, in ‘The Irish Lion,’ ‘Handy Andy, paddy Miles in ‘The Limerick Boy.’ O’Bryan in ‘The Irish Emigrant,’ and Barney O’Toole in ‘The Peep o’ Day.’ A notable event of the O’Neill season was the final farewell benefit of that illustrious actor, Joseph Jefferson, on the 17th March, 1865. Jefferson appeared as the immortal ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and as Tobias Shortcut in that amazingly ludicrous farce, ‘The Spitfire.’ Between the piece O’Neill gave ‘Paddy’s Wedding’ and the irresistable jig performance. When the curtain dropped, Australians had seen their last of one who, in his own line, was the greatest actor of the century, and great was their loss in his departure.” [THE ARGUS, SAT 11 FEB 1905]
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NEIL.-On the 24th ult, at No. 2 Farie-street, Fitzroy, Mr. William O'Neill, Irish comedian, aged thirty-one years. Requiescat in pace. 3 oct 1868. We have to record tho death of Mr William O'Neil, the Irish comedian, once well known on the Melbourne stage Mr O Neil had for some eighteen months been in a very low state of health, and had not for the last twelve month been able to follow his profession His last appearance on the stage was in New Zealand, whence he returned to Melbourne about nine months ago. Since that he has been gradually failing in health, and died at an early hour this morning, at his residence in Farie Street, Fitzroy His age was about thirty one ears - Argus, September 24 1868.
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“The troubles which had befalled Mrs. O’Neill [Ann Maria Quinn who had just had  a protracted and farcical court case in which she was charged with theft] followed her husband, in a measure. In February, 1868, Mr. William O’Neill, in very poor health, appeared before the Fitzroy Police Court, in the custody of Detective Blair, on a charge of deserting his child. More surprise could not have been expressed if good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen, centuries in her grave, had been so charged, and most surprised of all was poor Billy O’Neill. 

The ruse stood thus — a woman named Sarah Prentice had brought to her, some five months before, a child to be wet-nursed, on a payment of so much per month. A month’s pay was duly handed over, and Mrs. Prentice was given to understand that the child was the offspring of Mr and Mrs. William O’Neill now in question. Time passed, as it always did, and always will; no more money was forthcoming, and at last, acting on what she thought good information, Mrs. Prentice laid an information and obtained Mr. O’Neill’s arrest. An ‘eclaircissement’ followed, and at last it became plain that Mrs. Prentice had been the victim of false representation—that the child was not Mr. O’Neill’s, and that he knew nothing about it. Of course, then everybody was desirous of bringing the matter to an end. Mr. O’Neill would be put to no further inconvenience. Consequently he was brought — somewhat informally—before the Fitzroy Bench. The case was not even gone into but at once dismissed. Mr. John Edwards—‘Jack’ Edward of the Old Theatrical days—who appeared for Mrs. Prentice, making Mr. O’Neill an ample apology. In the private room of Snadden’s Buck’s Head, opposite the court house, the apology took a liquid form, and Billy O’Neill’s quick restoration to health duly restored.

The toasting of his health, however, did not improve it. On September 24 1868, he died at his lodgings at 2 Farie Street, a little street off Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, aged 31 years. He had been unable to follow his profession for twelve months before, his last appearance being, I belive, at Hokitika (NZ). He lived within two doors of the writer, yet, so modest was the man that none knew, excepting his landlady (Mrs. Quinn, his mother in law), who the sick man was. Mrs. O’Neill, being away on a professional trip. The funeral would have delighted the heart of a funeral reformer—a plain coffin, plain herse, and a cab! It was proposed soon after to raise a memorial over his grave, but I am afraid nothing was done.

O’Neill us said to have foight in the American Civil War, and to have been present at the Battle of the Bull Run. When asked wether he was one of those who ran on that occassion, Billy answered. ‘Be gob, those that didn’t run are there yet.’ After O’Neill’s death Mrs. Anna Maria Quinn O’Neill disappeared from public — at least I have no recollections of having seen notices of her playing anywhere.” [Sydney Sportsman, 31 May 1905]

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