Poems for an Irish Family

A Bush Poet Reflects on his Links with Ireland

The Bridget of the first poem refers to Martin O’Brien’s great grandmother (on his Father’s side). Before his death Martin wrote about what occasioned the poem: ‘In about 1999 a first cousin told me this story: “During the 1820s or ’30s John MacNamara married a Miss Cusack. They were poor tenant farmers in County Clare. They, an aged Mother and their 9 Children (Anne, Bridget, Ellen, Kate, Margaret, Norah, Susan, Thomas and Michael) were evicted one cold night. The aged Grandmother died of cold the first night. Later the 9 Children, some or all now adults, arrived in Australia. We don’t know any details except that they did have contact with each other after arriving.”‘

I then found the graves of Martin and Bridget (my Great-Grandparents) in Lismore and wrote the poem, ‘The Roadside in Clare.


They buried you, Bridget, I’m sure in great style,
no doubt then you would have been proud.
When it comes to saying goodbye to their dead
the children of Irish stand out from the crowd!

Your long journey ends as they lower you down
with gentleness, love and great care ….
A far better day and a much better way
than if you had died by the roadside in Clare.

Eviction and famine were widespread in Clare
the day that your journey began –
as poor tenant farmers were forced from the land,
the victims of greedy and uncaring Man.

A night, cold and dark, as eviction takes place,
in cloths that are worn thin and bare….
Which brother or sister then held you for warmth,
and kept you alive by the roadside in Clare?

Nine children and parents, grandmother (now frail),
like trash by the roadside you’re hurled ……
The tears that are shed and the prayers that are said
should soften the hearts of the worst of this world.

But no!  This is Ireland!  Ground down and oppressed ….
There’s hunger, injustice, despair ….
’Twas surely the plan then of God, not of man,
that you didn’t die by the roadside in Clare.

I wonder if you were too young to recall
that night by the side of the road ….
Your brothers and sisters, some older than you ….
Forever that memory was part of their load.

Your grandmother died there of cold that first night,
in spite of the tears and each  prayer ….
Was hers the first corpse your young eyes had seen?
Or common, that sight, by the roadside in Clare?

No requiem there, though, to farewell the dead!
No coffin, not even a shroud ….
A pauper in death, as well as in life ….
One reverence alone, were your heads quietly bowed.

Was her body dumped in those mass, famine-graves
that tainted the water and air?
Or left there to rot, as dust back  to dust? ….
forever now part of the roadside in Clare ….

As famine so changed the face of old Ireland,
with pity I’ve looked back and sighed.
It comes to me clear that I wouldn’t be here
if you had been one of the million who died.

How many the days and how many the nights
your hands and your feet chilled and bare?
How hungry were you and the others there too?
What kept you alive by the roadside in Clare?

With so many homeless and hopeless you came,
with dreamers and drifters you found
a home in Australia where justice and peace
allowed you to roam here on Lismore’s warm ground.

In peace and in plenty a full life is lived ….
grandchildren and children are there ….
You’ve walked  better ways and you’ve seen  better days
than hunger and death by the roadside in Clare.

They buried you, Bridget, I’m sure in great style ….
In reverence they came in a crowd ….
The hymns and your requiem solemn and slow ….
A coffin of cedar …. a brown, Catholic shroud.

Now splendid the altar with candles aglow ….
burnt incense to rise in the air,
and wreaths of bright flowers (it’s winter again ) ….
though now it is summer in far-away Clare.

The organ and choir bring life to that hymn
and eyes now are wetted with dew ….
It thrills through the air to the roadside in Clare ….
for Faith of our Fathers was written for you!

With blest holy-water that speaks of new life
your coffin is sprinkled with care ….
As holy as water from puddles you drank
that kept you alive by the roadside in Clare.

A strong voice invokes that triumphant response:
‘Present  her to God, the Most High!
In confidence now to her last resting place….
till saints rise again, there in peace she will lie.’

Your long journey ends as they lowered you down
though weather be raining or fair ….
A far better day and a much better way
than if you had died by the roadside in Clare.

October, 1999.


I hope one day I’ll leave this land
to go from whence they came,
and travel far across the sea
so there at last my eyes will see
the land from which they came.

I know I never will belong
to my ancestors’ land,
but still I’d like one time to see
(if God should grant that time to me),
the land that was their land.

I want to see the sights they saw
and hear the sounds they heard,
because that land still holds some claim  –
more than just an Irish name  –
some thing unsaid, yet heard.

I want to feel the living soil
they felt beneath their feet;
to watch the sun rise there, and set,
and go to places where they met,
and then to make complete …….

I want to walk some ancient track
where their young feet once lept,
to feel the pain as they had done
when their own exile had begun,
and weep where they once wept.

I know I never will belong
to my ancestors’ land,
but still I’d like some time to see
(if God should grant that time to me)
the land that was their land.

July, 1994.

Martin O’Brien

Martin grew up on the O’Brien family dairy farm at Mount Burrell in the upper reaches of the Tweed River. After high school at St John’s College, Woodlawn, he spent many years as a seasonal worker – cutting cane and picking fruit – mainly on the Tweed, at Tully (Nth Qld) and in Mildura (Vic). In the off-seasons, he returned home to work on the farm. After the dairy crash in the mid-1960s, the family moved out off dairying into beef cattle production, building up (from their AIS milkers) one of the first herds of Charolais cattle on the Tweed. With increasingly lower beef prices towards the end of the 1970s, Martin was only able to work part-time on the farm, and obtained local off-farm work – mainly in sawmills. Tragically, on Christmas Eve 2013, Martin was killed in a tractor accident on the family farm.
He is a poet in the vernacular Bush Ballad tradition and was a finalist in the 1996 Poet Laureate Award at the Tamworth Music Festival.
Martin was deeply interested in his Irish heritage (on both his Mother’s and Father’s side of his family). These two poems are from Martin’s unpublished ‘Irish Collection’.