Learning about Australia from John O’Brien

John O’Brien’s Around the Boree Log was published 100 years ago this year and has been in the shops ever since, most recently an edition in England in 2011.

By Frank O’Shea

In the 1950s and 1960s in Ireland we didn’t know much about Australia. We vaguely knew that they had an apparently-permanent Prime Minister named Menzies, and that there was a then-amateur tennis player named Rod Laver and a swimmer named Dawn Fraser who got into trouble a lot. At school we loved the symmetry of Geelong and Ballarat (emphasis on the final syllables) as well as the rhythm of Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie and Boulder even if we were not sure what they were noted for.

And then, Around the Boree Log (100 years ago this year) came into the shops and Australia was opened up to us. It could have been Irish. It was ‘The Regans and the Ryans and the whole mob of O’Briens / Spending Sunday down at Caseys after Mass.’ There was a complainer named Hanrahan who even had an Irish accent and those of us who were Catholics knew what ‘the trimmins’ were on the Rosary. We weren’t too sure about the coolabahs, but two lines later we had ‘The Sugarloaf behind it, blackened in against the skies.’ It could all be set in Co Wicklow.

But of course the poems were pure Australia.

Comes a buoyant peal of laughter from the tall white, slender timber,
Rugged mirth that floods the bushland with joy of brotherhood,
With the rustic notes sonorous of a happy laughing chorus,
When the kookaburras bless the world because the world is good.

Reading those lines and indeed re-reading John O’Brien is a sad reminder of the modern desecration of a noble skill by today’s make-believe poets. They write prose, break it into lines of any length that suits them and call it poetry. If Around the Boree Log was written in that way, it would have died the death it deserved.

Instead, Boree Log told stories. It told of the priest pioneers of earlier days and indeed gave the impression that the writer was himself Irish. He tells of ‘the men of sixty-five’ who ‘… left the Irish lights agleam / We dared the seas in sailing-ships before the days of steam.’ Church historians may be able to indicate if there was a group of Irish priests who came to Australia in 1865. Monsignor Patrick Hartigan was born in 1878, so was obviously not among such a group, though that does not take from his writings as John O’Brien.

If you find yourself revisiting those verses now, it will likely stir emotions you had long forgotten and this writer dares you to read them aloud without a cry in your voice.

Early rising in the half-light, when the morn came, bleak and chill,
For the little mother roused us ere the sun had topped the hill.
‘Up, you children, late ‘tis getting’.’ Shook the house beneath her knock
And she wasn’t always truthful and she tampered with the clock.

And how many wedding breakfasts were enlivened by some old codger who recited the story of Josephine, even if everyone might not understand the reference to the Murray pines.

John O’Brien’s second book, The Parish of St Mel’s is less well known though the themes are similar. Here, however, we get a chance to see the changes when motorcars and motorbikes have become more popular. Even the curate in the parish has his own motorbike.

He’s made this house a meeting-place for faddists and the likes,
And clerical mechanics come debating motorbikes.

At the end of that poem, the author addresses his old horse:

But tell them this: ere roads were made, by bridle-track we went,
And won the bush with church and school across a continent

That is in a kind of summary, the theme of both books, the nostalgia for a simpler time before roads were made or towns were known. When the poem from which those lines are taken was published, it was accompanied by this drawing done by O’Brien himself.

Drawing by the poet himself, illustrated the poem when it appeared in Manly in 1922

Though St Mel’s never quite reaches the heights of Boree Log, there is an undertone of sadness throughout. One of his curates becomes a bishop. In another poem, he tells of meeting after 50 years – ‘or was it fifty-wan?’ – a priest with whom he went to school ‘back home in County Clare.’ There is too, it has to be admitted, a seam of grumpiness, the kind of dissatisfaction that would be scorned these days.

At the end of St Mel’s the author wonders whether ‘We leave a feeble work behind, when all is said and done.’ In that, he was referring to the many priests like himself who pioneered the Catholic church throughout rural Australia. Their work as pioneers deserves to be acclaimed, as does the work of John O’Brien himself, priest and poet.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the editorial collective of Tinteán.

2 thoughts on “Learning about Australia from John O’Brien

  1. Well said Frank. I was fortunate to have had this read to me throughout childhood days. For me, the best lines however, still come from “Tangmalangaloo” where the Bishop in “purple cap sublime” asked the lanky Aussie kid what was “Christmas Day” to which the lad replied (as only an Aussie kid could) that it was the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo. For me, it was the day before the Boxing Day Test!

  2. I have just checked on my bookshelves and I have a 1948 edition which a sister of mine gave me in January 1995, in remembrance of my mother who had died the previous month, aged 93.

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