John O’Brien’ was the pseudonym of Father P. Hartigan, the parish priest of Narrandera, Yass, New South Wales, who achieved international success in 1921 with the publication of Around the Boree Log. I remember being introduced to this collection in primary school in Dublin, unaware that the poet was Australian. Because of the Irish references in the collection, I presumed he was Irish, and confirmation bias extended further to my remembering the title as being Around the Boreen Log. It took forty years for my error to be revealed.
Around the Boree Log, no doubt, was staple reading for Australian children too in the twentieth century, especially Catholic schoolchildren, but its fame continues in both ends of the world. As recently as 2018, the phrase ‘We’ll all be rooned’, said Hanrahan’ was featured in The Irish Times in an article about Ireland’s dry spell at the time. There was a time when ‘Said Hanrahan’ was a staple party piece in Australian and Irish homes, along with Kipling’s ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’.
Around the Boree Log is more than a source of nostalgia for parlour poetry. It is also a source that provides an insight into the language of Irish Australia in the early twentieth century. No doubt, many of the Irish sayings in the collection the Rev. Hartigan learned from his own parents who hailed from Liscasey Co. Clare, but they must also represent the speech of Irish-born settlers at the time (The 1901 Irish census shows Michael and Mary Hanrahan as having both Irish and English).
The title of the collection is also the first poem. From the start we are plunged deep into the Australian bush where the ‘boree’ is the main source of heating. The poet proposes to tell a story about how life used to be: a time when ‘no stranger ever turned away, no neighbour passed us by’:
Bedad, he’ll have to stay the night; the rain is going to pour –
So make the rattling windows tight, and close the kitchen door,
And bring the old lopsided chair, the tattered cushion, too –
We’ll make the stranger happy there, the way we used to do.
The years have turned the rusted key, and time is on the jog,
Yet spend another night with me around the boree log.
One of the most famous poems from the collection is ‘The Little Irish Mother’. Hers is the often untold story of the female migrant. It reads in part:
There’s a Little Irish Mother that a lonely vigil keeps
In the settler’s hut where seldom stranger comes,
Watching by the home-made cradle where one more Australian sleeps
While the breezes whisper weird things to the gums,
Where the settlers battle gamely, beaten down to rise again,
And the brave bush wives the toil and silence share,
Where the nation is a-building in the hearts of splendid men –
There’s a Little Irish Mother always there.
The poems in Around The Boree Log also attract because of the insight they now provide into an Irish settler community in Australia. The is from ‘St. Patrick’s Day’:
So when morning Mass was over, it was trot and break and canter
Helter-skelter down to Casey’s, banging, pounding all the way,
And the greetings flung in Irish, and the flood of Celtic banter,
And the hectic flush of racial pride upon St. Patrick’s Day.
The ‘greetings’ in the Irish language were most likely used by all generations. Some Irish words heard in the English of that community would have carried connotations that were culturally specific and so not so easily passed down. An example could be in this verse from ‘The Trimmin’s of The Rosary’:
Then “himself” would start keownrawning – for the public good, we thought –
“Sure you’ll have us here till mornin’. Yerra, cut them trimmin’s short!”
The word keownrawning is glossed on the page as ‘grumbling, ‘grousing’. Its origin is likely Ir. ceannrachán ‘a haltered animal’ and used disparagingly of a person. The Irish-born and Irish-speaking members of the community would have used this word to each other. Presumably even when English was spoken, the Irish word was chosen over the English equivalent because of the extra connotations it carried. It could censor privately in public where the language was not known. The younger generations probably heard the word but did not use it. This makes the retention of the word in an Australian setting more significant.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, the majority of Catholic priests in Australia were Irish. The strength of their religion meant that the Irish often preferred to marry people from their own background. Donald Horne in The Lucky Country claims that of all the social classes and regional types that settled in Australia, the Irish have tended to marry in their own circle. As a result, Catholic life in Australia might mirror Irish social conditions. An example is the priest’s housekeeper who was often an extremely pious woman and a formidable protector of her employer’s privacy. ‘John O’Brien’ writes of one such housekeeper in the poem ‘Josephine’:
She pottered round the place herself for thirty years and more–
This new one has a thuckeen now to sweep and mind the door
And entertain with parish chat each gossiping voteen
She’d have no thuckeen near the place, would crabbéd Josephine.
While the word voteen is ‘a person who exaggerates his or her religious devotion’ and so can be of either sex, the word thuckeen is applied to females only. The word voteen is Irish móidín; the ‘v’ sound occurs under the rules of lenition. The word thuckeen is an anglicized diminutive of Irish toice ‘a girl, a wench’. It is used both as an affectionate term and a contemptuous term. In the poem ‘Josephine’ the usage appears to be neutral, whereas in the poem ‘The Careys’ the word is clearly being used as a term of abuse:
“Wisha, did you see the Careys, like some wild things from the prairies?”
“Faith, I never met ‘the bate’ of that for many ‘n many a day.”
“Sure it’s pounds we would have taken with them tickets for the bacon,
If them thuckeens of the Careys were not always in the way.”
The word is glossed on the page as ‘Celtic’ for ‘flapper’ which in itself is interesting, representing a point in the life of the word flapper when its currency was high. The subject matter of the poem ‘The Careys’ is that of one Irish family that has passed the others by and have become ‘high-falutin’ fairies’. They are the tall poppies of the community and so using the word thuckeens for the Carey girls is an effective way of bringing down to size those who dare to rise above their own.
The poem ‘Norah O’Neill’ also employs Irish language words of contempt in describing the annoying habits of Norah O’Neill. The setting is again a Catholic one:
That Norah O’Neill is a sthreel,
And I’m talking the way that I feel,
With her dowdy old hat, and her hair pasted flat,
And her skirt bobbing after her heel;
And there to the church she will steal,
And under the lamp she will kneel
When confessions are done, and there’s never a one
To be heard but that Norah O’Neill.
The word sthreel is glossed ‘slattern’ in Around the Boree Log. The Irish word straoil, can be applied to a slovenly man or woman.
The poem ‘Josephine’ continues with further revelations as to why this woman is looked down upon:
It annoys the priest’s man a great deal,
And it makes everyone boogathiel
At him scraping the floor, yes, and rattlin’ the door
Just to hurry my lady O’Neill.
But there she will squat on her hell,
While over the forms he will steal;
He would put out the light, and close up for the night–
But he can’t for that keer such O’Neill.
The word boogathiel is glossed on the page as meaning ‘uncomfortable’. It may have its origin in Ir. bogadúradh,‘footling about’, but it remains a mystery. Another word used and glossed in this verse is keershuch which is said to be ‘much the same as sthreel.’ It is likely to be Irish céirseach, ‘ hen blackbird’ and by extension,‘a talkative woman’. Although the meaning in this second verse of the poem ‘Josephine’ is clear enough with the glossing provided for these Irish words, naturally, members of the speech community that uses these words would take a deeper meaning from the poem.
The level of explanation of Irish words in Around The Boree Log ranges from none, where the word is likely to be universally understood, to its depiction in inverted commas, through to glossing by way of a footnote at the end of the page. Australian words are also treated in the same way that demonstrates that the publishers had an eye on a wider audience than Australia. Irish words not highlighted include galore (Ir. go leor (adjective) ‘enough’); yerra (Ir. ara (interjection) ‘indeed’); wisha (Ir. Muire (interjection.)’Mary’); alannah (Ir. a leanbh’ (endearment) ‘oh child’); acushla (Ir. a cuisle (endearment) ‘oh pulse’); gossoons (Ir. garsúin ‘boys’) and colleen (Ir. cailín ‘a girl’).
The popularity of the poems in Around the Boree Log in the first half of the twentieth century is not surprising. While the characters and setting are of major appeal, the language plays an important part in authenticating the verses. The mangled anglicization of Irish words in particular, serves to identify a transplanted heritage that has concertinaed under the weight of the dominant English language. Their survival, even as distortions, are testament to their crucial role in giving voice to marginalized rural Irish Australian Catholics. The annual John O’Brien Festival in Naranndera looks to have been ‘rooned’ by Covid19.
Dymphna Lonergan is a member of the Tinteán collective. Her PhD research into the history of the Irish language in Australia culminated in the book Sounds Irish.