This week, author and journalist Eugene Byrne brings us a poem written by a parish priest by the name of John O’Brien, perhaps better known by his pen name of Father Patrick Hartigan, a man well-known for his humorous poetry and whose works still inspire an annual festival in his name
NB: For optimum effect, this should be read aloud. In a broad Irish or Australian accent. The Bishop should have a softer Irish accent.
The bishop sat in lordly state and purple cap sublime,
And galvanized the old bush church at Confirmation time.
And all the kids were mustered up from fifty miles around,
With Sunday clothes, and staring eyes, and ignorance profound.
Now was it fate, or was it grace, whereby they yarded too
An overgrown two-storey lad from Tangmalangaloo?
A hefty son of virgin soil, where nature has her fling,
And grows the trefoil three feet high and mats it in the spring;
Where mighty hills uplift their heads to pierce the welkin’s rim,
And trees sprout up a hundred feet before they shoot a limb;
There everything is big and grand, and men are giants too –
But Christian Knowledge wilts, alas, at Tangmalangaloo.
The bishop summed the youngsters up, as bishops only can;
He cast a searching glance around, then fixed upon his man.
But glum and dumb and undismayed through every bout he sat;
He seemed to think that he was there, but wasn’t sure of that.
The bishop gave a scornful look, as bishops sometimes do,
And glared right through the pagan in from Tangmalangaloo.
“Come, tell me, boy,” his lordship said in crushing tones severe,
“Come, tell me why is Christmas Day the greatest of the year?
“How is it that around the world we celebrate that day
“And send a name upon a card to those who’re far away?
“Why is it wandering ones return with smiles and greetings, too?”
A squall of knowledge hit the lad from Tangmalangaloo.
He gave a lurch which set a-shake the vases on the shelf,
He knocked the benches all askew, up-ending of himself.
And so, how pleased his lordship was, and how he smiled to say,
“That’s good, my boy. Come, tell me now; and what is Christmas Day?”
The ready answer bared a fact no bishop ever knew –
“It’s the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.”
That was written by John O’Brien (1878-1952), which was the pen-name of Father (later Monsignor) Patrick Hartigan. He was born in Australia of Irish parents, trained as a Catholic priest and spent his career ministering to small towns in New South Wales. So vast were some of his early territorial responsibilities that he was one of the first priests in Australia to have a motor car. He became parish priest of Narrandera in 1916 and remained there until 1944. The town now has an annual John O’Brien festival in his memory.
O’Brien’s poems were published in periodicals and in two collections, Around the Boree Log (1921) and the posthumous The Parish of St Mel’s (1954) and they were hugely popular, not just in Australia, but also in Ireland, and among the Irish diaspora worldwide.
Whatever his artistic merits, Father Hartigan captured the authentic voice of (white) farmers and working people in the Bush in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And as he forcefully reminds us, that voice didn’t always speak with a modern Australian accent, or even an English one. It was often Irish. As the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it: “Recording with humour and pathos the lively faith, solid piety and everyday lives of the people around him, Hartigan successfully combined the old faith of Ireland with the mateship and ethos of the bush …”
Many of his poems are humorous; the best-known is probably Said Hanrahan, in which a farmer constantly laments the state of the weather with the words “we’ll all be rooned”, an expression which passed into popular usage in Australia and Ireland. Many others are sentimental or wistfully nostalgic.
Perhaps some spill over into territory too mawkish for modern tastes, but if you’re Australian and can read Ownerless – in which a horse is wondering where the lad who used to ride him has gone – without crying buckets, there’s probably something wrong with you.
Download Around the Boree Log here* (NB: watch out for a few glitches in the text)
*BBC History Magazine is not responsible for the content of external websites.
You can read more of Eugene’s historical jokes and comedy tales at www.historyextra.com