Works in the Bulletin 1921

If he has not supplied a long-felt want, John O'Brien has at least seized a long-waiting opportunity in giving us a book of verse about Irish-Australians. In Around the Boree Log (Angus and Robertson) the Caseys and the Careys and the O'Neils go about upon their lawful occasions - their lovemaking and toiling, their prayers and arguments, very true to life, and much as they are going about these things to-day in every country town from Bungaree to Babinda.

The truly erudite reviewer in whom the passion for esoteric art has become almost a complex, would not be in the least degree satisfied with Mr. O'Brien's verses. There are so many things that they are not. Compared with the Iliad, for example, they show a regrettable lack of epic afflatus. Of Shakespearean tragedy, of Byronic gloom, of lush Swinburnian verbiage, they bear no trace. Indeed, though appearing under an Irish name, they have not the most distant relationship to the work of, say, W. B. Yeats or David Mellee Wright or "A.E."

Yet, in spite of what they lack, John O'Brien's verses may be greatly admired and well praised for what they are. They are Australian first - bush-Australian, and not just city-Australian, which, in its better qualities at least, is much like city-anywhere-else. They are Irish-Australian, of course. These Hanrahans and Callaghans and McEvoys could hardly be anything else: tenderhearted, sunny-tempered, loyal and pious children of "little Irish mothers." But they are pure Australian too: good mates, good workers, full of a healthy humor and a capacity for enjoyment that most of the world just now seems to have lost. They are very faithful pictures that John O'Brien presents; and many a reader, who remembers well his country town with its "Church upon the Hill" and its "Father Pat" and its "Young O'Neil," who

     Squatted down upon his heel
     And chewed a piece of bark.
will be deeply grateful to the author for reintroducing so many delightful friends.

And the verse which makes us acquainted with these jovial fellows is just as unpretentious as they are. It is in the direct Lawson-Paterson line mainly - unaffected talk about Australians, much as they would naturally talk about themselves. Yet, if his subject needs eloquence, the author can rise to it. But he in best at his simplest, in the pathos of "Making Home" and "Vale, Father Pat," the happy humor of "The Old Bush School" and "At Casey's After Church," or in the sheer rollickiing farce (true to life, all the same) of "Said Hanrahan" and "The Careys."

Possibiy, if Paterson had never strummed his Banjo, John O'Brien would never have sung to us as he does; that doubles our debt to Paterson. Yet there is much that is straigbt-out O'Brien in this book, much honest entertainment and pure fun. It is well worth while to read of "The Trimmin's on the Rosary," so continually on the increase that

          in fact, it got that way
That the Rosary was but trimmin's to the trimmin's, we would say;

or of the bishop who

Sat in lordly state and purple cap sublime
And galvanised the old bush church at Confirmation time,

and, in the course of his examination, demanded of the raw bush lad from Tangmalongaloo,

"Come, tell me why is Christmas Day 'the greatest in the year?"
But Christian knowledge wilts, alas, at Tangmalangaloo.


The ready answer bared a fact no bishop ever knew -
"It's the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo."

It is all good fun; the kind of fun that calls up the happy chuckle rather than the loud laugh.

And the bush is there, enveloping its people with the bird-song and the flower-scent that the townsman Marcus Clarke could not discover. At times it is colorful, too

       I've seen the paddocks all ablaze
          When spring in glory comes,
       The purple hills of summer days,
          The autumn ochres through the gums.

Whatever it is not, this verse of John O'Brien's may well he admired for what it is - for its kindly humor, its gentle pathos, its honest pictures of one phase of country life and its good Australian sentiment. The book will find an army of readers all through Australia: but it is to be hoped, for the author's own sake, that his too-ardent admirers will not hall him, upon his present performance, as a Great Poet. That he obviously does not pretend to be. For an honest rhymester, who seeks merely to entertain his public, to be hailed as a Great Poet is a vain and unprofitable thing; if it be persisted in it becomes a pathetic and an embarrassing thing, for which the helpless author is in no way to blame. As a book of healthy, happy verse, moderately well constructed and full of entertainment, Around the Boree Log should be judged, and commended. As such, it is a welcome addition to Australian literature.

The Bulletin, 29 December 1921, p35

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002