Who’s your daddy?

When PETER MURPHY read a piece by respected journalist and novelist Nicolas
in The Weekend Australian late last year, he took umbrage with the oft-repeated claim that DH Lawrence was the “father” of Australian literature for his ability to capture the magic of the Australian bush. Murphy whipped off this reply, arguing that Irish poet, journalist, Fenian and novelist John Boyle O’Reilly was in fact the daddy of Aussie literature, and comes exactly 150 years after O’Reilly’s escape from Australia.

DEAR Nicolas,

Been meaning to respond to your essay re DH Lawrence, Weekend Australian, Review, Oct 27-28, 2018, where you mentioned Lawrence and his wife Frieda, in May 1922, disembarked at Fremantle, and that it was Lawrence–after a stay of barely three months–managed to capture in his writing the inner magic of the Australian bush.

Also in your essay, you claimed it was Lawrence who’d set the stage for those who came after him, to go further, look further, see further, bring back more in your words, more, always more.

For instance in his novel Kangaroo published in 1923, Lawrence wrote:

By the stream the mimosa was all gold, great gold bushes full of spring fire rising over your head, and the scent of the Australian spring, and the most ethereal of all golden bloom, the plumy, many balled wattle, and the utter loneliness, the manlessness, the untouched blue sky overhead, the gaunt, lightless gum-trees rearing a little way off, and sound of strange birds, vivid ones of strange, brilliant birds that flit round. Save for that, and for some weird frog-like sound indescribable, the age-unbroken silence of the Australian bush.

With those poetic words, you claimed it was Lawrence the first modern writer of world stature to lay eyes on Australia and spend himself upon its mysteries, and that legions of authors have placed the Australian bush at the centre of their stories since Lawrence‘s day.

Well Nicolas, you’ve obviously never heard of author, poet, orator, conservationist, humanitarian, Fenian and felon John Boyle O’Reilly, for it was he who–through European eyes–captured first the inner magic of the Australian bush 50 years before Lawrence would set foot on our great continent.

For instance, O’Reilly’s prologue to his poem Western Australia written in 1868, I believe usurps well your claim it was Lawrence the father of modern Australian writers:

How can I show you all the silent birds,
with strange metallic glintings on the wing?
Or how tell half their sadness in cold words,- The poor dumb lutes, the birds that never sing?

Of wondrous parrot-greens and iris hue
Of sensuous flowers and of gleaming snake,- Ah! What I see I long that so might you,
But of these things what pictures can I make.

Sometime, maybe, a man will wander there,- A mind God-gifted, and not dull or weak;
And he will come and paint that land so fair.
And show the beauties of which I speak.

And should you doubt my claim, may I suggest you familiarise yourself with O’Reilly’s novel Moondyne published in 1878, a mere 44 years before Lawrence would set foot on Australian soil; especially opening verse in chapter two:

It was a scorching day in midsummer–a few days before Christmas. Had there been any moisture in the bush, it would have steamed in the heavy heat.

During the midday not a bird stirred among the mahogany and gum trees.

On the flat tops of the low banksia the round heads of the white cockatoos could be seen in thousands–motionless as the trees themselves. Not a parrot had the vim to scream.

The chirping insects were silent. Not a snake had courage to rustle his hard skin against the hot and dead bush-grass. The bright-eyed iguanas were in their holes.

The mahogany sawyers had left their logs and were sleeping in the cool sand of their pits. Even the travelling ants had halted on their wonderful roads, and sought the shade of a bramble. All free things were at rest; but the penetrating click of the axe–heard far through the bush, and now and again a harsh word of command, told that it was land of bondmen.

From daylight to dark, through the hot noon as steadily as in the cool evening, the convicts were at work on the roads–the weary work that has no wages, no promotion, no incitement, no variation for good or bad, except stripes for the laggard.

And while you remind us Lawrence spent barely three months in Australia, please also be remindful, O’Reilly, although having spent just over 12 months on this vast continent, did so in shackles, and in spite of such hardship, still managed to capture a sense of place which to this day eludes many modern writers. March 3 celebrates the 150th anniversary of O’Reilly’s dramatic escape from Australia to America, where his poetry is ranked next to Longfellow, Whittier and Holmes.

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