‘He is the right settler’s poet. If he has not yet been called the Australian Kipling, he will be’ – Montrose Standard, 1922
This year (2021) marks the centenary of Around the Boree Log, a collection of verse by Irish-Australian poet Fr Patrick Joseph Hartigan (1878-1952) parish priest of Narrandera, New South Wales, whose nom-de-plume was ‘John O’Brien.’
The book, which took Australia by storm, might be better termed Around the Turf Fire in Ireland, for the strange mix of native subject with Irish expression renders it peculiarly out of place under the glare of the New South Wales sun:
The life of the rural community in Yass in the heart of the sheep country could be easily placed in Ireland. The spirit of faith, of joy and of companionship which breathes through these verses testifies to the success of the Irish priests and nuns in planting a joyful, trusting Christianity in Australia.
As one reviewer observed, ‘At the time Fr Hartigan wrote these verses he had never even visited Ireland’:
His verse is so redolent of Irish faith and tradition that the volumes of his verse became treasured possessions in many an Irish home all over Australia and indeed in many a home in Ireland as well … The secret of his achievement was that he became steeped in the tradition of Ireland at his mother’s knee, like so many an exile, he learned all about the land of his ancestors as he whispered his night prayers.
Those little Irish mothers passing from us one by one, Who will write the noble story of the good that they have done?
After the publication of Around the Boree Log in 1921, Fr Hartigan did indeed visit the land of his fathers. His trip to Europe took place in 1925, after he had suffered the loss of his youngest brother, Fr Frank Hartigan. During his travels in Ireland, he visited Lissycasey, Co Clare, the birth place of his parents who had emigrated to Australia in the 1860s. He also found time to explore the country.
In Kerry, he described his impressions to friends back home in Narrandera. He wrote from Muckross Hotel, Killarney, on 8 August 1925:
I am enjoying Ireland. The people are just grand, so simple and friendly. I met a good number of priests from Australia since coming here, and that went a long way towards making things pleasant. It rains here every day which is the worst part of it. I hope to go on a motor trip through the country tomorrow.
Around the Boree Log
It was said that ‘John O’Brien’ sang of life as child, boy and man for he had seen it lived by the Irish pioneers in the Australian bush. One reviewer remarked that everything the poet wrote bore ‘the stamp of absolute sincerity.’
St Patrick’s Day Drab the little world we lived in, like the sheep, in slow procession, Down the track along the mountain, went the hours upon their way, Bringing hopes and idle longings that could only find expression In the riot of our bounding hearts upon St Patrick’s Day.
The book ran into many editions and with each one, audiences anew. In the 1930s, one Kerry journalist wrote:
Away in the outback to the present day you find Irish families and often little colonies extending to whole parishes carrying on the traditions, the whole imbued with the distinctive characteristics of their race. There are districts in Queensland where ’tis said the children speak with an Irish brogue and there are localities in Victoria where hurling is cultivated by young Aussies of Irish blood who never had the pleasure of witnessing an All-Ireland final.
In the 1940s, it was stated that ‘Around the Boree Log will be found in more Irish homes today than any other volume of its kind.’
Its popularity gave rise to a number of creative works in Australia including a movie, filmed in the Goulburn district in 1925. Twenty of the poems were put to music in 1933 by Dom S Moreno OSB, a Spanish Benedictine from New Norcia, Western Australia and a Channel 2 documentary, ‘Behind the Boree Log,’ was made by the Australia Broadcasting Commission in the 1970s.
Fr Hartigan’s work hardly escaped the arts in Ireland. Louth’s James M Filgate wrote a one-act comedy, Broken Vows, presented at Claremorris Town Hall in December 1948. During the same night’s entertainment appeared a dramatisation of ‘Josephine’ from Around the Boree Log. Mr Filgate played the part of the ‘Australian bush priest’ to the highest quality and a realistic atmosphere was lent to the scene ‘by the expert handling of the shadowgraph by T Quinn.’
Some years later, a reviewer of John B Keane’s Moll – ‘the astute parish priest’s housekeeper’ – considered that the character had been exported in Father O’Brien’s ‘Faithful Josephine.’
Poor Josephine, she knew me well – and faith she ought to know, For since the bishop sent me here, some thirty years ago, My one and only manager, my right-hand man she’d been; I never had a word against my trusted Josephine. She’s in her lonely grave to-night beneath the Murray pines, And haply in their breeze-swept song a requiem divines: The people raised a little stone to keep her memory green, And handed to the winds and rain the name of Josephine.
Fr Hartigan enjoyed widespread appreciation in both his vocation and his writing. In 1944 he resigned as parish priest of Narrandera, in the diocese of Wagga Wagga, to devote himself to the study of ecclesiastical history – and another volume of poems.
He died on 27 December 1952, and was buried at the little Catholic cemetery of North Rocks alongside his mother and father.
There’s a little Irish mother – and her head is bowed and gray, And she’s lonesome when the evening shadows fall; Near the fire “she do be thinkin’,” all the “childer” are away, And their silent pictures watch her from the wall ... There’s a Little Irish Mother sleeping softly now at last Where the tangled grass is creeping all around; And the shades of unsung heroes troop about her from the past While the moonlight scatters diamonds on the mound. From ‘The Little Irish Mother,’ Around the Boree Log (1921)
 Expression used by Fr Hartigan to bring his storytelling sessions to an end. Reference John O’Brien and The Boree Log A Biography of Patrick Joseph Hartigan, ‘John O’Brien’ (1981) by Frank Mecham, p279. Fr Frank Mecham, parish priest of Haberfield, Sydney, was Fr Hartigan’s nephew. An obituary to Fr Mecham by Tony D’Arbon appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2008, ‘A champion for young and old.’  ‘The Irish Brogue seems to make him more Australian than ever. It is very attractive, this Irishman’s tremendous enthusiasm for his new country and his verses, alternating between his tradition, Tom-Moore-ish sentiment, and his acquired crudeness, ring with unaffected sincerity. He can tell a boree log story vigorously and well, can touch the wiree’s song in the currajong with pretty sentiment, or recreate an old Irish tune. He is the right settler’s poet. If he has not yet been called the Australian Kipling, he will be’ (Montrose Standard, 11 August 1922).  IE CDH/08. A copy of Around the Boree Log held in this series. Fr Hartigan also used the name Mary Ann. Fr Hartigan took his pen-name from watching a dairyman of that name who used to sell adulterated milk in a country town. ‘Adulterated milk, that’s me. So John O’Brien it was’ (Irish Independent, 24 January 1953).  Nenagh Guardian, 24 February 1973. Boree is the aboriginal name for an excellent native firewood, the creeping myall.  Catholic Standard, 7 June 1957. Early reviewers in Ireland remarked on ‘Two main streams of thought distinguishable in the poems, loyalty to Australia, and love of Ireland, both uniting in a boundless sea of family affections and devotion to the faith’ (Irish Examiner, 21 February 1922). Elsewhere, he was acknowledged as bard and rann-maker of the highest order, arising from his interest in the lives of and sincere knowledge of the hearts of folk who are ‘the inhabitants of the sept of Irish-Australia’ (Southern Star, 6 June 1925).  The trip took place from April to October 1925.  Patrick Joseph Hartigan senior emigrated to Sydney on the SS Chusan in 1864 aged 22. It was an 88-day voyage. His future wife, Mary Townsell, departed on the John Temperley in 1863. They married in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, on 25 July 1871 and thereafter went to live in Yass. They had nine children (see pp16-22 of John O’Brien and The Boree Log A Biography of Patrick Joseph Hartigan, ‘John O’Brien’ (1981) by Frank Mecham for details with accompanying image of seven of the children). Mary Hartigan died on 9 September 1934 and her husband on 19 April 1940 aged 98 (ibid, p187).  John O’Brien and The Boree Log A Biography of Patrick Joseph Hartigan, ‘John O’Brien’ (1981) by Frank Mecham, pp165-166. Fr Hartigan was a motor car enthusiast. In 1922, one of his poems entitled, ‘My Curate’s Motor Bike’ was published in the Manly.  Images © John O’Brien and The Boree Log A Biography of Patrick Joseph Hartigan, ‘John O’Brien’ (1981) by Frank Mecham.  Limerick Leader, 3 July 1954.  ‘St Patrick’s Day’ by ‘John O’Brien’ otherwise Fr Patrick Joseph Hartigan, Around the Boree Log (1921).  ‘The simple but beautiful traits of these kindly Irish stock are well portrayed in Around the Boree Log’ (Kerry News, 12 April 1933).  Irish Independent, 19 August 1946.  John O’Brien and The Boree Log A Biography of Patrick Joseph Hartigan, ‘John O’Brien’ (1981) by Frank Mecham, pp147-150.  Ibid, p195.  John O’Brien and The Boree Log A Biography of Patrick Joseph Hartigan, ‘John O’Brien’ (1981) by Frank Mecham, pp332-333.  Mayo News, 18 December 1948, Connaught Telegraph, 25 December 1948 & Western People, 1 January 1949.  Kerryman, 31 July 1971.  In 1947, Fr Hartigan was honoured Domestic Prelate to His Holiness. A second book of poetry, The Parish of St Mel’s and other Verses was published posthumously in 1954.  John O’Brien and The Boree Log A Biography of Patrick Joseph Hartigan, ‘John O’Brien’ (1981) by Frank Mecham, p319.