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The Tossmania

The Tossmania : an Anthology of Irish Poetic Imaginings of Australia

Philip Harvey

Paper delivered at the 13th Irish-Australia Conference
Thursday 30th of September, 2004
Redmond Barry Building, University of Melbourne

1. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

The charts in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ map the coastlines of countries unvisited by the European explorers of the time. Largely blank rectangles of space are inscribed with Jonathan Swift’s imaginings. 1 Lilliput is south-west of Sumatra and north-west of Van Diemen’s Land, for Swift, like all residents of Ireland in 1726, was unaware of continental Australia or that Tasmania is an island. All the nations Gulliver visits contain premonitions of the vast land that the Irish, amongst others, would start settling some sixty years later.

Everything is slightly different there. Small is large and large is small. Modes of government behave at times like satires of British rule. The Enlightenment god of material measurement is given ludicrous and even dangerous reverence. Ideals of reason and advancement fall foul of human fallibility, short-term interest, and a comprehensive inability to understand, let alone appreciate, forms of human society other than Gulliver’s advanced civilization.

In this fearsome book, Swift imagines kingdoms like his own and projects possibilities of new worlds out of old. He both forwards and questions civilization on exotic blank spaces of paper, the spaces left vacant by geographers. He could interpret what he read: the grotesque Yahoos in the final episode are based on the prejudicial descriptions of Australian Indigenous peoples that were published in William Dampier’s ship journals of 1688. 2 Indeed, the book is not just a mockery of the people who would soon think fit to acquire Australia, it is a smooth take on the arrogant records of those sea explorers and privateers who alerted Europe to its existence. The blank spaces on Swift’s charts are the same white sheets of paper onto which the Antipodes has been imagined by generations of Irish poets since.

2. Francis MacNamara  (ca. 1811-ca. 1868)

Francis MacNamara was born around 1811 in Wicklow, Limerick or Tipperary, depending on his latest version. He was transported to Sydney in 1832. Amongst his ragged and raging output we have inherited a ballad called ‘Bold Jack Donahoe’. 3

If you’ll but listen, a sorrowful tale I’ll tell,
Concerning a young hero, in action lately fell,
His name it was Jack Donahoe, of courage and renown,
He’d scorn to live in slavery or be humbled to the crown.

On the twenty-fourth of August, it be his fatal day,
As he and his companions were cruising the highway,
He was hailed by the horse-police, he stood with heart and hand,
“Come on, my lads,” cried Donahoe, “We’ll fight them man for man.”

Says he to his companions, “Now if you’re game –
You’ll see there’s only three of them, our number’s just the same,
We’ll fight but not surrender, our freedom we’ll maintain,
For today it’s life and liberty, or fall upon the plain.”

“Oh no,” says cowardly Walmsley, “Your laws we’ll not fulfil,
You’ll see there’s eight or ten of them advancing on yon hill.
If it comes to an engagement, you’ll rue it when too late,
So turn about and come with us – we’ll form a quick retreat.”

“Begone you cowardly scoundrels, begone I pray from me,
For if we were united, we’d gain this victory.”
“Today I’ll fight with courage bold that all the world may see,
For I’d rather die in battle than be hung on a gallows tree.”

Soon they commenced their firing; poor Donahoe did say,
“My curse lay on you Walmsley, for from me you’ve run away!”
The one played off in front of him, the other at each side,
At length he received a mortal wound and in his glory died.

The equals of Jack Donahoe, this country has never seen,
He did maintain his rights, my boys, and that right manfully,
He was chased about by hundreds, for three long years or more,
Until at length the Heavens decreed that he should roam no more.

The awful end of Donahoe, the truth to you I’ve told,
And hope that all good Christians will pray for his soul.
May the Holy Angels guard him, likewise our Heavenly King,
And our Saviour Dear who died for us, redeem his soul from sin.

The formulaic bushranging verses remind us that these songs were common expressions of the underdog, of people who identified with the outsider, even the dispossessed. With MacNamara the formula stops there.

We are told nothing about Jack Donahoe’s exploits. From the evidence in the ballad, we can only conclude that his main pastimes were cruising the highway and asking for a fight. With little more to recommend him, we are left to understand the song in terms of its context, who sings it. The “cowardly Walmsley” almost upstages Donahoe, even though his main role in the song is to accentuate the boldness of his companion. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of the song is that the listener has a sneaking sympathy for Walmsley, who quite clearly has more sense than Donahoe when he sees that they are hopelessly outnumbered. Certain heroic virtues are heralded. Donahoe scorns “to live in slavery or be humbled to the crown”; he fights for “life and liberty”; he dies “in his glory.” Yet nothing in the song indicates the kind of slavery he could be subjected to, the kind of liberty he pursues, or how exactly he is deserving of glory. Irish defiance, transplanted to another land, finds expression – but to what end? A further break with the conventions is the final verse. Here someone who is admired for his pursuits as a highwayman and his readiness to kill people on sight, is suddenly the concern of “all good Christians”. “May the Holy Angels guard him” and “our Saviour Dear … redeem his soul from sin.” It’s hard to beat as a surprise ending, but what does it mean? Counteracting forces of violence and redemption are mixed together without any sense of progressive credibility. The conclusion could be interpreted as the hallowing of a hothead, the ready forgiveness of someone who in life epitomised a type of wrong-headed courage. It is a song of the tribe.

Some phrases – “scorn to live in slavery”, “we’ll fight but not surrender” – are instantly recognisable from that true artistic accomplishment of the genre, ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. 4 The differences are telling. Jack Doolan in that ballad is of “poor but honest parents”; he “robbed those wealthy squatters”; and tells a judge “he’d never rob a hearty chap that acted on the square.” Which makes the final showdown – “I’ll fight, but not surrender” – one of genuine pathos. His capture is described brutally, without sentiment, nor with pleas for intercessory prayer.

Both songs say revealing things about the Irish imagining of Australia. Australia is a place you may plunder and this is true whichever side of the law you choose, whatever position in society you find yourself. In Australia you can live an exciting existence, but it will be dangerous. It is a place where you may expect to die suddenly. In Australia, courage is not unconnected with foolhardiness. When MacNamara exclaims “For today it’s life and liberty, or fall upon the plain”, we are in no doubt of the outcome. Australia is a place of poorly concealed ethnic differences, conflicts transplanted to the colonies are played out in a similar cultural manner to back home. Wildness is an inherited attitude as well as identification with the true wildness of Australia itself. Australia is also a theatre of terror in these songs. Jack Doolan, in particular, plays a strategic game of destruction, useful to his reputation. Its self-destructive intent is performed with much more subtle detail than MacNamara’s Jack Donohue. But both characters are fated and this deliberate flirtation with the powers of law and death is intrinsic to one kind of Irish imagining of Australia.

3. John Laurence Rentoul (1846-1926)

Very different allegiances are found in the writing of John Laurence Rentoul, titles of poems like ‘The Well of the Nation-Founders’ and ‘Australia’s Message to King George V’ signalling strict belief in the Empire. Poems like ‘On Dead Gladstone’ and ‘Achonry (The Legend of Erin’s Home)’ are deliberate expressions of his concerns with Irish destiny and his commitment to Irish Home Rule. While Chaplain General of the Australian Forces during World War One, Rentoul wrote battle-hymns and eulogies that help remind us of the fierce local belief in the Anzacs’ efforts; his poem ‘Landing of the Australians at Gaba Tepe, Gallipoli’ makes Rupert Brookes’ effusive heroics sound tame. His collection ‘From Far Lands’ is full of verse about Australia, its beauty and prospects, though it is worth pondering that Australia is the same ‘Far Lands’ of his title. Far from what?, we care to ask. Unlike Francis MacNamara, we are certain Rentoul was born in County Derry and we know of his whereabouts at all times of his life, being amongst other things Professor of New Testament at Ormond College in the University of Melbourne.

Rentoul is a child of the Tennysonian era, with its self-certain rhetoric and grand assertions that border on the bombastic. In this respect he is typical of most of the Irish-Australian poets of the times. The gravity, passion and conviction with which the verse is delivered is a much better guide to its intended meaning than the credibility of a lot of the statements. When Stephen Dedalus in ‘Ulysses’ derogatorily muses on “Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet” while walking Sandymount Strand, he is questioning that poet’s huge influence.

Rentoul published ‘By the Australian Bush’ in 1914. 5 It opens:

The lone “bush” breaks : and the forest dips and clings,
Cleft deep to its heart by the sickle of glinting stream :
List! that is the bell-bird’s call that flits and rings? –
Like a vague new song heard once in a land of dream.

(I must say I would never have thought a bellbird’s sounds as “vague”.) Thus the poem proceeds, praising the natural scene in a language of archaisms and newfound terms. It could be any Edwardian late-romantic piece, with only the mention of ring-barked trees and struggling small farmers to unsettle the bucolic bliss. We wait until halfway through to sense a separate mood:

Glad, glad, O land of the Sun, is thy noise of brooks!
In thy ranges high are the leapings of fountains clear;
But mine own heart yearns for the tones in the quiet nooks
By the streams of a colder zone and a younger year.

This nostalgia for another equally lovely place, the countryside of Ulster, vies for the poet’s affections through the rest of the poem, which ends remembering

And, O, that I could have again the boy’s young heart,
As it was when we dived by the bends of the red-cliffed Roe,
Or cleft the wave of the silvery Bann apart,
Or swam through the “Alts” of the rippling Aghavoe!

In fact the poet never resolves his divergent love for Victoria and Ulster, such that we wonder if the lack of resolution, or its refusal, is not the main import of the poem. For all the differences between these two places, his youth and maturity, he is quite comfortable describing their beauties and all in the same perfect iambic pentameters.

In his poetry, Rentoul neatly sets out his imaginings about Australia.

Ah, glades! ye are silent of voices I used to hear,
And vacant of faces more fair than the glen and the tree :
If I sit by the river will Some-one be waiting a-near? –
And her tones had a music more sweet than of brook and of sea!

Will ever a brother speak here, by the bank of the stream,
With challenge of swimmer or risp of the whirring reel? –
With shout: “It is morn! Brother, wake! It was all a dream!
We are still ‘mid the snows of the North, ‘mid the snipe and the teal!”

Quite simply, there are no people to talk to. The other guiding motive in the poem is Rentoul’s acceptance of Australia, as distinct from a convinced expression of belonging there. It is the work of a reconciled exile.

4. James Joyce (1882-1942)

Perhaps nowhere do puns and clichés mix it with awesome originality and with such intensity as in that unstoppable polyglottal recreation, ‘Finnegans Wake’. Places in this book serve roles. They are signifiers of conditions and moods, and Australia’s appearances denote various meanings, none of them exactly literal or exactly non-literal. Australia is cited often and I will give just two examples.

In Shem the Penman’s account of Aesop’s Fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper we hear this description of the spendthrift time-wasting Grasshopper 6:

‘The Gracehoper … had eaten all the whilepaper, swallowed the lustres, devoured forty flights of styearcases, chewed up all the mensas and seccles, ronged the records, made mundballs of the ephemerids and vorasioused most glutinously with the very timeplace in the ternitary – not too dusty a cicada of neutriment for a chittonous chip so mitey. But when Chrysalmas was on the bare branches, off he went from Tingsomingenting. He took a round stroll and he took a stroll round and he took a round strollagain till the grillies in his head and the leivnits in his hair made him thought he had the Tossmania. Had he twicycled the sees of the deed and trestraversed their revermer? Was he come to hevre with his engiles or gone to hull with the poop?’

The Tossmania is a creative condition, especially of the writer. It is the cause of inspiration while being, coincidentally, symptomatic of the absence of inspiration. It comes about after much journeying, sometimes across mighty oceans. The Tossmania is also a metaphysical condition, an unresolved quandary for the sufferer: am I in Heaven or Hell? The second place is the common reply, to believe much else in ‘Finnegans Wake’, for a strong association in James Joyce’s mind is of Australia as a place of damnation and potential redemption. Different characters find themselves in Van Demon’s Land, that is the land of their own demons.

These are not accidental word plays. Joyce has lifted a certain commonplace about Australia’s past – transplantation forever to an unknown land on the other side of the world, the ‘underworld’ if you like – and utilised it for his own psychodramatic purposes as an alien place where individuals must face their own private hells. Because everything in ‘Finnegans Wake’ is cyclic and in stasis, we know that this is not the end of the story. The Tossmania may be a maddening and humiliating experience, it is also the cause of unexpected and original outcomes. Indeed, Australia is a place where the future is yet to be written, writing that will come out in the most remarkable forms. The Grasshopper after all is the creative force, he sings the amazing song; Shem the Penman writes out the old story in a shameless new fashion.

Elsewhere in ‘Finnegans Wake’, during a phrase phase where the alphabet comes to life, we find this 7:

‘Just one moment. A pinch in time of the ideal, musketeers! Alphos, Burkos and Caramis, leave Astrelea for the astrollajerries and for the love of the saunces and the honour of Keavens pike puddywhackback to Pamintul. And roll away the reel world, the reel world, the reel world! And call all your smokeblushes, Snowwhite and Rosered, if you will have the real cream! Now for a strawberry frolic! Filons, filoosh! Cherchons la flame! Fammfamm! Fammfamm!’

Australia is imagined as Astrelea, that is the field of stars. (Australia has the most stars in its night sky of any continent on Earth.) It is too a place of conjecture. For Joyce, like Swift before him writing in a library of book battles, Australia is a place not of physical experience but printed words. Like Swift, Joyce identifies the extremities at work, for here we are presented with the brightest Heaven of all, Astrelea, just as we are elsewhere in ‘Finnegans Wake’presented with Australia as the testing ground of Hell.  

5. Paul Muldoon (b. 1955)

In 1998, Paul Muldoon published a poem called ‘The Bangle’ in his collection ‘Hay’.


Between the bream with cumin and the beef with marrow
in Le Petit Zinc
a bangle gleamed. Aurora Australis.
Many a bream, my darling, and many a luce
in stew.


     Not unlike the magpie and the daw,
the emu loves a shiny doodah,
a shiny doodlebob.


     So a harum-scarum
Bushman, hey, would slash one forearm
with a flint, ho, or a sliver of steel
till it flashed, hey ho, like a heliograph.


     By dribs, hey, by dribs and drabs
the emu’s still lured from its diet of fruit and herbs
with a bottle cap, ho, or a bit of tinfoil
till it’s in the enemy’s toils.


Its song ranges from a boom to a kerplink
reminiscent of the worst excesses of Conlon Nancarrow.

Although the poem may seem like a ludic description of Australia’s tallest bird, it is set in a Paris restaurant and its closer purpose bears on the unseen consequences of human interaction. We only find this out though by reading a long poem at the end of the collection called ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’ 9, a weird title that alludes to a Jimi Hendrix track mentioned elsewhere in the book. In Muldoon nearly everything is a reference to something else in Muldoon. The Wildean presence in ‘The Bangle’ (“reminiscent of the worst excesses of Conlon Nancarrow”) is accentuated in the quote from ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ at the start of the later poem, Cecily’s informative news to Algernon:

CECILY: Uncle Jack is sending you to Australia.
ALGERNON: Australia! I’d sooner die.
CECILY: Well, he said at dinner on Wednesday night, that you would have to choose between this world, the next world, and Australia.

What follows is one of those linguistic excursions through mythic time and earthly space that Muldoon has made his own personal adventure story, and that virtually defies the art of the abstract. The opening immediately puts us on guard:

“The beauty of it,” ventured Publius Vergilius Maro,
“is that your father and the other skinnymalinks
may yet end up a pair of jackaroos
in the canefields of Brisbane” We heard the tink

of blade on bone, the Greeks’ alalaes
as they slashed and burned, saw Aeneas daddle-dade
his father, Anchises, and his son, Iulus,
to a hidey-hole on the slopes of Mount Ida.

What, we are free to ask, is the Latin poet Virgil doing talking about Queensland sugar plantations? Who exactly is he addressing? Is the fact that your father may yet end up in Queensland cutting cane a good move? Or is something dodgy afoot? Then, why are we hearing all this sing-song verse about events recounted in that very serious poem The Aeneid? Muldoon isn’t going to explain, too busy surging forth  upon his artfully constructed rave-up and leaving us to figure it all out. And what of ‘skinnymalinks’, Dublin slang for what Australians would describe as a pint of pumpwater.

Soon we see that the whole crazy poem is an interweaving of four seemingly incongruous narratives, written in Japanese renga, or chain verse. The first narrative is agitated about Aeneas’ escape from Troy, as seen through the eyes of Virgil. The second is a bizarre account of adventures in old time Queensland involving Muldoon’s father and a friend who may or may not be the Wild Colonial Boy, born in Castlemaine. The third narrative surrounds unnamed and perhaps taboo events involving his father on an Irish ferry in a storm. Then fourth, what turns out to be the main narrative situation, a scene in a Paris restaurant in which a character called Muldoon appears to be wining and dining a love object, or lust object truer to say, while being observed by a Belfast journalist and his friend at a nearby table. Simple.

Gradually the scene drifts into focus, as we watch the likely suitor lose his chances through overdrinking and cerebral overload. We notice too that, linguistically and culturally, all is not exactly as it appears. Most Australians would have picked up the oddity of “a pair of jackaroos” working in the “canefields of Brisbane”, jackaroos commonly being hands on cattle and sheep stations, while Brisbane is not a part of the Sunshine State renowned for its sugar. In fact, on the face of it Muldoon’s knowledge of Australia seems to be based on what he has read in atlases, dictionaries, and encyclopedias. Its purpose is to carry a ludicrous dreamscape to its inevitable vanishing point, which happens at just about the same time he is walked out on by his friend in the restaurant.

So what is Australia for this Irishman? Muldoon’s Australia is a fictive creation. It is what Cecily implies, a place that is neither this world nor the next world. Australia is an exotic location in which to invest a madcap story. In the context of Muldoon, it is a source of unusual, unique and beautiful English words, all of which can enliven a poem by surprise and wonder; and that may be its only purpose, as a source for special words in a poem. Verse XXIX says

The beauty of it is that your da and that other phantasm
no more set foot in Queensland

than the cat that got the cream
might look at a king.

Meaning Australia might or might not be a phantasm, in fact a place no-one has been. A place of fictions. About the only thing we are certain of is that it is a place of incredible star fields, and this has some moment, for it is ‘The Bangle’ of the poems’ title (both poems) that “gleamed Aurora Australis”, the same bangle on the arm of his desire that the narrator stares at in the Paris restaurant, “the unrecognised plenitude” that could be his undoing.

7. Paul Durcan (b. 1944)

The imagined and then established fact of Australia has caused a variety of responses in the Irish mind. Poetry of all sorts – homespun, popular, populist and personal, as well as literary – has surfaced after encounters, either physical or cognitive, or both, with Australia. The last poem I wish to talk about in this anthology of Irish-born poets, is Paul Durcan’s elongated set of sketches going by the name ‘Give Him Bondi!’ 10 Durcan’s self-mocking humour sets the scene:

I’d like to swim at Bondi Beach.
Cautious not for fear of drowning in the sea …
But for fear of drowning in my own mortification –
An off-white northman in a sea of bronze loin-clothed men
With their bronze loin-clothed women.

Even in the first verse Durcan defines Australians and Australia as somehow other. It is other in ways impossible to define, but that are immediately felt by the newcomer. A thinking philosopher amidst unthinking hedonists, Durcan summons the courage to go for a swim. Once in he floats along with such thoughts:

This is my Theory of Floating
Which has served me well,
My Theory of Daydreaming
If one may speak well of oneself
I may say I have not craved
Conquest or complacency
But exclusively
The existence of existence,
The survival of survival,
The dreaming of the day.
I did not climb Ayers Rock,
Not out of an excess of virtue
But out of a modicum of attention
To the signposts of the local people:
Please do not climb our sacred mountain.
It would have been a sin
Against the genetics
Of all the chromosomes of ethics
To have climbed Ayers Rock.

This daydreaming on ocean waters leads to the ecstatic feeling

Never mind, this day is Elysium!
Alone to own and range
The bush of the sea.

The drift from Elysium to the purgatorial finale of drowning alone is steady and, so many Australians could explain, inexorable. Which is the main subject of the poem, almost drowning off Bondi Beach. Desperate calls for help, the shocked discovery that he could go under at any moment, are interspersed with lists of sins confessed and resolutions to improve. Australia, the testing ground of the unquestioning self. Durcan’s Catholic personality comes to the surface, as it were, in unexpected and severe ways. He becomes like a baby:

All presumption walloped o’er the horizon,
All my naivete, all my toxic pride,
All my vanity, all my conceit.
There is nothing that I can do – I realise –
Except shout, cry, whimper.
In the cot of the sea …

Elysium is a deception, short-lived. Retribution for easy attitudes rises suddenly; he finds he understands nothing at all, about himself, about others, or about Australia. By the time he is rescued

Another Bondi casualty bent forlorn
Upon the tourist shingles
Of New South Wales

Durcan is ready to go into “mortification” (the word he used in the opening lines with such jocularity) about almost everything:

If I conclude
I ever have the right
To call Ayers Rock “Uluru”
May I be
Not smug about it –
Remember I’m only a white man.
May I take to heart
What the Aboriginal people
Of Brisbane, Alice Springs, Canberra,
Said and did not say to me.
May I never romanticise
The lives of Aboriginal people.
May I never write trite
Codswallop about indigenousness;
May I begin to listen.
May I decipher next time
Silences under gum trees:
“Give him Bondi!”

As though to say, “Give him hell!” A Theory of Daydreaming leads him into deep water, ends up as profound guilt about what Durcan thinks he knows and the limits of his knowledge. The shock of this experience of near drowning does not cure him of his impish self-deprecating game-playing, but leaves him, arrestingly,

Not caring about anything …
Not even longing for home.

Australia is a place of unexpected confrontation. Its lure, its beauty, its sense of timeless indifference are named in this poem, but Durcan does so out of a shocked discovery that he must be constantly wary, one of the less deceived. His concluding remarks include the following, home in Ireland some weeks later, talking to his friend Colm, very likely Colm Toibin the novelist, and I will finish by quoting this verse conversation:

Back in Dublin
One person in whom
I can confide: Colm,
In that brusque,
Tongue of his whispers
On the telephone at noon:
”I swam in Rottnest
Off the coast of Perth,
Nearly lost my …
The sea is different in Australia, Paul,
A different pull.”

  1. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, London, Bodley Head, 1900.
  2. William Dampier, A New Voyage around the World, London, Hummingbird, 1998. [Recent assertions that the descriptions of Australian natives were a publisher’s later insertion, not Dampier’s own words, do not alter the fact that Swift would have read these descriptions.]
  3. Francis MacNamara, ‘Bold Jack Donahoe’ in The Turning Wave : poems and songs of Irish Australia, compiled and edited by Colleen Burke and Vincent Woods, Armidale, NSW, Kardoorair, 2001, p. 74.
  4. ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, version in Burke and Woods, p. 75.
  5. J. Laurence Rentoul (“Gervais Gage”), ‘By the Australian Bush’ in From Far Lands : poems of North and South, London, Macmillan, 1914, p. 68.
  6. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, London, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 416.
  7. Ibid, p. 64.
  8. Paul Muldoon, ‘The Bangle’, in Hay, New York, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998, p. 13.
  9. Muldoon, ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’, op. cit., p. 108.
  10. Paul Durcan, ‘Give him Bondi’, in Cries of an Irish Caveman, London, Harvill, 2001, p. 3.


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