[Editor: This article provides biographical information about John O’Brien (Patrick Joseph Hartigan); for various works by him, click here.]
John O’Brien was the pen-name of Patrick Joseph Hartigan, who was born in O’Connell Town, Yass (New South Wales), on 13 October 1878.
Hartigan was ordained as a priest in 1903, then worked as a curate in Albury until 1910, when he was made an inspector of schools for Goulburn (hence his poem “The Day th’ Inspector Comes”), following which he became priest-in-charge of Berrigan in 1916, then parish priest for Narrandera in 1917, a post he held for many years. He semi-retired from active church work in 1944, whereupon he took up the less strenuous post of chaplain to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in Rose Bay (Sydney). In 1951, the year before his death, a second book of his was published: “On Darlinghurst Hill”, about the history of the Darlinghurst parish of New South Wales.
Writing under the pseudonym of “John O’Brien”, Hartigan had many poems printed in various magazines and newspapers, including Catholic periodicals. A book of his poems, Around the Boree Log and Other Verses, was published in 1921, which included his popular poem “Said Hanrahan”.
It is possible that his work as a priest may have been a contributing factor in his decision to write his poetry under a pseudonym, thus distancing his lighter works of poetry from his more serious work as a man of the cloth.
His connection with the church shows up in many of his poems, such as “The Church upon the Hill”, “Vale, Father Pat”, “Josephine”, “The Old Mass Shandrydan”, “Pitchin’ at the Church”, “The Pillar of the Church”, “Tangmalangaloo”, “The Altar-Boy”, “At Casey’s After Mass”, “The Parting Rosary”, “Little Churches”, “My Curate’s Motor Bike”, “My Curate, Father Con”, and “The Pastor of St Mels”.
Hartigan’s parents came from Ireland (migrating in the 1860s from County Clare), and this parentage is reflected in his writing; for example, in the use of Irish themes in his poems, such as “The Little Irish Mother” and “St. Patrick’s Day”, and in his widespread use of Irish words, such as acushla, bedad, keownrawnin’, shoneen, wisha, and yerra, which appear in many of his poems.
Notwithstanding the influence of his Irish heritage, “John O’Brien” demonstrated the primacy of his feelings for Australia. In his poem “St. Patrick’s Day”, he speaks of “the hectic flush of racial pride upon St. Patrick’s Day”, but says “the love they gave their country made me conscious of my own . . . I see a land around me . . . To that big free land I’ve given all the love that courses through me . . . Australian — oh, the word is music to me”.
The poetry of O’Brien reflects the growth of native-born Australian culture; his Australianism is expressed in poems like “The Old Bush School”, “Could I Hear the Kookaburras Once Again”, “Ownerless”, “The Libel”, and “Come, Sing Australian Songs to Me!”
In “The Libel” he both defends and explains the love of Australian flora and fauna to those outsiders who have been unable to perceive the beauty inherent in the Australian bush; he defends Australia against those who use her, but fail to appreciate her, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Henry Lawson’s poem “My Land and I”.
O’Brien promoted the ambience of the Australian bush in “Honeymooning from the Country”:
Scent of gum-leaves . . . ’Tis the finest scent on earth.
Ay, it clung around the Anzacs when they stormed Gallipoli;
And it steeps the nation-builders from the centre to the sea.
Speed the day when all united, heart to heart and hand to hand,
We’ll proclaim the scent of gum-leaves to be sacred in the land.
Writing at a time when there was a large foreign influence upon cultural entertainment in Australia, O’Brien bemoaned the lack of Australian music, or its lack of predominance. In “Come, Sing Australian Songs to Me!” he called for an upsurge in Australian music:
You sing the songs of all the earth,
Of alien flower and alien tree:
But no one, in my grief or mirth,
Will sing Australian songs to me. . . .
Ah, Little One, what dreams would rise
If, nestled here upon my knee,
You’d flash those soft Australian eyes,
And sing your country’s songs to me!
Patrick Hartigan died in Lewisham, New South Wales, on 27 December 1952; however, his literary legacy continued, as his nephew, Father F.A. Mecham, had collected his later verse, leading to the posthumous publication of a second book of his poetry in 1954, The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses.
Articles about John O’Brien:
“Around the Boree Log”: Death of author [31 December 1952]
““Around the Boree Log”: Death of author”, The Charleville Times (Brisbane, Qld.), 31 December 1952, p. 5
““Boree Log” author dies”, The Sunday Herald (Sydney, NSW), 28 December 1952, p. 3
“Death of last of “the bush balladists””, The West Australian (Perth, WA), 29 December 1952, p. 2
“Literary nook: The Parish of St. Mel’s”, Cairns Post (Brisbane, Qld.), 10 July 1954, p. 4
G. P. Walsh. “Hartigan, Patrick Joseph (1878–1952) ”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University (accessed 9 May 2012)
“Patrick Joseph Hartigan”, Wikipedia (accessed 9 May 2012)