by Akin McElwain
Discovering our very own bard
A CATHOLIC priest here, Paul Stenhouse, of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, has just completed a book about his great-grandfather, John Farrell. Never heard of him? Nor have most Australians.
Paul Stenhouse describes him as a forgotten poet, social reformer, economist, literary critic and patron of the arts. The priest, who is also a skilled journalist and editor of that "Journal of Catholic Culture", Annals Australia, is determined' to bring him out of obscurity into the light.
John Farrell was born in Buenos Aires in 1851. His father had a chemist's shop at Rosaria, along the Plata river. Practically uneducated, Farrell was to become Australia's first literary bush balladist. Also, his was the first "serious Australian story" to appear,. in December, 1884, in that pre-eminent literary periodical, The Bulletin.
Tennyson praised his verse. So did Rudyard Kipling, Conan Doyle, Cardinal Vaughan, Morley Roberts and Jane Barlow. He was a friend of Henry George and Mark Twain, both of whom visited his Sydney home. A strong supporter of woman's movements, he fought for social justice at every level of Australian society until his death in 1904.
He was mentor and friend to almost all Australia's younger poets of the 1880s and 90s — Victor Daley, Henry Lawson, "Banjo" Paterson, William Goodge, Will Ogilvie, Edwin Brady, Edward Dyson, Roderick Quinn, Sydney Jephcott, Mary Gilmore. Editor and leader writer of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, he was considered to be Australia's leading journalist. According to some, he was the real author of Robbery Under Arms, a famous Australian bushranging yarn published by magistrate Thomas Browne as his original work, writing under the pen-name "Rolf Boldrewood".
Three of Australia's first Prime Ministers were John Farrell's political "proteges". He was chief spokesman for the Movement for Single Tax and Land Nationalisation. Yet, apart from a few lines in biographies, he has virtually been ignored in anthologies of Australian verse and prose, and by economic and social historians.
Which is where my friend and colleague, Paul Stenhouse, MSC, steps in with a resolute attempt to rehabilitate the memory of his super-gifted forebearer. Stenhouse tells me that completely unexplored sources have been utilised which throw new light on many aspects of Australian life and society from the mid-1880s until Federation in 1901.
Stenhouse's interest in John
Farrell and his times was first aroused when, as a small boy, he heard tales of his greatgrandfather, whom Dame Mary Gilmore, tftli in her heyday: regarded as her chief mentor and guide in the literary and political affairs she made so very much her own.
Paul Stenhouse was prompted to examine his Argentinian-born relative more closely because of enthusiasm shown by Frank Sheed. On periodic visits to Australia, his homeland, the widely-known book publisher and one of the church's finest lay apostles, would sing, fortissimo, the praises of John Farrell, who befriended and encouraged a young English immigrant poet, William Goodge, one of Sheed's boyhood heroes.
Victor Daley, a fine lyric and satiric poet who was Farrell's contemporary, described the goldminer, brewer, poet, forester, farmer, vigneron, sailor, editor and journalist as "the friend of every man worth knowing". His satiric verse has been acclaimed as some of the best written in Australia in the last century.
Farrell, let me also report, has strong English leanings. For Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, he wrote a poem, "Australia to England". The ' American press regarded it as the best of more than 12,000 odes written on the occasion — better than Kipling's "Recessional", and far better than the work of Alfred Austin, who succeeded Tennyson as Poet Laureate in 1896. At a time when Britain and the Commonwealth are shaken by the happenings in South Africa, it may not be inappropriate to quote the concluding lines of that poem.
Of England Farrell wrote: You set and showed the whole world's school The lesson it must surely read, That each one ruled has right to rule.
The alphabet of freedom's creed Which slowly wins it proselytes And makes uneasy many a throne; You taught them all to prate of Rights, In language growing like your own!
. . . . 0 Englishmen, Be sure the safest time of all For even the mightiest State, is when Not even the least desires its fall! Make England stand supreme for aye, Because supreme for peace and good, Warned well by wrecks of yesterday
That strongest feet may slip in blood!