Cassie, Sandy, Sandra

I’ve heard it said that Naarm (Melbourne) is the third largest Greek city in the world, and the largest outside Greece.

Maybe that’s true – I don’t think that there is a standard, accepted, measure of Greek-ness when it comes to cities – but many Australian’s do seem to have inherited a Greco-Trojan contempt for prophets and truth-tellers (Cassandra was the Trojan prophetess, doomed to always tell the truth but never be believed).

The past few months of drought, followed by catastrophic bushfires, followed by floods, have brought to my mind a poem my father used to quote from time to time. Here it is in full:

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan
In accents most forlorn
Outside the church ere Mass began
One frosty Sunday morn.

The congregation stood about,
Coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock and crops and drought
As it had done for years.

“It’s lookin’ crook,” said Daniel Croke;
“Bedad, it’s cruke, me lad
For never since the banks went broke
Has seasons been so bad.”

“It’s dry, all right,” said young O’Neil
With which astute remark
He squatted down upon his heel
And chewed a piece of bark.

And so around the chorus ran
“It’s keepin’ dry, no doubt.”
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.

“The crops are done; ye’ll have your work
To save one bag of grain;
From here way out to Back-o’-Bourke
They’re singin’ out for rain.

“They’re singin’ out for rain,” he said,
“And all the tanks are dry.”
The congregation scratched its head,
And gazed around the sky.

“There won’t be grass, in any case,
Enough to feed an ass;
There’s not a blade on Casey’s place
As I came down to Mass.”

“If rain don’t come this month,” said Dan,
And cleared his throat to speak –
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“If rain don’t come this week.”

A heavy silence seemed to steal
On all at this remark;
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.

“We want an inch of rain, we do,”
O’Neil observed at last;
But Croke “maintained” we wanted two
To put the danger past.

“If we don’t get three inches, man,
Or four to break this drought,
We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.”

In God’s good time down came the rain;
And all the afternoon
On iron roof and window-pane
It drummed a homely tune.

And through the night it pattered still,
And lightsome, gladsome elves
On dripping spout and window-sill
Kept talking to themselves.

It pelted, pelted all day long,
A-singing at its work,
Till every heart took up the song
Way out to Back-o’-Bourke.

And every creek a banker ran,
And dams filled overtop;
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“If this rain doesn’t stop.”

And stop it did, in God’s good time:
And spring came in the fold
A mantle o’re the hills sublime
Of green and pink and gold.

And days went by on dancing feet,
With harvest-hopes immense,
And laughing eyes behold the wheat
Nod-Nodding o’er the fence.

And, oh, the smiles on every face,
As happy lad and lass
Throught grass knee-deep on Casey’s place
Went riding down to Mass.

While round the church in clothes genteel
Discoursed the men of mark,
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.

“There’ll be bush fires for sure, me man,
There will, without a doubt;
We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.”

John O’Brien (P. J. Hartigan)

According to Australian Poetry Since 1788 P. J. Hartigan was a Catholic priest who, as well as writing the above poem, was said to have delivered the last rites to a man called Jack Riley, who was said to have been the inspiration for Banjo Patterson’s The Man from Snowey River.

The poem’s joke seems somewhat less funny in this age of “climate denialism”. Hanrahan’s predictions come true all around us – but prophets and truth-tellers still get short shrift.

Mentioned:

Australian Poetry Since 1788, Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray (Eds.), University of New South Wales Press, 2011.