This brief history of Irish Australian music looks at how songs and stories have illustrated the journey of the Irish in Australia – both the emotional as well as the physical journey.
The music is divided into five different categories and, given that the topic covers a very large timeframe from the First Fleet to the present day, presents some of the best examples of each of these categories:
1. Irish songs that travelled to Australia and were passed down to us
Songs that came over with the Irish from early convict arrivals. How these songs were adapted and came down to us through the years. Eg. Catalpa,
2. Irish songs written in Australia
Australian Irish songs that capture the events of Australian history. Eg. Wild Colonial Boy
3. Contemporary songs which celebrate Irish / Australian events
Contemporary songs which celebrate events in the Irish /Australian history. Eg. Shane Howard’s Rebel Song, Andy Irvine’s Gladiators,
4. Songs from Irish Aboriginal artists
Aboriginal Irish performers who evoke both cultures in their music. Eg Kev Carmody, Alan Dargin. Emma Donovan
5. Contemporary performers who evoke both Irish and Australian traditions in their music
Eg. George, Marcia Howard, Steve Cooney.
Lastly there is a song-list of some of notable Irish Australian songs.
Irish cultural contact has influenced the creation of an Australian identity. For example, how the bushranger stories and songs provided Australia with a mythological prism on its past as important to “Australianness” as the Hollywood’s depiction of the taming of the Wild West was to the construction of an American identity. The songs from these pioneering days are the myths that nations are built on.
As Thomas Keneally tells it, “the past can resonate, can inform the present. Here were a people who came to Australia as criminals and yet have contributed much in terms of culture, spirit and the seeds of nationalism itself.”
1. Irish songs that travelled to Australia and were passed down
Some Irish Australian songs have lived for hundreds of years – we’ve just added new words to old tunes. These songs had many purposes, entertainment, propaganda, news – a kind of an oral history in tunes.
An example is Judges and Juries which is a popular tune at sessions in Australia at the moment. It was originally known in Ireland as The Boys of Wexford but if you sang this song in Perth in the 1890’s it would get you arrested because it was then known as the Catalpa and celebrated the famous Fenian escape on the American whaler, the Catalpa in 1876 and it was banned by the authorities (as was the Wild Colonial Boy by Governor George Darling in 1830).
Come all you screw warders and jailers,
Remember Perth Regatta Day.
Take care of the rest of your Fenians,
Or the Yankees will steal them away.
Songs which were written at the time about these were printed in long strips known as Broadsides and are not to be confused with sheet music, which was a popular way of spreading songs in later years prior to the introduction of recorded music. The Broadsides had no music accompanying them which is why one often finds popular tunes gaining many different sets of words as the years progressed. Ballad singers would sing these songs around the streets rather like modern-day buskers. But for an illiterate population, as many people were, it was a way of spreading the news.
We know that The Boys of Wexford travelled out here because Keith Amos in his book on the Fenians in Australia published a song-list from a concert that took place on the Hougoumont, the very last convict ship to come to Australia in 1878 (and which had John Boyle O’Reilly on board).
The other songs on that list were
Lamb Dearg Aboo
Ned of the Hill
The Rising of the Moon
Rally for Ireland
Tell me Mary
Good bye Sweetheart
Elopement of Sean McCarthy
The concert ended with Let Erin Remember which the Fenians adopted as a national anthem.
2. Irish songs written in Australia
Bob Reece maintains that the Irish were successful at writing popular songs because they combined the classic styles with the Irish traditions. For example Frank “the Poet” McNamara from Cashel, Co. Tipperary, who was transported for seven years in 1832 for the theft of a piece of cloth wrote his magnum opus, A Convict’s tour to hell, which is clearly in the style of Johnathan Swift’s satires but at the same time, as a dream narrative, is very much part of the Irish Gaelic tradition exemplified by Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court of the same era.
In A Convict’s tour to hell, Frank dies and goes to hell as one would expect for a villain of his ilk only to find it full of coppers, gaolers and politicians. The devil himself introduces Frank to the hapless inmates including the Governer of NSW himself, all of whom are each undergoing the most devious of punishments:
On turning round I saw slow worms
And snakes of various kinds and form
All entering at his mouth and nose
To devour his entrails I suppose
Frank then heads up to Heaven and is happily reunited with the rest of his prisoner pals which makes his point that the judicial system of the day was morally topsy turvy!
Bushranger Ballads and Australian myths
Frank McNamara is a name which crops up again and again where Irish /Australian songs are concerned and it is Frank who is most often credited with writing Bold Jack Donahoe which eulogised the escapades of Irish born bushranger Jack Donahoe in the 1830’s and which evolved into Australia’s best known bushranger ballad, the Wild Colonial Boy.
As Keith Amos wrote “The Irish penchant for the preservation of a national sentiment by means of oral tradition, resulted in anecdotes about bushrangers being put to verse in ballads which reflected an Australian extension of Ireland’s struggle for nationality. And so around 1830 when a convict -bushranger like Jack Donahoe challenged his gaolers, the police, colonial order and property, he became for Irish Australians – as Ned Kelly did two generations later – a symbol of Irish national resistance to English oppression and mis-government.” Radical Irish nationalism readily became an important strand of emerging Australian nationalism, in so far as it challenged loyalty to the English Crown in favour of Australian national sentiment. This is reflected in later versions of the Wild Colonial Boy as Irish-born Jack Donahoe becomes Australian-born Jack Duggan.
There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name
He was born of Irish parents in a place called Castlemaine
He was his father’s only son, his mother’s pride and joy
And dearly did his parent’ love the wild colonial boy.
Moreton Bay, was also reportedly written by Frank “the Poet” McNamara in 1830 and is sung to the tune of Boolavogue, a song which commemorates the 1798 rebellion in Ireland.
One Sunday morning as I went walking
By Brisbane waters I chanced to stray
I heard a convict his fate bewailing
As on the sunny river bank I lay
I am a native from Erin’s island
But banished now from my native shore
They stole me from my aged parents
And from the maiden I do adore
Mark Gregory in his excellent website on Australian folk songs states that Moreton Bay was such a popular song that Ned Kelly used lines from the ballad in his “Jerilderie Letter” in 1879 (“Port McQuarrie Toweringabbie Norfolk island and Emu plains and in those places of tyranny and condemnation many a blooming Irish man rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains.”)
Frank “The Poet” McNamara served time with Ned Kelly’s father, John Kelly at the notorious Port Arthur Prison in Tasmania and it is likely that the song was learned by Kelly Snr. and then passed down from father to son.
The exile of Erin, on the Plains of Emu is another song of this era which features a convict’s lament and was written by the Reverend John McGarvie in 1829. However Bob Reece’s study of another song by Reverend John McGarvie, the Ballad of Maitland Jail is a fascinating example of how a song which lay undiscovered for 160 years became the key to unlocking the details of the hero Felix Kearney’s short but eventful life (he was hanged aged 32 for housebreaking).
3. Contemporary songs which celebrate Irish / Australian events
The present landscape of Irish /Australian music comprises both songs that have been passed down and also new material which celebrates and commemorates significant events in Irish / Australian history. Shane Howard is a singer-songwriter from Victoria who made his name with the band Goanna. Shane’s heritage is uniquely Irish.
His great-grandmother came from Silvermines in Tipperary and was one of the 4,000 orphan girls who were sent to Australia from Ireland to ease the dire situation in Irish workhouses and also to rectify the gender imbalance in Australia. Life for these girls, most of them barely children, who arrived in the new colony at HM’s pleasure was heartbreaking.
Shane Howard’s great -grandfather was a gold-digger in Ballarat (Australia’s goldrush had started in 1851 with a find in Bathurst)
When the government raised the taxes on the plots in the goldfields in 1854, Shane’s great -grandfather joined with a group of men, mostly of Irish descent, led by Laois-born Peter Lalor (who would later become Speaker of the Victorian parliament). They raised the Southern Cross flag and declared the Republic of Victoria in a gesture which many Australians regard as the birth of Australian Republicanism. Shane Howard’s song “Rebel song” borrows its chorus from the writing of Henry Lawson (1867-1922).
What drives a man to take up arms
And risk both life and limb
What rallies folk together
To fight and not give in
We suffered in the old world
The injustice and the greed
“No more” cried the Eureka men
“We want equality”.
Bob Reece said. “It’s important not to underplay the importance of Eureka. The Eureka Flag is the first occasion in Australian history that Australian Liberty was described and presented in purely Australian terms, both visually and orally without any reference to European or American liberty. The most notable absence on the Eureka flag is the British Union Jack. Irishman, Peter Lalor’s speech at Bakery Hill forever emblazoned the image of the Southern Cross to Australian liberty with the words, “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and defend our rights and liberties.”
Australia in the latter years of the 19th Century was a land where dreams came through for many of the poverty-stricken Irish who had come in search of their fortunes. Patsy Durack for example, the subject of the Australian classic novel “Kings in Grass Castles” arrived in Australia in 1853 with his parents and 7 siblings and proceeded to build one of the biggest cattle empires in the country. In 1883 he drove 7,250 head of cattle and 200 horses from Southwest Queensland to the Kimberleys, an area where few white men had even ventured at that time.
For workers the Irish nationalist push found a home with the union movement in Australia and this relationship has endured to the present. Much of the conflict in the late 19th century was between the lowly farm worker and the big landowners such as the Duracks, who tried to keep their workforce non-union. Banjo Paterson’s Travelling Down The Castlereagh is a good example of a song from this era, about scabs in a shearer’s strike.
I asked a cove for shearin’ once along the Marthaguy
“We shear non-union here,” says he. “I call it scab,” says I
I looked along the shearin’ floor before I turned to go
There were eight or ten non-union men a-shearin’ in a row
However in earlier versions of this song the lyric in the last line was “eight or ten dashed chinamen a-shearin’ in a row” and the inherent racism within the union had to be fought in order for equanimity to develop. The printing of broadsides with the anti-racist lyric was part of a positive propaganda campaign on behalf of the unions which enlisted the popular ballads to effect change for the good.
Many songs born of this Irish-Australian fusion symbolise the hope for “a fair go” and the peaceful future that the working Irish had for the new Australia.
Andy Irvine’s Gladiators , continues this trend, a tribute to Galwayman Tom Glynn who co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World (known locally in Sydney as the Wobblies) in 1913 and were jailed for their efforts.
Gladiators of the Working Class, heroes of mine
Who travelled down this dark road long before my time
Your actions and the words you spoke are shining in my mind
As I’m blowing down this old dusty road.
4. Irish Aboriginal links
A number of Australian artists share both Irish and Aboriginal heritage.
Kev Carmody’s father was Irish and his mother Aboriginal from the Murri people in Queensland. He grew up on a cattle station near Goranba in the Darling Downs area of South Eastern Queensland.
Kev commented “My background and my grandparents and parents’ was stock work. Droving, mustering, branding etc.through the 1950’s to the early 1970’s. Music was around the campfire, the loungeroom, the kitchen and the pub.
The indigenous oral tradition fitted perfectly with the Irish oral
tradition. The key thing was everyone could have an input into the music.
No-one was excluded. If you couldn’t sing or play an instrument you could
say poetry. The communal presentation of culture through music was
paramount. For many years, the two populations shared a common position at the bottom of the colonial social ladder.
The storytelling and music and dance were the way we transmitted our
traditions from generation to generation. This is common with the Irish
tradition as well. Because all this historical knowledge was so large,
individuals and groups were entrusted with the custodianship of rituals,
songs dances, and stories.”
As the 19th century progressed, working class Irish and Aborigines often found themselves working together on the properties of the big landlords. Conditions were bad for the Irish but the Aboriginal farm workers received by far the worst deal, many of them being little better than slaves. Kev Carmody drew on this experience for his best-known song From little things big things grow with Paul Kelly.
Kev Carmody’s style of storytelling is influenced by an Aboriginal oral tradition but also by the American folk tradition exemplified by Bob Dylan, who Kev quotes as an inspiration. From little things big things grow begins as a traditional “Come all ye” and outlines the struggle of the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory when the Aboriginal stock men went on strike for better wages from the British cattle baron Lord Vestey in 1966.
Gather round people and I’ll tell you a story
An eight year long story of power and pride
British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiari
Were opposite men on opposite sides
Vestey was fat with money and muscle
Beef was his business, broad was his door
Vincent was lean and spoke very little
He had no bank balance, hard dirt was his floor……
Irish and Aboriginal indigenous cultures share many characteristics, an attachment to the land and a love of rhythm. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the puzzle of the Trumpa Creda or Irish Horn, a large bronze-age wind instrument of which twelve had been unearthed in Ireland dating from pre-historic times. There was no example of anyone being able to get a sound from these horns until in the 70’s, the Irish musical historian, Professor Peter Holmes persuaded legendary Australian entertainer Rolf Harris to try the drone and rhythmic breathing methods associated with didgeridoo playing and he was successful in playing the instrument.
Alan Dargin is from tribal lands in North East Arnhem land but his peopla also hail from Wexford in Ireland. He has played his didge everywhere from closed ceremonies in his homeland to the Albert Hall in London via recording sessions in New York with Phillip Glass. He is someone who has spent much time living the cultures of both Irish and Aboriginal people.
Alan recently joined forces with Irishman Simon Dwyer, who has devoted his life to bringing the Trumpa Creda back to life, in the band Reconciliation, playing didge and ancient Irish horns.”
Another intriguing story linking the two cultures comes from investigations into language in Australia and the origins of the word “didgeridoo” which, according to language expert Flinders academic Dympna Lonergan, only entered the dictionaries circa 1924. Dymphna Lonergan asserts that the word derives from the Irish “dudaire”, pronounced “dooderah” meaning horn blower and “dubh”, pronounced “doo” meaning black. It is possible that Irish speaking settlers may have given the name to the player of the instrument and it then became associated with the instrument.
Forging a new chapter in this Irish Aboriginal cross-cultural tale is Emma Donovan, a rising star from the country-singing Donovan clan in Grafton and a founding member of the successful all-women group the Stiff Gins. Emma began singing at the age of 7 with her uncle’s band The Donovans and has won several awards at the Tamworth Music Festival. Her grandfather was from Cork and possessed a vast repertoire of Irish songs and stories.
5. Contemporary performers who evoke both Irish & Australian traditions in their music
While Irish Australian music may not have the transparency that exists between Irish American music (as demonstrated in Philip King’s documentary Bringing it all Back Home) there is reasonable evidence to suggest that Irish music has provided inspiration to several of Australia’s leading artists and vice versa.
Katie and Tyrone Noonan from the Brisbane band George possess Irish grandparents and both spent time in Dublin in the early nineties. They feel their time spent in Ireland has shaped their musical style and have put their feelings to music in Dublin Song.
I remember sitting on a roof looking over Dublin
town, still seems so warm
….the whole thing just stank but we still had a ball
but it still walks round my mind
Guess it will for a very long time
But i know my heart will always be there…
Mossie Scanlon, a gaeilgeoir back hoe driver based in Melbourne has just released his first cd combining songs from his youth on the Dingle peninsula with new material recorded in Melbourne.
Mary Black has recently joined forces with Marcia Howard (a sister of Shane Howard) on Poison Tree, a William Blake poem.
Victorian Steve Cooney continues to produce some of Ireland’s best music from his adopted home in Donegal while Belfast’s Andy White continues to tread the boards whilst based in Melbourne.
UWS academic John O’Carroll in a recent essay on migrant memory commented. “Images of Ireland possibly owe more to the collective memories of the 60 million people of Irish descent that make up the diaspora than they do to the 3.5 million who actually live in Ireland. The Dublin of the “Rare old times” is gone, but not to memory. For migrants, the city exists only in memory: to return is no longer possible because the city that has been left behind is no longer there. Yet this imaginary city is precisely the one that is preserved in song. The images of Ireland are determined by the outer circle, the emigrants – not those who live there”.
For many artists the music has come full circle and Irish Australian music continues to break new ground as partnerships such as Liam O Maonlai and the Pigrams and solo artists like Nick Seymour, Judy Pinder, Grada, Clann Zu and Seamus Begley continue to derive inspiration from the people and the landscape of both countries.
Song list of notable Irish Australian songs
U2 Van Diemen’s Land (Island Music 1981)1234
Stockton’s Wing Skidoo (trad. 1980)14
Jimmy Little Galway Bay (trad. 1958)4
The Bushwhackers Castle Hill Rebellion 1804 John Dengate
Simon McDonald Convict Tour To Hell (trad. poem 1835) o
Liam O Maonlai Na Connairi (trad.1850)
The PoguesSouth Australia (trad.)
Brendan Gallagher Paddies Evermore (trad.1848) o
Let Erin Remember(Trad 1848) o
Judy Pinder Convict Maid , (trad. poem 1830) o
Reg Mombasa Botany Bay Courtship (trad. poem 1830) o
Matthew Doyle Cashman’s Diaries (trad. prose1868)
Ormonde Watters The Wild Goose (trad, Prose, 1868) o
Sean Tyrell Cry of the Dreamer (trad.)
Brendan Woods The Freemantle Regatta (trad. 1870)
Nick Cave The Wild Colonial Boy (trad. 1850) o
Thomas Keneally Ned Kelly Was An Irishman (trad. 1850) o
Shane McGowan Jerilderie Letter (Ned Kelly) o
John Dengate Travelling Down The Castlereagh (Banjo Patterson)
Gordy Blair After The Fight On George’s River Ground (trad 1871)
Warumpi Band Black Fella, White Fella (Warumpi Band 1980)
Kev Carmody / Paul Kelly From Little Things, Big Things Grow (Carmody 1991)
Seamus Begley Andy’s gone a drovin’ (Henry Lawson) (trad air)
Emma Donovan Danny Boy (trad.)
Colleen Burke and familyDirty Newtown(Ewan McColl, 1976)
Mary Black Flesh and Blood (Howard 1993)
Andy White / Kev Carmody/ Liam O Maonlai Half a world away (White 2000)
John Dengate Hymn To A Sheet Metal Worker (Dengate)
Andy Irvine Gladiators (Irvine 1990)
Andy White Coz I’m free (White/Anu/Crichton 2000)
Enda Kenny Don’t Ask Me To Sing The Wild Rover (Kenny)
Christy Moore Back Home In Derry (Bobby Sands 1979)
Katie and Tyrone Noonan Dublin song (George 2001)
The Pogues And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda (Eric Bogle) Y
Christy Moore Diamanta Droving (Redgum, 1984)
Lee Kernaghana Diamantina Droving (Redgum)
Grada Diamantina Droving (Redgum)
Stephen Cooney Song for Ireland (Stockton, 1988)
Alec Finn Far Away in Australia (De Danann, 1980)
The Pigram Brothers Faith of our fathers (Trad) o
Alan Dargin Dingle Regatta (Trad) o
Shane HowardRebel Song(ABC, 1996)
Saints (I’m) Stranded (EMU 1977)
The Angels Am I ever gonna see your face again? (WDE, 1979)
Luka Bloom / Judy Pinder Love is a place I dream of (BMG, 2001)
Christine Anu Coz I’m Free (ALT, 2000)
Mary Black / Marcia Howard Poison Tree (Torc, 2003)
Mark Atkins Ankala, Rhythms from the Outer core
Sean Tyrell Rising of the moon Trad.
George Breathe out loud (George 2001)
Andy White Deeper Water (Andy White 2000)
Weddings Parties Anything A tale they won’t believe Weddings etc.
Reconciliation(Simon Dwyer and Alan Dargin) any song
Lisa GerrardSong Cycles Pty Ltd
Kate Burke & Ruth Hazleton The Banks of Claudy Songlines
Across the Western Plains Dave de Hugard Songlines
The Green Bushes James Fagan Songlines
The loss of Bob Mahoney Danny Spooner Songlines
The Golden Vanity Martin Wyndham-Read Songlines
Moreton Bay Dave de Hugard Songlines
Lovely Nancy (Holy Ground) Cathie O’Sullivan Songlines
Banks of the Condamine Nancy Kerr and James Fagan Songlines
Barbary Allen Cathie O’Sullivan Songlines
Ginny of the Moor Dave de Hugard Songlines
Lost Sailor Cathie O’Sullivan Songlines
Andy’s gone with cattle Chris Kempster Songs of Chris Kempster
Do you think I do not know Declan Affley Songs of Chris Kempster
Across the Western Suburbs Bill Berry / Denis Kevans Green Ban songs
The good ship kangaroo Planxty Plenty 2004
(the following is a songlist from a concert held on the Hougoumont, the last convict ship to come to Australia in 1867)
( Keith Amos, The Fenians in Australia, NSW University Press, 1988)
Lamb Dearg Aboo
Ned of the Hill
The Rising of the Moon
Rally for Ireland
Tell me Mary
Good bye Sweetheart
Elopement of Sean McCarthy
The Boys of Wexford
Let Erin remember
Clann Zu, Muiris (Murty) O’Sullivan,
Clinton Walker, Mark Gregory, Thomas Keneally, Vincent Woods, John O’Carroll, Siobhan McHugh, Dymphna Lonergan, Martin Wyndham-Read
Author interviews with; Thomas Keneally, Siobhan McHugh, Judy Pinder, Clinton Walker
And articles by:
John O’Carroll, UWS, Irish Australia, Irish Music, 1999
Keith Amos, The Fenians in Australia, NSW University Press, 1988
Bob Reece, Exiles from Erin, Macmillan 1991
Mark Gregory, Australian Folk songs, http://unionsong.com
Kev Carmody, Interview, 1/6/03
Vincent Woods & Colleen Burke, The Turning Wave, Kardorair Press, 1991
Dr Enda V Murray. Sydney. November 2016.