An old Irish question: Will we all be rooned with the rain or the drought?

An Irishman’s Diary: ‘As the poem progresses, the prayed-for deluge arrives, in Biblical quantities, until that too becomes a problem’

‘And every creek a banker ran,/And dams filled overtop;/We’ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan,/If this rain doesn’t stop.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘And every creek a banker ran,/And dams filled overtop;/We’ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan,/If this rain doesn’t stop.’ Photograph: Getty Images

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The long hot summer and other freakish events have inspired Dún Laoghaire reader Patrick Judge to verse, in the style of a 99-year-old Australian classic.

“Bacteria in the garden compost,/Atop the hosepipe ban,” he writes; “Gorse fires upon Bray Head,/My horse an also-ran./Kerry not in Croker, oh my; Farm costs all gone sky-high./Taxes on electric cars, no doubt; We’ll all be rooned, says Hanrahan,/Before the year is out.”

Patrick says he wrote the lines “with apologies to Australian bush poet, John O’Brien (Fr Joseph Hartigan).” But I doubt there’s any need to apologise. Fr Hartigan would surely be pleased that, almost a century after he wrote the poem, it is still remembered in his parents’ homeland, whose speech, surnames, and tendency towards fatalistic gloom it commemorates.

As the original opens, Hanrahan and his bush neighbours, including a Croke and an O’Neill, are in the grip of a drought, the worst for 30 years: “We’ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan,/In accents most forlorn,/Outside the church ere mass began,/One frosty Christmas morn.”

But as the poem progresses, the prayed-for deluge arrives, in Biblical quantities, until that too becomes a problem: “And every creek a banker ran,/And dams filled overtop;/We’ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan,/If this rain doesn’t stop.”

Then the rain does stop, and everyone is happy for a while. But the poem finishes where it began, outside church, with the farmers chewing bark and worrying about another dry spell: “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.”

Born in New South Wales, in 1878, Joseph Hartigan was the son of a couple who emigrated from Lisseycasey, Co Clare. He entered a Sydney seminary in his teens, intent of becoming a priest, then had doubts for a time, before returning to be ordained in 1903.

Success in Australia

He first published poetry as “Mary Ann” before becoming famous under the pseudonym, John O’Brien, whose collection Around the Boree Log and Other Verses, which included Hanrahan, was a huge success in Australia, the US, and Ireland during the early 1920s.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography explains his popular appeal: “Recording with humour and pathos the lively faith, solid piety and everyday lives of the people around him, Hartigan successfully combined the old faith of Ireland with the mateship and ethos of the bush, towards the end of an age when the small selectors and squatters went by sulky or ‘shandridan’ [Hiberno-English for a rickety carriage] to ‘The Church Upon the Hill’.”

His own poetic fame aside, he may also have been intimately connected with one of the immortal figures of Australian verse. In 1911, according to the ADB, he gave the last rites to Jack Riley of Bringenbong, “said to have been [Banjo] Patterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’.”

Irish emigrants

Patterson insisted the character was a composite of several real people, but Riley – who had been born in Co Mayo around the time of the Famine – is among the leading candidates to have been his main model for the fearless horseman of the poem.

“Said Hanrahan” first appeared in a Sydney newspaper, the Catholic Press, in July 1919. That this was a time of crisis back in Hanrahan’s motherland is highlighted by a report alongside it, headlined “The Iron Heel in Ireland”.

In that, one Robert Lynd reports from Dublin about the upsurge in republican sentiment and the repression it had provoked: “Had Ireland sent her 250,00 soldiers to fight for the Germans instead of for the Allies, she could hardly have had a greater Lord Mayor’s Show of tanks, armoured cars, aeroplanes, Lewis guns and soldiers in trench helmets settling in her borders.”

Compared with such developments, the struggles of Irish emigrants to adjust to the harsh weather of the Australian outback must have seemed like light relief.

As Hartigan would have known, we have a talent in this country for dramatising even the relentlessly mild weather that is our norm. Thus “we’ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan,” has entered Australian (and Hiberno) English as a mock refrain to any overly pessimistic forecast.

The original poem suggests that, even in the bush, the weather will always right itself eventually. But of course that was in 1919. Climate change has long since given the subject a new twist. The doom-laden Hanrahan may be proved right yet.

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