On the Rocks – Frank McNally on shipwrecks, old salts, and a rainy night in Sydney

An Irishman’s Diary

On a wet night in Sydney, many years ago, walking near my youth hostel in a suburb called Glebe, I encountered the most pathetically drunk man I have ever seen. He was in a condition that, back home then, we would have called “paralytic”, a word that sounds insensitive now but was more than usually accurate in this case.

The power in his legs had deserted him, temporarily. He was sitting on the wet footpath and propelling himself along with his hands. So instead of looking the other way, which was my first instinct, I was shamed into intervening, dragging him into a doorway out of the rain and asking if I should ring an ambulance.

Unfortunately, the power of speech had deserted him too. The only word of his I could make out was “Irish” – drunk or not, he must have recognised my accent – but I couldn’t tell if it was a question or an autobiographical detail.

Anyway, I left him in the doorway and called the ambulance from a payphone. Then I went back, not five minutes later, to find that the fecker had disappeared. The prospect of paramedics, or where they might take him, had inspired a Lazarus-like recovery, as I had to explain in embarrassment when the ambulance arrived.

I was reminded of this on Wednesday while reading about – of all things – the rediscovery of the HMS Endurance in the Antarctic, 107 years after it sank in ice during Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition. Reports mentioned that the ship, now on the sea floor, had been photographed for the first time since the pictures taken by the expedition’s film-maker, “Frank Hurley”.

The Kildare-born Shackleton I knew all about, and also Tom Crean, another hero of the voyage, from Kerry. But Hurley must have had Irish connections too, I thought, and with that disappeared down an internet rabbit hole.

As I now know, James Francis "Frank" Hurley was born in Sydney, on the same Glebe Road I may have been walking all those years back. His father, however, came from England. And, sure enough, the father's father – an earlier James Hurley – was born in Ireland, circa 1821, before getting married in Liverpool in 1849, and then bringing his family to Australia.

He seems to have been a voluntary emigrant, contrary to stereotype. But as it happens, one of the few other recorded details about James Hurley involves a court case from 1856 in Sydney, in which he had his wife were defendants. That too involved drunkenness, although not on their part. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, they were prosecuted for theft of clothing and £5 and 18 shillings by a woman named Ann Jones, after the latter spent a night in their house.

But the court heard that Mrs Jones had been drunk on arrival, Sunday afternoon, and was at least as drunk when leaving, Monday night.

In between, somebody had undressed her and put her in bed. Then she woke to hear Mrs Hurley saying: “Begone, for an Irish blackguard, out of my house”, to which Mr Hurley had replied “You villain, let the woman alone”. After that, she was thrown out “with nothing but a shift and counterpane on her” and minus the cash, which she had hidden “in her bosom”.

Confusingly, the “prosecutrix” also vouched for the Hurleys as friends of long standing and had no complaints against the husband. So the prisoners were acquitted in the end and left court “without a stain on their characters”.

Their grandson went on to become famous in Australia, not just for the Endurance exhibition but also for his pictures from the two World Wars. Some of his photographs are considered classics, although he also attracted controversy for using composite images. He defended these as attempts to convey truth more accurately than existing technology allowed. Some critics called them “fake”.

Speaking of composite images, another thing that reminds me of the drunk in Sydney is Tom Traubert's Blues by Tom Waits.

It’s about a washed-up sailor, “soaking wet” and reduced to his knees by life and Bushmills. On the plus side, he has a friend called “Frank”. And even though it isn’t, the song feels Australian, because of its use of the “Waltzing Matilda” motif.

I doubt my drunk was a sailor, although he could have been. The sea is everywhere in Sydney.

For the daily commute then, I had to cross Darling Harbour, get a ferry from Circular Quay, and work in a place called Crow’s Nest. I also went drinking occasionally in the local equivalent of Temple Bar, “The Rocks”, where many an ancient mariner must have ended up.