2011 ASSLH conference – Francis MacNamara – A Convict Poet in Australia


Francis MacNamara – A Convict Poet in Australia

 Mark Gregory



Francis MacNamara, known among his fellow prisoners as “Frank the Poet”, was transported in 1832 to Botany Bay. Most of what we know about him, including his poetical work, comes from Frank the Poet (1979) written by folklorists John Meredith and Rex Whalan.  MacNamara’s lyrical material, written a century and a half ago, firmly articulates the concerns and views of his fellow prisoners, asserting rights and describing the industrial actions of bonded workers of the time. His subject matter includes petitions, hunger strikes, go slows, colonial politics and outright refusals to work presented in a fearless and often entertaining repudiation of the logic of the convict system. My research into contemporaneous newspaper reports has produced significant new information about him. This paper discusses the works attributed to MacNamara and proposes that his lyrical output be re-evaluated as early examples of what has become an Australian tradition of industrial song.

Mark Gregory is a folklorist, musician and producer. His interest in industrial song began in the 1960s when he was one of the compilers of the University of Sydney Folk Music Society songbook ‘Songs of our Times’. During the 1970s he was a member of the radical British documentary film workshop Cinema Action in London writing songs for films of workers in struggle. He has presented workshops and papers on industrial song and their collection at numerous conferences and festivals including the National Library of Australia, the National Folk Festival and at Labour History Conferences. In 1997 he founded the online collection Union Songs at http://unionsongs.com/ He has an MA Music (Research) from Macquarie University which was published in 2007 under the title “Sixty Years of Australian Union Songs”.


The songs, poems and epigrams attributed to the Irish convict Francis MacNamara provide a particular vocal expression of convict labour, life and thought. MacNamara, or as his fellow prisoners knew him, ‘Frank the Poet’, worked as a convict and ticket-­of-­leave man in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land from 1832 to 1849. His verse covers a wide range of topics that reflect working life, punishment, memories, hopes, rebellions and dreams. MacNamara’s work and its preoccupations with social justice occupies a special place as an example of Australia’s earliest industrial or perhaps, proto-­industrial lyrical material. His compositions were written from his own experience and from stories circulating orally among fellow prisoners that he reworked into striking verse. That most of the lyrics ascribed to him were recovered from oral sources over a period of more than a century attests to the lasting relevance of his work.

Hodge and Mishra in Crimes and Punishment (1991)1 discuss MacNamara at length, basing their analysis on Meredith and Whalan’s book Frank the Poet (1979).2 Meredith and Whalen, they write, ‘have painstakingly established a corpus of poems … and a historical identity’ and provide ‘an indispensable starting point for future scholars to build on’. MacNamara’s life and work have also recently been cited by a number of historians including Boyce (2010)3, Moore (2010)4, Irving and Cahill (2010)5 and his poems have been included in anthologies of Australian poetry; Butterss and Webby (1993)6, Burke and Wood (2001).7

MacNamara was transported twice, first from Ireland to Botany Bay then from NSW to Van Diemen’s Land. The earliest published report of MacNamara details his conduct at his trial in the Irish newspaper Kilkenny Journal of 18 January 1832.

The cross-­examination of two witnesses by this prisoner afforded much amusement to the court: his peculiar accent, cutting remarks, and mode of delivery, were both quaint and forcible.
“Please your Wordship, as to Mr. Prince the constable, his oath should not be thought much against me. He may know the weight of that book in penny weights, but of the awful meaning and substance he knows nothing, often as he may have kissed it. He should have the eye of a hawk, and the vigilance of a cat, to see me do what he swears. …

On a verdict of guilty being returned, sentence was immediately passed, and he was ordered from the dock. Prior to his leaving it he flourished his hand, and with a cheerful and animated countenance, and in a loud voice said,

I dread not the dangers by land or by sea,
That I’ll meet on my voyage to Bottany Bay;
My labours are over, my vocation is past,
And ‘tis there I’ll rest easy and happy at last.8

MacNamara’s apparent lack of awe of the court or his sentence, the way he addresses the judge as ‘your Wordship’, the manner of his cross-­examination of the prosecution witnesses and his farewell verse from the dock all paint an intriguing picture of a confident articulate young man in the process of developing his own identity.

After his arrival in Sydney on 8 September 1832 MacNamara was assigned to John Jones. This first assignment was short-­lived and January 1833 saw him punished with six months in an ironed gang on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour. Until his next assignment, to the Australian Agricultural Company as a shepherd in 1838, he was a prisoner in Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney Gaol, Parramatta Gaol and the Phoenix Hulk. He was subjected to nine floggings and two terms on the treadmill, to twelve months in irons and periods of solitary confinement. His list of transgressions include absence from duty, absconding, insubordination, obscene language, insolence, refusing to work, refusing to mount the treadmill, threatening language, being found drunk and mutinous conduct.9

On 2 June 1842 the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser reported the arrest of Francis McNamara (this spelling appears on most official reports):

About ten o’clock, on the night of the 30th ultimo, Sergt. Michael Doyle, and two troopers of the Mounted Police, fell in with a party of five armed bushrangers, at the foot of Razorback, and succeeded in apprehending them. … Their names are – Francis McNamara, per Elisa; John Jones, per Lady Macnaughton ?  Edward Allen, per Asia?  William Thomson, per do?  William Eastwood, per Patriot.10

There is no evidence any shots had been fired or that any bushranging actually took place. MacNamara arrived in Hobart on 29 October 1842 on the Waterlily ten years after his arrival in Australia. Compared to his record of punishments and floggings in NSW he appears to have avoided punishment in Van Diemen’s Land, apart from seven days solitary confinement in September 1843 for disobedience of orders. He was granted his certificate of freedom on 12 July 1849.

The punishments MacNamara received and the compositions he wrote suggest he was very much in ‘confrontation with authority involving or implying, some assertion of general principle’ as outlined by Alan Atkinson in his article ‘Four Patterns of Convict Protest’.11 For ten years in NSW his constant and varied resistance to authority suggests a vigorous rejection of the convict system itself and his verse articulates this rejection in a very public way.

MacNamara’s poetical inheritance includes the Irish rebel song and the Irish bardic tradition of the poet as spokesperson for society. He became the ‘tyrant’s foe’ and his fellow prisoners delighted in his work enough to commit it to memory and honour him as ‘Frank the Poet’. His dissenting verse provides a prototype for the range of working-­class poetry and song or industrial lyrical material that continues in Australia to the present day.

In his parting epigram to the Kilkenny court he seems to relish his new life in Botany Bay, ‘My labours are over, my vocation is past / And ’tis there I’ll rest easy and happy at last’. The reality of his convict life proved to be quite the opposite of his expectation and much closer to the warnings provided by transportation broadsheets sold on the streets of London and Dublin at the time. The ballads and poems he composed differ sharply from the broadsheets, not in the depiction of convict experience but in the refusal to include any hint of self-­ blame or woeful warnings to others. MacNamara’s work condemns those responsible for the convict system and takes the part of the victims. In his compositions it is clear that he upholds the rights of his fellow prisoners and posits the lawmaking rulers as the real criminals, invoking the rebel tradition of world turned upside down.

Apart from the Kilkenny court epigram mentioned above the only poem to be published under MacNamara’s name in his lifetime appeared in the Sydney Gazette of 8 February 1840. It was titled ‘A Dialogue between two Hibernians in Botany Bay’ and in ninety-­six lines covers in detail topics like Irish rebellion, the curse of transportation, ‘Daniel O’Connell the great Agitator’, meeting the family again after returning home, the ‘seven muskets and an old pike’ hidden in the cottage thatch, the whales and sharks encountered on the voyage and the onerous tithes, which Irish Catholics were forced to contribute to build Protestant churches in Ireland.

Tell the boys to desist from killing peelers and arson,
But cheerfully pay the tithe proctor and parson;
Why should they, Darby, be left in the lurch,
You know they’re the heads of the Protestant Church.
To protect them, faith I’d spill my blood every drop.
And not only the tenth, but the half of my crop,
I’d freely give them without hesitation.

The two published compositions would be all we would have of his work today had it not been for a range of concerted attempts by contemporaries to collect his verse from oral sources. The collection from oral sources includes his most famous work ‘The Convict’s Tour To Hell’. In 1958 a carefully preserved manuscript was presented to the Mitchell Library, the Trimingham manuscript,12 which contains the earliest evidence that MacNamara was Frank the Poet. Consisting of fifteen hand-­written pages and dated “Oct. the 23rd day Anno 1839”, there are four poems. The paper used is watermarked 1838 and the hand-­written booklet is bound in part of an 1857 Sydney Morning Herald. The first poem is ‘A Convict’s Tour to Hell’ which mentions his name ‘Frank the Poet’ three times.  The second poem is ‘A Petition from The Chain Gang at New Castle’ with the name Francis Macnamara. The third is introduced as ‘Francis MacNamara of New Castle to J Crosdale Esq greeting’, which has become known as ‘For The Company Underground’ because of its recurring couplet (which also names the poet) ‘MacNamara shall work that day / For the Company Underground’. The fourth poem is ‘A petition from the A A Co flocks at Peels River in behalf of the Irish Bard’.

The work that has been attributed to ‘Frank the Poet’ constitutes a remarkable body of material. There are also descriptions of MacNamara that appeared in print in The Life and Adventures of Martin Cash (1870),13 Bradshaw’s The Quirindi Bank Robbery (1899)14 and in a number of newspaper reports. More newspaper reports have come to light in 2010-­11 through searches using the digitisation project of the National Library of Australia. Other items have been donated to the Mitchell Library, including the Calf letter of 1928 presenting pen-­and-­ink work of MacNamara from 1861, the Thomas Whitely 1891 transcription including two poems, and a copy of the poem ‘Labouring with the Hoe’ donated in 1932 and attributed to ‘Francis MacNamara, otherwise known as Frank the Poet’. Whitley in his journal traces his interest in MacNamara to the Raymond Terrace antiquarian Thomas Holdstock who in 1857 had collected from an `old hand’ who knew `Frank the Poet’:

This ancient, who was totally illiterate had committed to memory some pieces of the “Poet’s work” and was induced to recite the “Tour” piece-­-­ Holdstock writing from dictation. The MS so made was loaned upon return for copying, and the following specimen is a direct descendent from that so made after some slight joint revision.15

There is also the journal of Jeremiah Shea titled ‘History of Notable People in Australia, Commenced from 1818’. Shea makes a number of references to MacNamara including `Francis Macnamara–commonly called Frank the Poet’.16

‘A Convict’s Lamentation at the Death of Captain Logan’, a ballad attributed to MacNamara17, with its long and ironic title is often performed today as ‘Moreton Bay’. It tells the story of the November 1830 death of Patrick Logan the commandant of the penal settlement in Brisbane Town, then part of NSW. Logan was surveying the Upper Brisbane River when he was killed by Aborigines. The ballad provides us with a prisoners’ league table of the worst penal stations, all of which were at the time part of NSW. Moreton Bay comes off the worst. A version of the ballad that was recorded in the field, from Simon McDonald18 in 1961, is the only version that has a chorus:

Moreton Bay you’ll find no equal
Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and cursed Toongabie
And all time-­places in New South Wales.19

The ballad was first published in 1912 fifty years after the poet’s death. Logan’s brutality was noted in the diary of a prison clerk, which records that from February to October in 1828 Logan ordered two hundred floggings with over eleven thousand lashes. When Logan’s body was brought back to the penal station, the convicts `manifested insane joy at the news of his murder, and sang and hoorayed all night, in defiance of the warders’.20 Bushranger Jack Bradshaw published a version of the ballad in his True History of the Australian Bushrangers (1912).21

In McDonald’s sung version of Moreton Bay the third verse begins:

When I arrived ‘twas in Port Jackson,
And I thought my days would happy be,
But I found out I was greatly mistaken––
I was taken prisoner to Moreton Bay.

Bradshaw’s printed version of the verse is slightly different:

I then joined banquet in congratulation
On my safe arrival from the briny sea?
But alas! alas! I was Mistaken ––
Twelve years transported to Moreton Bay.22

The rhyming of ‘sea’ with ‘bay’ points to an Irish pronunciation, and similar rhymes appear in a number of MacNamara’s compositions. Both versions tell a similar story of hopes dashed by secondary transportation to Moreton Bay. The lines echo MacNamara’s Kilkenny court response: `My labours are over, my vocation is past / And ‘tis I’ll rest easy, and happy at last’. The differences between the first printed version and the sung version of Moreton Bay illustrate both the effects of oral transmission and the retention of meaning in the process.

All versions of the ballad have a verse that describes the floggings and the leg-­irons, punishments that MacNamara had suffered himself. In McDonald’s version we learn:

For three long years I was beastly treated,
And heavy irons on my legs I wore:
My back from floggings was lacerated
And oft time painted with crimson gore.

The final verses of the ballad deal with the Moreton Bay prisoners’ celebration of Logan’s demise:

Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed by Logan’s yoke,
But a Native Black there lay in ambush,
Did give this tyrant a mortal stroke.

Now fellow prisoners be exhilarated,
That all such monsters such death may find,
And when from bondage we are liberated
Then our former sufferings shall fade from mind.

The controlled anger and emotion in the ballad probably ensured its survival in oral tradition for over a century and certainly ensured its prominence in the genre of convict ballad performed by singers today. The invocation of the Biblical story of Exodus was perhaps as much a source of solace and hope to the convicts in Australia as it had been to Black slaves in North America, and is quite typical of the imagery MacNamara uses in a number of his compositions.

While there are a number of reports eulogising Logan in newspapers of the time, the Sydney Monitor of 14 August 1830, three months before Logan’s death, published a multi-­column 5,000-­word letter from someone who signed himself ‘A Free Colonist’. The editor introduced the letter commenting:

We return him thanks in the name of the wretches at Moreton Bay, whose sufferings he may rest assured will be ordered by the British Government to be mitigated, the moment these exposures come to their knowledge. Such deeds require only to be brought to the light, to be condemned, and the policy which caused their existence, to be censured and changed.23

The letter exposes in great detail the tyrannical behavior of Logan, confirming the descriptions in the ballad; the heavy irons even while on the treadmill, the endless floggings and the starvation diet.

The humour of some of the prisoners at Moreton Bay caused them to designate those days when the commandant set apart for punishing the men, “Logan’s field days”; and the place of punishment “the convincing ground”.

On one of those days, twelve men were selected from one gang, and fourteen from other gangs, for this new method of convincing. The punishment commenced at 9 o’clock on the [smudge] of April, and finished at sun-­down. About 3300 lashes were given on that day. Three or four floggers were usually in requisition on those days; with cats equal to a man-­o’-­war’s cat, and their orders are, to strike firmly but slowly. This is the reason that 3300 lashes take up so much time administering at Moreton-­bay. The charge laid against these men, was the old hacknied fault of “neglect of work’” 24

The closeness of the ballad in all its variants to the situation reported above encourages confidence that this kind of song is a valuable historical source. The fact that all the versions come from oral sources over a long period of time shows how persistent such lyrical material can be.

James Boyce in Van Diemen’s Land (2010) discusses the universality of home-­ made song among the convicts in the colony and highlights the popularity and importance of MacNamara:

The best-­remembered ballad-­maker of Van Diemen’s Land was Francis McNamara, or Frank the Poet, well known to fellow convicts in the 1830s and 1840s.
As with the slaves of North America, songs sustained the spirit and gave voice to sentiments of resistance. At the Launceston women’s factory, ‘singing, telling stories and dancing took up much of the women’s time,’ while the man in charge of the Hobart factory, John Price … confirmed that the female inmates spent much of their time composing songs ridiculing the authorities. 25

Boyce’s description of convict song above resonates with the situation in NSW as described in a surprising and detailed account by J. C. Byrne in Twelve Years’ Wanderings in the British Colonies: From 1835 to 1847, the main subject of which was the economics and geography of the colonial Australia:

It is certainly strange for a newly-­arrived person in the colony to enter a road-­side inn in the neighbourhood of Sydney, or even in the town itself, and hear chaunted forth by a dark-­featured man, whose visage seems parched up and dry as a chip, a song, the subject of which is the sufferings, hardships, and hair-­breadth escapes of the singer, whilst undergoing the sentence which brought him to the colony. These songs are constantly heard all over the colony … They are mere recitatives of the adventures, crimes, and punishments of the relators, when undergoing punishment in the coal mines, in a road-­gang, or penal settlements. … In no one’s hearing are these beings ashamed to indulge in their songs? it is not conceived any disgrace, and little do they care, if their masters hear details, that at times freeze the blood with horror, and shock the listener. 26

This evocative contemporaneous report of a Sydney convict singing songs of his own composition provides many valuable details of the singer and the songs. The unembarrassed and non-­deferential singing convict that Byrne describes fits rather well with what we know of MacNamara, whose epigram of introduction was:

My name is Frank MacNamara
A native of Cashell, County Tipperary
Sworn to be a tyrant’s foe
And while I’ve life I’ll crow.27

Irish independence leader Daniel O’Connell features both in MacNamara’s ‘Dialogue’ above and in his verse/petition ‘For the Company Underground’ in the lines:

When Christmas falls on the 1st of May
And O’Connell’s King of England crown’d,
MacNamara shall work that day
For the Company underground.

MacNamara composed this poem as a list of the most improbable and impossible events that would see him agreeing to work for the Australian Agricultural Company in their Newcastle coalmine. His refusal to work in the Newcastle mine was also mentioned in his petition to the A A Co. from his flock of sheep `in behalf of the Irish Bard’. Apart from its whimsical rebellion and the supreme irony of presenting a petition from a flock of sheep, this poem, with its rhyming of retreat with fate, highlights the Irish accent of the poet, a feature of much his work as discussed earlier.

Far from the Peel’s evergreen plains
In some wild lone retreat
In bitter and heartrending strains
We’ll mourne our patron’s fate

Our cries from the hills shall resound
To the extremes of the Poles
If our friend goes underground
At Newcastle to wheel coals

As mentioned above a number of scholars have recognised the importance of the poet and his work. In Radical Sydney historian Rowan Cahill described MacNamara’s response to his brutal treatment and attempts to break his spirit:

Some of Francis MacNamara’s troubles were due to his poetic abilities, and the popularity of his compositions among the oppressed and dispossessed both within and outside the penal system. Hence the extraordinary lengths the brutal penal system went to in its determination to break his spirit. Within the penal system MacNamara gained a reputation as Frank the Poet, composer of cheeky and satiric ballads and reciter of verses he improvised at will. 28

Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra discussed MacNamara and acknowledged his role as a poet documenting convict life:

Frank was not a participant in most of the events that he chose to celebrate. His role was more public and almost official: to draw together and shape an alternative mythology, an alternative version of history which was not, however, his own individual creation and which was transmitted and recreated much more actively by his community than would have been the case with written texts in the dominant culture. The scale of their influence is now impossible to determine with any precision, but it clearly had an important role in constructing the images of the convict and the bushranger as potent organising principles for the Irish community, carrying this alternative version of events into the wider community. 29

In The Turning Wave Colleen Burke and Vincent Ward published most of his poems and suggested that the significance of his work and its influence renders him `an enduring poet-­witness’:

The fluency of his rhyme is matched by his easy use of classical allusions, transforming the hellish landscapes of convict prisons and work camps but never diminishing their brutal realities…
he is one of the founding voices of Australian literature -­  forging from the extremes of adversity a poetry of protest, wit and lasting significance.30

MacNamara’s `celebration of the mutiny that led to the capture of the Cyprus’, mentioned by Hodge and Mishra, exists in three variants two of which are sung versions collected in Tasmania in the 1960s. The ballad is referred to in John West’s The History of Tasmania published in 1852, two years after MacNamara left the colony:

A number of ships were taken by convicts. One of the most interesting being the capture of the “Cyprus” in Recherche Bay, on the voyage to MacQuarie Harbour-­ a stirring episode in the history of transportation, it excited vast interest in Great Britain, and was dramatized at a London theatre. The prisoners who waged war with society regarded the event with exultation? and long after, a song, composed by a sympathising poet, was propagated by oral tradition, and sung in chorus around the fires in the interior. 31

Among the dozen stanzas of MacNamara’s ballad about the convict seizure of the Cyprus brig are:

When landed in this colony to different masters went,
For trifling offences to Hobart Town gaol were sent.
A second sentence being incurred we were ordered for to be
Sent to Macquarie Harbour, that place of tyranny.

Confined within a dismal hole, we soon contrived a plan,
To capture now the “Cyprus”, or perish every man.
But thirteen turned fainthearted and begged to go ashore,
So eighteen boys rushed daring, and took the brig and store.

We first addressed the soldiers, “For liberty we crave,
Give up your arms this instant, or the sea will be your grave;
By tyranny we’ve been oppressed, by your colonial laws,
But we’ll bid adieu to slavery, or die in freedom’s cause.”

Then sound your golden trumpets, play on your tuneful notes,
The Cyprus Brig is sailing, how proudly now she floats.
May fortune help the noble lads, and keep them ever free,
From Gags, and Cats and Chains and traps and cruel tyranny. 32

It’s hard not to imagine the pleasure fellow prisoners would have gained when this ballad, or ‘A Convict’s Tour to Hell’, was performed. Each exhibits the `powerful and subversive writing’ mentioned above by Burke and Ward and they evoke the constant guerilla struggle waged against the convict system described above by John West as `war with society’.

As Hodge and Mishra propose above, the poet has drawn together and shaped:

… an alternative mythology, an alternative version of history which was not, however, his own individual creation and which was transmitted and recreated much more actively by his community than would have been the case with written texts in the dominant culture.

Tasmanian passenger lists show that MacNamara left Launceston on 23 August 1850 bound for Portland, Victoria, on board the City of Sydney. Perhaps the poet took the same trail that so many Tasmanian ex-­convicts and even more new immigrants took in the early 1850s, in the rush to the goldfields. A previously un-­cited newspaper article provides information that he was back in NSW as early as 1853 and placing him that year in the Hill End goldfields. The report headed ‘Tambaroora’ in the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 September informs us:

Bush and Newman’s party, formerly of Dirt Hole Creek, where they netted 70 and 30 ozs. of gold a short time ago, in two consecutive weeks, and a party of Germans, who have commenced sluicing with very fair success, the former being supplied with 300 yards of hose for the purpose. A local celebrity, who answers to the cognomen of Frank the poet, has added his physical and poetical strength to the former, where his bones and sinews are likely to be of more service than his brains.33

Another un-­cited newspaper report reveals that the poet had made considerable money in Tambaroora and died, possibly while digging for gold, near Mudgee in late August 1861:

The Empire
Wednesday 4 September 1861
SUDDEN DEATH.—The Mudgee Western Post says :— An inquest was held on Friday morning, by W. King, Esq , M.D., coroner for this district, at the Fountain of Friendship, on the body of Francis McNamara, alias Hill, better known as “Frank the Poet.” Robert Welsh, having been sworn, said that the deceased had resided with him the last five months, on the Pipe Clay Creek diggings … Had known him eight years. He had a complaint which caused him to spit blood. He earned a great deal of money, and spent it very freely. Had known him to obtain “hundreds a week” at Tambaroora. 34

The authors of Frank the Poet refer to Pipe Clay Creek in relation to a manuscript of the history of the Calf family penned by the poet, at the Devil’s Hole Creek on the first of March 1861:

John Calf was a sailor who settled in Sydney and then went to the diggings. He lived a Devil’s Hole Creek, Wyndeyer, near Mudgee, and 1865 ran the ‘Golden Nugget’ hotel at Pipe Clay Creek, also near Mudgee.35

This manuscript was sent to the Mitchell Library on 8 August 1928 with a letter from John Calf’s son F. C. Calf who wrote:

The special interest in the record is that it is a fine specimen of pen and ink work made by a convict well known in early days as ‘Frank the Poet’ -­  I believe his name was MacNamara who was transported for forgery.36

A year after his death a long report to the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal of 18 June 1862 contains information about Frank the Poet gathered by a correspondent in Clarke’s Creek, Meroo. He is described as having been an `eccentric genius’, an impromptu composer of verse capable of `almost miraculous’ penmanship, whose eccentricity extended to not using shoelaces and wearing `his small clothes inside out’. The article gives a number of examples of MacNamara’s `Perpetual love of mischief’ including the following description of an early assignment as a convict:

The first duty appointed him was to drive off the cockatoos from a paddock of newly sown grain. Frank performed this duty in the following provoking manne? he wrote out a number of threatening notices to the cockatoos, that they were prohibited from crossing the fence to the grain, and these notices he put at the tops of poles which he fastened at regular distances all round the paddock fences. When asked by the “Super,” what all those papers meant, he replied. “Did you not tell me to order the cockatoos off the ground ?” 37

Newspaper reports of MacNamara continued till the turn of the century:

Launceston Examiner 10 September 1885
Frank M’Namara, the convict poet, was a clever fellow and a great favourite at Port Arthur. He was originally sent out to Sydney, and was for some time confined on board the hulk Phoenix, where, upon the occasion of some meat which was unfit for human food being given to the convicts to eat, he achieved fame by the following composition:

‘Oh, bull, oh, bull, what brought you here?
You’ve ranged these hills for many a year.
You’ve ranged these hills with sore abuse
And now you’re here for poor Frank’s use.’ 38

Dolphin’s version of this epigram has not been cited before nor has his comment that it was composed on the Phoenix hulk.

Another newspaper article reports the existence in Tasmania of an example of the poet’s penmanship that was evident in the Calf family documents cited above.

Launceston Examiner Friday 1 January 1892
… Mr Cheesman, Wellington-­street, sends a specimen of pen and ink drawing and writing done by ‘Frank the Poet,’ formerly a well known local character. 39

At the turn of a new century it seems that the poet appears again in a Tasmanian newspaper report as a character in a play about his fellow Port Arthur inmate, Martin Cash:

Launceston Examiner Wednesday 12 December 1900
‘Martin Cash.’—At the Academy of Music on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings… Terry Mr. Morris Mahon is said to excel, and his interpretation of the priest to be a capital piece of acting, while he is particularly humorous as Frank, the poet, the comedy character of the play. 40

MacNamara’s work represents an early flowering of the song and poetry that forms part of the rebellious and subversive culture of the Australian labour movement. Taken together his compositions represent important historical evidence of the mind set or world view in the early period of the formation of the Australian working class. His work has encouraged generations of poets and songwriters to include working life, working conditions and workers’ demands as an important aspect of their cultural concerns. That his songs are valued and sung today is a tribute to a man born who was born in Ireland in 1811 and who died as `Frank the Poet’ in Mudgee, Australia, in 1861. A man whose life we celebrate this year if only because 2011 represents the bicentenary of his birth and the sesquicentenary of his death.


1   Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, ‘Crimes and Punishments’, in Gregory Castle (ed.), Postcolonial Discourses. An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).
2   John Meredith and Rex Whalan, Frank the Poet: The Life and Works of Francis MacNamara (Melbourne: Red Rooster Press, 1979).
3   James Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010).
4   Tony Moore, Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-­1868 (Sydney: Pier 9, 2010).
5   Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill, Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2010).
6   Peter Butterss and Elizabeth Webby, The Penguin Book of Australian Ballads (Melbourne: Penguin Books Australia, 1993).
7   Colleen Burke and Vincent Wood, The Turning Wave: Poems and Songs of Irish Australia (Armidale, NSW: Kardoorair Press, 2001).
8   Kilkenny Journal, 18 January 1832.
9   Archives Office of Tasmania, digitised record Item: CON31-­1-­32.
10   Sydney Gazette, 2 June 1842.
11   Labour History, no. 37 (November 1979), 28-­51.
12   http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/album/albumView.aspx?acmsID=431049&itemID=824146 accessed 4/06/2011.
13   Martin Cash, The Life and Adventures of Martin Cash (Hobart: J. Walch, 1870).
14   Jack Bradshaw, The Quirindi Bank Robbery: Life and Travels Leading Up to the Robbery (Maitland, NSW: J. Bradshaw 1899).
15   Meredith and Whalan, Frank the Poet, xi.
16   Ibid., 34.
17   Meredith and Whalan make the observation that in the 1934 edition of Bradshaw’s True History of Australian Bushrangers the ballad appears in the appendix with the subheading “On Poor Old Frank MacNamara”. Although not conclusive this does suggest that MacNamara wrote the ballad.
18   The ballad singer and fiddle player Simon McDonald began playing tin whistle in his father’s dance band at the age of 7. His repertoire included a number of Australian and a large number of Anglo-­Irish ballads and dance tunes both traditional and popular. He learnt his version of Moreton Bay from his uncle Jack McDonald, a ganger on the Victorian Railways.
19   Meredith and Whalan, Frank the Poet, 38.
20   Ibid.
21   Jack Bradshaw, The Quirindi Bank Robbery.
22   Meredith and Whalan, Frank the Poet, 31-­7.
23   Sydney Monitor, 14 August 1830.
24   Ibid.
25   Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land, 135.
26   J. C. Byrne, Twelve Years’ Wanderings in the British Colonies: From 1835 to 1847 Vol. 1 (London: Bentley, 1848), 187.
27   Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1952), 269.
28   Irving and Cahill, Radical Sydney, 25.
29   Hodge and Mishra, `Crimes and Punishments’, 337-­8.
30   Burke and Ward, The Turning Wave, 3-­4.
31   John West, History of Tasmania Vol. 2 (Launceston: Henry Dowling, 1852), 215.
32    Ingleton, True Patriots All, 129.
33   Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 1853.
34   Empire, 4 September 1861.
35   Meredith and Whalan, Frank the Poet, 64-­5.
36   Ibid., 67.
37   Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 18 June 1862.
38   Launceston Examiner, 10 September 1885.
39   Launceston Examiner, 1 January 1892.
40   Launceston Examiner, 12 December 1900.