Poem: The Old Bush School

This poem is by John O’Brien, the pen-name of Fr. Patrick Hartigan (1878-1952), a Catholic priest who wrote about bush life in New South Wales last century.   His ADB entry is here, and he is commemorated with an annual festival at Narrendera.  This poem is memorable for the line:  “And a nickname fitting better than the name their mothers gave”.

The Old Bush School
‘Tis a queer, old battered landmark that belongs to other years;
With the dog-leg fence around it, and its hat about its ears,
And the cow-bell in the gum-tree, and the bucket on the stool,
There’s a motley host of memories round that old bush school –
With its seedy desks and benches, where at least I left a name
Carved in agricultural letters – ’twas my only bid for fame;
And the spider-haunted ceilings, and the rafters, firmly set,
Lined with darts of nibs and paper (doubtless sticking in them yet),
And the greasy slates and blackboards, where I oft was proved a fool
And a blur upon the scutcheon of the old bush school.
There I see the boots in order – “‘lastic-sides” we used to wear –
With a pair of “everlastin’s” cracked and dustry here and there;
And we marched with great “high action” – hands behind and eyes before –
While we murdered “Swanee River” as we tramped around the floor.
Still the scholars pass before me with their freckled features grave,
And a nickname fitting better than the name their mothers gave;
Tousled hair and vacant faces, and their garments every one
Shabby heirlooms in the family, handed down from sire to son.
Ay, and mine were patched in places, and half-masted, as a rule –
They were fashionable trousers at the old bush school.
There I trudged it from the Three-mile, like a patient, toiling brute,
With a stocking round my ankle, and my heart within my boot,
Morgan, Nell and Michael Joseph, Jim and Mary, Kate and Mart
Tramping down the sheep-track with me, little rebels at the heart;
Shivery grasses round about us nodding bonnets in the breeze,
Happy Jacks and Twelve Apostles hurdle-racing up the trees,
Peewees calling from the gullies, living wonders in the pool –
Hard bare seats and drab gray humdrum at the old bush school.
Early rising in the half-light, when the morn came, bleak and chill;
For the little mother roused us ere the sun had topped the hill,
“Up, you children, late ’tis gettin’.” Shook the house beneath her knock,
And she wasn’t always truthful, and she tampered with the clock.
Keen she was about “the learnin’,” and she told us o’er and o’er
Of our luck to have “the schoolin”‘ right against our very door.
And the lectures – Oh, those lectures to our stony hearts addressed!
“Don’t he mixin’ with the Regans and the Ryans and the rest” –
“Don’t be pickin’ up with Carey’s little talkative kanats” –
Well, she had us almost thinking we were born aristocrats.
But we found our level early – in disaster, as a rule –
For they knocked “the notions” sideways at the old bush school.
Down the road came Laughing Mary, and the beast that she bestrode
Was Maloney’s sorry piebald she had found beside the road;
Straight we scrambled up behind her, and as many as could fit
Clung like circus riders bare-back without bridle-rein or bit,
On that corrugated backbone in a merry row we sat –
We propelled him with our school-bags; Mary steered him with her hat –
And we rolled the road behind us like a ribbon from the spool,
“Making butter,” so we called it, to the old bush school.
What a girl was Mary Casey in the days of long ago!
She was queen among the scholars, or at least we thought her so;
She was first in every mischief and, when overwhelmed by fate,
She could make delightful drawings of the teacher on her slate.
There was rhythm in every movement, as she gaily passed along
With a rippling laugh that lilted like the music of a song;
So we called her “Laughing Mary,” and a fitful fancy blessed
E’en the bashful little daisies that her dainty feet caressed.
She had cheeks like native roses in the fullness of their bloom,
And she used to sing the sweetest as we marched around the room;
In her eyes there lurked the magic, maiden freshness of the morn,
In her hair the haunting colour I had seen upon the corn;
Round her danced the happy sunshine when she smiled upon the stool –
And I used to swap her dinners at the old bush school.
Hard the cobbled road of knowledge to the feet of him who plods
After fragile fragments fallen from the workshop of the gods;
Long the quest, and ever thieving pass the pedlars o’er the hill
With the treasures in their bundles, but to leave us questing still.
Mystic fires horizons redden, but each crimson flash in turn
Only lights the empty places in the bracken and the fern;
So in after years I’ve proved it, spite of pedant, crank, and fool,
Very much the way I found it at the old bush school.

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