Letters From Quotidia Episode 186 The Wild Colonial Boy, Piazza Piece

Letters From Quotidia Episode 186 The Wild Colonial Boy, Piazza Piece

Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 186 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.

The folk song to start this letter is The Wild Colonial Boy. The tune originated in Ireland and emigrated to Australia. It first appeared in print around 1830. One possible origin is Jack Donahue, an 1820s Irish convict who, sent to Australia, became a bushranger, and was eventually shot dead in 1830. Another possibility is that the song refers to an 1860s Australian convict named John Doolan, born in Castlemaine Victoria, who also turned to bushranging. And it’s possible that the identities and the histories of Donohue and Doolan became blended over time to produce the lyrics of the modern ballad.

Jack Donahue was born in Dublin, Ireland about 1806. An orphan, he began pick-pocketing and, after later involvement in a burglary, was convicted of intent to commit a felony in 1823. He was transported with 200 other prisoners to Australia, arriving in Sydney in January 1825. During his early imprisonment, he was twice sentenced to fifty lashes as punishment. Donahue escaped to the bush from the Quakers Hill farm he was assigned to work at with two men named George Kilroy and William Smith. They formed an outlaw gang known as “The Strippers,” since they stripped wealthy landowners of their clothing, money, and food. Servants on the farms sometimes provided them with information about their masters, and at times even provided them with food and shelter.

On 14 December 1827, Donohue and his gang were arrested for robbing bullock-drays on the Sydney to Windsor Road- near where I live now! On 1 March 1828, Judge John Stephen of the Supreme Court of Sydney sentenced them all to death. Between the court and the gaol, Donohue managed to escape from custody. Evading capture, Donohue linked up with other criminals to rob isolated farms around Bathurst, which is a rugged trek over the Blue Mountains- 200 kilometres distant- a long, hard journey by horseback in those days. The government sent reinforcements and aboriginal trackers to locate the outlaws and a shoot-out occurred. But Donohue, once again, managed to escape. 

He later become one of the “Wild Colonial Boys”, a loose-bonded gang of twelve to fifteen men. Donohue’s cunning and guile soon had him on equal standing as the leaders of this gang. In groups of three or four, they would lay in wait for travellers on the highway or, knowing settlers to be away from home, they would attack and plunder their houses. They even attacked a toll house and carried off everything worth taking. Donohue’s tact and ways of only robbing the better off procured him a host of friends among the poorer settlers. They gave the police false information about him and, when the authorities were dogging him rather too hard, the settlers stowed him away in their back rooms or under the beds.

But Donohue’s luck finally ran out: in the late afternoon of 1 September 1830, He was shot dead by John Muckleston, following a shootout between the bushrangers and soldiers at Bringelly, New South Wales, just over 30 kilometres south of where I live. Donohue was hit in the left temple and neck dying instantly. The Sydney Gazette, on behalf of “all respectable citizens”, rejoiced at Donohue’s death. Smoking pipes were made in the shape of Donohue’s head, including the bullet-holes in his forehead, and were bought and smoked by the citizens of Sydney. Of course, the Authorities tried to ban The Wild Colonial Boy. Instead, it became a ballad of defiance, sung by generations of Australians, becoming part of Australia’s folklore.

The line that has struck an enduring chord is “I’ll fight but not surrender, cried the Wild Colonial Boy. Thanks to that great resource, Wikipedia, for most of the info given above. The tune I use for this rendition is a reel as opposed to the better-known waltz variant, which I have always felt just a tad too merry and relaxed to convey the frantic, helter-skelter existence of the outlaw. See if you agree: [insert song]

T. S. Eliot, in Whispers of Immortality tells us: Webster was much possessed by death/And saw the skull beneath the skin;/ And breastless creatures underground/ Leaned backward with a lipless grin// I think John Crowe Ransom, likewise, was possessed by death in his poetry. In his moving lament for the death of a child in Bells For John Whiteside’s Daughter, the stark contrast between the flurry of activity that was a little girl chasing the geese from orchard to pond as her febrile energy echoed across the cosmos, comes to a shuddering halt in the dark room where her lifeless body lies:

But now go the bells, and we are ready,/In one house we are sternly stopped/To say that we are vexed at her brown study/Lying so primly propped// The bells here remind us of John Donne’s famous admonition: never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. Ransom shows us another lively girl in Janet Waking. Again, the subject is death (isn’t it obvious from the title?) But here death does not claim the girl, but rather her beloved pet hen, Chucky. Waking after a long sleep, we are told in line two of the poem that it was deeply morning: m.o.r.n.i.n.g.

You don’t need too large a portion of perspicacity with your porridge to realise that it doesn’t bode well for her dainty-feathered hen. Poor Chucky is no more because It was a transmogrifying bee/Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head/And sat and put the poison/ The crying girl appeals to all of us “Wake her from her sleep!” And would not be instructed in how deep/ Was the forgetful kingdom of death.//

Which brings us to Piazza Piece. I first read this as a student at Trench House in early 1971. I was pivoting between life as a student politician and editor to that of married man. Death and beauty were all around me. I have revisited the poem from time to time over the years and now at the opening gasps of 2022, half a century later, I am coming at the poem again to see if I can craft a song from its materials. As I look at internet pictures from the year, 1971, from the archives of The Belfast Telegraph, one reminds me of Janet’s pet hen, Chucky: a youth is captured on a black and white photograph, tarred and feathered for some transgression of the code obtaining on the violent streets of the time.

White feathers flutter down upon the bowed head as tar runs in streaks over head, face, neck and body. In Piazza Piece, Ransom shows us a personification of death in the shape of an old man in a dustcoat. He is trying to gain the attention of a young woman. Please read the sonnet for yourself: it is a wonderful example of the form as well as offering  a fine insight into the poet’s aesthetic vision. Readers of Letters From Quotidia will know that Ransom’s poetry has been visited before to supply the lyrics of a song. (I refer you to Captain Carpenter in Letter 126.) You may judge how close I come in this waltz time composition to encompassing the world of the sonnet. [insert song]

Our next excursion to the land of Quotidia, finds us visiting the miner’s rebellion in 1854 Victoria and a contemporaneous Irish-Australian folk song that doesn’t even mention it- go figure! The original song is still being pieced together but I can reveal, and I think this is the right word, that it features a couple of naked persons, a fine horse and a pair of swindlers. There will be more, I’m sure, but you’ll just have to wait for a week to learn more.

In the meantime, here are a couple of quotations about patience for your calm consideration: Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet. The ancient egghead Aristotle crafted that one! Margaret Atwood in The Penelopiad, writes: Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it.  Water does. I’ll leave it there: I’ve tested your patience enough, I think. See you next week in Quotidia!

Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.

Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text

For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition

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