A poet, a prison, and one memorable Christmas amid the misery…….
“I am a native of Erin’s island/ though banished now from my native home…” So wrote Frank MacNamara on his arrival in Australia in 1832. We owe a great deal to Frank the Poet, as he was known. He penned many of our most popular bush ballads and gave us a clear picture of convict life in those early days.
“Despised, rejected and oppressed / in tattered rags I’m clad / what anguish fills my aching breast / and almost drives me mad”. Port Arthur was a turning point in the life of Frank the Poet.
Irish Background of Frank the Poet
Sentenced in Ireland to seven years transportation for stealing a scarf, it is believed that the real reason for his banishment was that he was a member of the illegal society of Ribbon Boys.
He arrived in Sydney in 1832, 21 years old, a rebel, fiercely proud, patriotic and defiant. “We scorn to live in slavery / bound down by iron chains..”
Years of Punishment and Brutality
During the following eight years he experienced all the brutality of the convict system but remained as defiant as ever. For such crimes as disobedience, insubordination and insolence, he was flogged fourteen times, receiving a total of 650 lashes: “My back with flogging is lacerated/ and oft times painted with my crimson gore…”
He spent three and a half years of hard labour in an iron gang with heavy leggings and chains. A total of thirteen days solitary confinement and three months on the dreaded treadmill.
It did not break him. Bloodied but unbowed, defiantly he wrote: “But bye and bye I’ll break my chains / into the bush I’ll go / and join the brave bushrangers – / Jack Donohue and Co.” And abscond he did – six times !
The Dreaded Port Arthur and a Turning Point
Eventually and inevitably Frank the Poet ended up at Tasmania’s Port Arthur. Fortunately for him the governor at that time, Sir John Franklin, was a humane man who believed that kindness and re-education was the best method for reform of prisoners.
This, combined with the influence of two other Irish prisoners also in Port Arthur at that time, changed Frank’s life. Bushranger Martin Cash, for whom Frank later wrote a ballad, and John Red Kelly, impressed him greatly. Kelly was a bush carpenter from a neighbouring town in Ireland and his quiet, easy going manner had a steadying influence on the young rebel.
It’s hard to imagine convicts having a “pleasant day” at Port Arthur, yet according to the memoirs of Martin Cash, Christmas day 1842 is described as just that. “…We had Portugese Joe in the character of Darkey and the famed Frank the Poet, who threw off a few extemporary verses to the amusement of the company, the same time as giving his coat of arms”.
“My name is Frank McNamara / a native of Cashel, / County Tipperary, / sworn to be a tyrant’s foe, / and while I live I’ll crow .”
….The day passed off very pleasantly”.
Bolters and Bushrangers
The following day Cash, with Cavanagh and Jones, bolted to freedom, swimming the shark infested waters at Eaglehawk Neck, ending up stark naked on the other side and began a rampage across the island. Cash was finally captured in Hobart eight months later. “But Martin Cash of matchless fame, the bravest man that owns that name, / is a valiant son of Erin, where the sprig of shamrock grows”.
Meanwhile at Port Arthur Frank the Poet and Red Kelly served out their sentences.
One of the poems written here in protest at the food shows Frank’s sympathy to beasts subjected to the same cruel treatment: “Oh Beef ! Oh Beef ! / What brought you here? / You’ve roamed these hills for many a year. / You’ve felt the lash and sore abuse / and now you’re here for prisoners’ use”.
Freedom At Last
Five years later Frank the Poet was free – fifteen and a half years after being sentenced to seven years for stealing a scarf!
Red Kelly went on to Evandale and later to Victoria where he married and had a son who became more of a rebel than Frank had ever dared.
Ned Kelly, Australia’s most famous bushranger, in his Jerilderie letter made reference to his father who died when he was twelve: “transported to Van Diemen’s Land to pine their young lives away in starvation and misery, among tyrants worse than the promised hell itself…”
Frank the Poet is best remembered for his epic poem, A Convict’s Tour of Hell, Moreton Bay or the Convict’s Lament, and several verses to Bold Jack Donohue or the Wild Colonial Boy. Many of Australia’s most loved folk songs are adapted from the poems and ballads of Frank MacNamara.
A Final Farewell Blast
As he was leaving Tasmania’s shores for the last time, Frank stood up on the wheelbox of the boat, spread out his hands and gave a farewell curse: “Farewell Tasmania’s Isle! / I bid adieu. / Land of lags and kangaroo / Farmers’ glory, prisoners’ hell ! / Land of Buggers ! Fare ye well !”
Frank the Poet, defiant to the end.
- “One Christmas at Port Arthur”, The Tasmanian Mail, Tuesday August 20th 1985