Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Bush Christening

Over a lunch and coffee yesterday with my wife Kate we discussed populist poetry in the context of recent Bytes items, which a subscriber had quoted being referred to as good bad poetry. I mentioned a few more works by overseas writers and even the lyrics of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, an old music hall standard where the audience would come in with the “Ohhhhhh” of the chorus (this may be Bytes for next week).  Kate raised the works of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, poetry and stories loved by the masses but not accepted by the literati elite as “serious” works. I quite like the works of Lawson and the Banjo, having posted some items about them previously:

The Bulletin Debate:

Henry Lawson: Past Carin':

Today’s post, at Kate’s suggestion, is Banjo’s Patterson humorous poem A Bush Christening. Some comments about the work follow the poem.

A B Paterson’s A Bush Christening, by Michael Lodge

A BUSH CHRISTENING - A.B. "Banjo" Paterson

On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few,
And men of religion are scanty,
On a road never cross'd 'cept by folk that are lost,
One Michael Magee had a shanty.

Now this Mike was the dad of a ten-year-old lad,
Plump, healthy, and stoutly conditioned;
He was strong as the best, but poor Mike had no rest
For the youngster had never been christened,

And his wife used to cry, "If the darlin' should die
Saint Peter would not recognise him."
But by luck he survived till a preacher arrived,
Who agreed straightaway to baptise him.

Now the artful young rogue, while they held their collogue,
With his ear to the keyhole was listenin',
And he muttered in fright while his features turned white,
"What the divil and all is this christenin'?"

He was none of your dolts, he had seen them brand colts,
And it seemed to his small understanding,
If the man in the frock made him one of the flock,
It must mean something very like branding.

So away with a rush he set off for the bush,
While the tears in his eyelids they glistened-
"'Tis outrageous," says he, "to brand youngsters like me,
I'll be dashed if I'll stop to be christened!"

Like a young native dog he ran into a log,
And his father with language uncivil,
Never heeding the "praste" cried aloud in his haste, 
"Come out and be christened, you divil!"

But he lay there as snug as a bug in a rug,
And his parents in vain might reprove him,
Till his reverence spoke (he was fond of a joke)
"I've a notion," says he, "that'll move him."

"Poke a stick up the log, give the spalpeen a prog;
Poke him aisy-don't hurt him or maim him,
'Tis not long that he'll stand, I've the water at hand,
As he rushes out this end I'll name him.

"Here he comes, and for shame! ye've forgotten the name-
Is it Patsy or Michael or Dinnis?"
Here the youngster ran out, and the priest gave a shout-
"Take your chance, anyhow, wid 'Maginnis'!"

As the howling young cub ran away to the scrub
Where he knew that pursuit would be risky,
The priest, as he fled, flung a flask at his head
That was labelled "Maginnis's Whisky!"

And Maginnis Magee has been made a J.P.,
And the one thing he hates more than sin is
To be asked by the folk who have heard of the joke,
How he came to be christened "Maginnis"!

* * * * * * *
About the poem:

The poem was first published in the Bulletin on 16 December 1893 and was included in The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses in 1895.

The Bulletin was an Australian weekly magazine that was published in Sydney from 1880 until January 2008. It was influential in Australian culture and politics from about 1890 until Woprld War 1, the period when it was identified with the "Bulletin school" of Australian literature. Its influence thereafter declined steadily. In the 1960s it was revived as a modern news magazine.

* * * * * * *
The poem has been linked by Lucy Sussex to an anonymous story, 'Peggy's Christening', in the Colonial Monthly, April 1868, a quarter of a century before Paterson's poem. Paterson used the Irish Catholic community as the basis of many similar bush verses, e.g. 'Father Riley's Horse', 'Gilhooley's Estate' and 'Mulligan's Mare'.

* * * * * * *
Some explanations:

Bush Christening:

In Australia “the bush” is synonymous with any sparsely inhabited region regardless of vegetation. Paterson romanticised the bush, Lawson depicted its grimness (click on the Bulletin Debate link above), painters such Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin often idealised it. As a perceived source of ideals, endurance, toughness, mateship, tragedy and beauty, the bush and its spirit was a major part in the forging of a national identity.

Back in the 1800’s homesteads in the outback were often lonely and isolated, so much so that it was sometimes years between the priest’s visits as he travelled from home to home on horseback.

outer Barcoo:

The Barcoo is a river in western Queensland. The Barcoo Shire has an area about the size of Tasmania and a population of 460:

In the context of the poem, the locale serves to emphasise the isolation.

About 90 kilometres from Jundah, a town that is the administrative centre of the Barcoo Shire local government area, is a plaque to Magee’s Shanty as the reputed site of the shanty described in the poem.

Michael Magee:

Many of the first white settlers to make their homes in the colonies of New South Wales and Queensland were poor Irish Catholic families, often descended from Irish convicts.


A small crudely built dwelling or shelter usually of wood.

An example of what the Magees’ shanty may have looked like.

Wattle and daub home with bark roof and wooden chimney. 1890

Plump, healthy, and stoutly conditioned; 

Although depicted as being well fed and healthy, the description may also be a reflection of Paterson’s romanticising of the bush and its settlers.

Saint Peter would not recognise him

The Catholic belief that an unbaptised child did not make it into Heaven.


A confidential discussion.

If the man in the frock made him one of the flock, 
It must mean something very like branding.

A marvellous image, that the young lad who has grown up with sheep and cattle and no knowledge of religion and christening, works out in his own mind that being made one of the flock means being branded.

“I'll be dashed if I'll stop to be christened!" 

It may be that back in 1893 it was politically incorrect to use the word “damned” but substitute “damned” and what another great image, the lad who declares that he’ll be damned if he stops to be christened!

he ran into a log

Some of the trees back then were giant ones. Clearing the land for grazing sheep and cattle was commonplace.


Priest in Irish brogue


A rascal

a prog

A poke.



The priest, as he fled, flung a flask at his head 
That was labelled 'Maginnis's Whisky'! 

The priest happens to have a bottle of Irish whisky with him. The association of alcohol and the Irish is a longstanding one; the association of the alcohol and a man of cloth, even more so blessing of the child with whisky and naming him Maginnis, is inspired. A rollicking bit of humour.

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