Francis McNamara - Frank the Poet 1819 - 1842

Francis MacNamara was born in 1811 in Cashel, he claimed, in the County Tipperary, Ireland. He was transported to Botany Bay in 1832, then to Van Diemen's Land arriving 29 October 1842, by which time he was widely known as Frank the Poet.



The definitive collection and study of the man and his works remains Frank the Poet published in 1979 by Hugh Anderson and written by John Meredith and Rex Whalan, the result of many years of research.

From the Foreword
'Frank' was indeed an Irish convict, though probably a Protestant, not a Catholic; and he personally underwent many of the experiences, including repeated floggings, which are reflected in his verses.
As time goes on interest in Australia's beginnings, and in contemporary views of them, can only increase. Frank's life and verse will be of even more concern to Australians a hundred or a thousand years hence, than they are now. The authors of this book have earned the gratitude of posterity.
RUSSEL WARD.
University of New England.

His songs and poems are alive today while his life and work has been written about, discussed and referred to by poets, playwrights, folklorists, historians, singers and scholars including:

Hugh Anderson, Philip Butterss, James Boyce, Bob Brissenden, Jeff Brownrigg, Colleen Burke, Rowan Cahill, Julian Croft, Joe Culley, John Dengate, Warren Fahey, Eric Fry, Robert Gray, Fran de Groen, Miguel Heatwole, Bob Hodge, Geoffrey Inglis, Terry Irving, James Jupp, Denis Kevans, John Kinsella, Geoffrey Lehmann, David Levell, Peter Mara, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Keith McKenry, Perry Middlemiss, Vijay Mishra, Gino Moliterno, Tony Moore, David Moss, Les Murray, Phillip Neilsen, Maria Northcote, Deborah Oxley, Geoff Page, Peter Pierce, Marjory Pizer, Kenneth Porter, Bob Reece, Michael Roe, Graham Seal, Veronica Sen, June Senyard, James Tucker, Margaret Walters, Bill Wannan, Russel Ward, Vincent Wood, Elizabeth Webby, David Young ... and undoubtedly many more.


2011 was both the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of his death. While only one of his poems was published in his lifetime, a dozen more were remembered and collected in oral tradition up to 100 years after his death.

Les Murray and Frank the Poet

The first metropolis to be depicted in Australian literature was Hell. Before any terrestrial cities existed in Australia, the convict poet Francis McNamara describes a tour he was given through the infernal one. This jaunty Dantesquerie, dating from 1839, forms the high point of a set of poems that came out of a personal crisis in the last years of that decade.

All are fresher, more varied and more adventurous than the Irish ballads he mainly created' before and afterwards, though the latter can be very moving when sung according to contemporary tunes. They are often credited as the foundation of Australian bush balladry, which is still practised and loved in the bush, though its forms, its subjects and even its attitudes tend to be set in concrete.

Although McNamara always claimed to be a native of Cashel, in County Tipperary, at his trial in Kilkenny in 1832 for stealing a plaid he was described as coming from Wicklow. He was literate and had no previous convictions, but he drew seven years' transportation, and sailed from Cork on the Eliza on 10 May that same year. Arriving in Sydney in September, he would have gone straight to the large Hyde Park Barracks, which still exists under its later designation of the Mint in Macquarie Street.

In his contemporary Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies, James Backhouse reports that: One of the officers who had been there [at the Barracks] only about fifteen months, said, that upwards of one thousand men had been flogged in the course of that period. He stated his opinion to be, that how much soever men may dread flagellation, when they have not been subjected to it, they are generally degraded in their own esteem and become reckless after its infliction.

This, we have found to be a very prevailing opinion in the Colony. McNamara was flogged no less than fourteen times over the next eight years, receiving a total of six hundred and fifty lashes. His witty rebellious attitudes also brought him spells in solitary, three months on the treadmill and repeated bouts of hard labour on the gangs made to work in leg irons. It is a near miracle that his turning-the-tables poem “A Convict's Tour to Hell” is so lightly done, free from sadism or rage.

By early 1838, McNamara had been assigned as a shepherd to the Scottish-owned Australian Agricultural Company, still remembered as the A.A. Co. This firm was set up in 1824 to cultivate the frontiers of settlement. The Peel River, on which the Country and Western music capital of Tamworth now stands, was then far out on the very edge, in Kamilaroi tribal country, but loneliness and the off-chance of a spear probably seemed a good bargain when compared with what the poet had endured.

In October 1839, however, he was reassigned, to the Company's coal mines in Newcastle, where men worked naked underground in choking heat and lung-destroying dust. At this, he absconded, and was recaptured with a band of runaways, some of them carrying firearms. This could have got then he was sentenced to the awful Secondary Punishment Station at Port Arthur, in Van Diemen's Land, where the intent was to break the recalcitrant, not reform them.

There, you could be flogged for not giving your towel to the laundry to be washed, or having a crust of bread in your clothes. Van Diemen's Land seems to have subdued the poet, though it didn't stop him making further rebel ballads for his mates to memorise and sing.

Released in 1857, a year after the island colony's name was changed to Tasmania, the poet wandered back to New South Wales and thence into obscurity, with only odd sightings of him over the next two decades. The curious gallimaufry of Irish stereotypes titled “A Dialogue Between Two Hibernians in Botany Bay” was the only work by McNamara to appear in print in his lifetime, in the Sydney Gazette of 8 February 1840.

Doubts have been expressed as to its authenticity, but some believe it is a set of coded messages for Whiteboys and Ribbon Men, members of Irish secret societies opposed to English rule and to the exactions of the Protestant Church of Ireland in the period after Catholic emancipation. McNamara may have been involved in this movement, and it is known that passwords in it were deliberately clownish and ridiculous. The rest of his work was carried in memory until 1861, when he wrote out the best of it in fine copperplate in a home-made book for the Calf family, of Windeyer near Mudgee.

Some of his balladry was collected later in the nineteenth century as folk material, and only ascribed to him after careful detective work. McNamara may have been bilingual, and connected in some way with the McNamara bards of County Clare; he is clearly aware of Irish-language models and alludes to some of them, notably in the emblem of refusal in “For the Company Underground”. He also seems to have admired Burns and Swift and Oliver Goldsmith, among English-language poets. His practice as a poet closely mirrors that of the hedge-poets of penal times, and he is the only poet whose work conies down to us  it from within the convict system as it existed in Australia, though its quality ranges far beyond the merely documentary.

The Life and Works of Francis MacNamara Red Rooster Press 1979

His songs and poems are alive today while his life and work has been written about, discussed and referred to by poets, playwrights, folklorists, historians, singers and scholars including:

Hugh Anderson, Philip Butterss, James Boyce, Bob Brissenden, Jeff Brownrigg, Colleen Burke, Rowan Cahill, Julian Croft, Joe Culley, Maree Delofski, John Dengate, Warren Fahey, Nick Franklin, Eric Fry, Robert Gray, Mark Gregory, Fran de Groen, Miguel Heatwole, Bob Hodge, A.D. Hope, Max Howell, Geoffrey Inglis, Terry Irving, James Jupp, Denis Kevans, John Kinsella, Geoffrey Lehmann, David Levell, Peter Mara, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Keith McKenry, Perry Middlemiss, Vijay Mishra, Gino Moliterno, Tony Moore, David Moss, Les Murray, Phillip Neilsen, Maria Northcote, Deborah Oxley, Geoff Page, Peter Pierce, Marjory Pizer, Kenneth Porter, Bob Reece, Michael Roe, John Ryan, Graham Seal, Veronica Sen, June Senyard, James Tucker, Margaret Walters, Bill Wannan, Russel Ward, Edgar Waters, Vincent Wood, Elizabeth Webby, Lingyu Xie, David Young ... and undoubtedly many more.

2011 was both the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of his death. While only one of his poems was published in his lifetime, a dozen more were remembered and collected in oral tradition up to 100 years after his death.