The Turning Wave

from The Turning Wave, editors, Colleen Z Burke and Vincent Woods p. 3-4

The book begins on the waves of transportation and exile - Irish people forced from their homeland to penal servitude at the other end of the world. Early Irish convicts were mainly so-called common criminals who were often driven to petty crime in order to survive impoverishment and injustice, and political prisoners transported after the rebellions of 1798 and 1803. Of the many thousands transported to Australia, English as well as Irish, the one, enduring poet-witness is Francis MacNamara whose powerful and subversive writing bears testimony not only to his own hardships but to the broader convict experience. MacNamara's voice is unmistakably Irish, making use of traditional poetic forms such as the aisling or dream poem. The fluency of his rhyme is matched by his easy use of classical allusions, transforming the hellish landscapes of convict prisons and work camps but never diminishing their brutal realities. He invokes the spirit and tone of Jonathan Swift ("Nor can the foremost of the sons of men/Escape my ribald and licentious pen") and clearly relishes his role as witness and subversive:

Have you one here called Captain Murray?
'Yes, Murray is within this place'.
'Would you', said Satan, 'see his face?'
'May God forbid that I should view him
For on board the Phoenix Hulk I knew him'.
'Who is that, Sir, in yonder blaze
Who on fire and brimstone seems to graze?'
'Tis Captain Logan of Moreton Bay
Cook who discovered New South Wales
And he that first invented gaols
Are both tied to a fiery stake
Which stands in yonder boiling lake.

Little is known of MacNamara' s life either before or after his years as a convict. Indeed for decades his work was attributed to somebody else. Yet he is one of the founding voices of Australian literature - forging from the extremes of adversity a poetry of wit and lasting significance.


Many thanks to Colleen Burke for permission to add this extract from The TurningWave. This anthology contains most of the poems and songs attributed to MacNamara. The authors claim him to be one of the founding voices of Australian literature, a poet who "clearly relishes his role as witness and subversive".