Pandemic Letter 14 – Our Lady of the Rosary (02/10/2020)

The Man from Snowy River

Who was Banjo Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River?  How can one forget those wonderful lines?

When they reached the mountain’s summit, even Clancy took a pull  –
It well might make the boldest hold their breath;
The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full
Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.
But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear.

He sent the flint-stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timbers in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat —
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
Through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound,
At the bottom of that terrible descent.

He was right among the horses as they climbed the farther hill
And the watchers on the mountain standing mute,
Saw him ply the stockwhip fiercely; he was right among them still,
As he raced across the clearing in pursuit.
Then they lost him for a moment, where two mountain gullies met
In the ranges – but a final glimpse reveals
On a dim and distant hillside the wild horses racing yet,
With the man from Snowy River at their heels.

And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,
He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;
But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,
For never yet was mountain horse a cur.

And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise
Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,
And where around the Overflow the reed -beds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,
The man from Snowy River is a household word today,
And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.

Snowy River
Today the Snowy River is a sad and depleted waterway from Jindabyne past Dalgety into Victoria, and eventually into Bass Strait, quite different from the mighty river of yesteryear originating from the eastern slopes of Mt Kosciuszko.  The Snowy River barely flows.  This national icon been destroyed by the construction of the Snowy Dams, and by the niggardly release of water by the Snowy Mountains Authority which regulates the discharge from Lake Jindabyne.  The Man from Snowy River could have been a horseman from a number of places along the Snowy River when, in 1890, the poem was first published.  Banjo Patterson may have drawn inspiration for The Man from Snowy River from many different persons and places in south western New South Wales.

When, in the 1980’s, we started holidaying each year in Jindabyne, I met an old timer at the then bush races near Moonbah off the Barry Way who claimed that Banjo Paterson visited the area regularly, and participated in horse riding  – thus obtaining material for The Man from Snowy River.  I have never been able to verify what the old timer told me, but there is nothing about what he said, or how he said it, which suggested he was stretching my leg.  In the late 19th century Moonbah was a very remote farming community where there was plenty of hard riding and mobs of brumbies, with the wild descents from rugged alps, abounding in wombat holes, described in the poem.  Today, the archaeological remains of the Irish Australian community along the Barry Way at Moonbah are found in the restored St Thomas’ Catholic Church.  The Church was restored in the 1990’s by Fr Wally Stefanski, the then Polish Australian parish priest of Jindabyne, who helped all and sundry at the time of the Thredbo Disaster.

One can easily walk on back tracks from the Alpine Way heading to Thredbo to the Barry Way at Moonbah.  This is all part of the Australian Alps.  The Barry Way takes one into Victoria.  Even today there are trails and tracks off the Barry Way, impossible to police, which would enable the enterprising to pass in and out of Victoria were border restrictions to continue beyond reason.

St Thomas’ Moonbah was built in 1888, an example of late 19th century neo-Gothic architecture.  There is a well-maintained cemetery adjoining, housing the Barrys, Byrnes, Freebodys, Golbys, Powers, Prendergasts, Thompsons, Williams – large Catholic families who dominated this then remote part of Australia.

The land for the Church and cemetery was donated by Thomas Prendergast in 1861.  Thomas Prendergast was the first person to be buried in the cemetery in 1862.  The stone for the Church was brought from Crackenback.  Next to the Church is a shed constructed in 1914 of handmade bricks, providing a place to sleep for visiting priests.

Three Poets
Banjo Paterson (1864 – 1941), Henry Lawson (1867 – 1922) and John O’Brien (1878 – 1952) are three poets whose verse captures 19th century rural Australia, and whose style and subject matter have significant similarities.  Banjo Patterson also wrote Waltzing Matilda (1895), Australia’s unofficial national song, even better known than The Man from Snowy River.  Waltzing refers to travelling on foot, and a Matilda is a swag thrown over one’s shoulder.

Jack Riley
While there are various candidates for Banjo Patterson’s The Man from Snowy River, Jack Riley (1841 – 1914) who lived on the other side of the Alps, closer to the Murray River than the Snowy is the popular favourite.  The story of Jack Riley as The Man from Snowy River is perpetuated by the Man from Snowy River Festival at Corryong each year.  Jack Riley was born in Ireland but lived for thirty years or so a largely solitary existence on Tom Groggin Station, beyond Thredbo, off the Alpine Way.  However, according to Don Benson of Khancoban, Jack Riley had previously lived in a remote hut at Eulamuna on the NSW Victorian border, out from Moonbah.  It would be difficult to find a place rougher and steeper than Riley’s hut at Eulamuna.  There is no doubt Jack Riley was an accomplished horseman.

John O’Brien
John O’Brien, whose other persona is Fr Patrick John Hartigan, is said to have performed the Last Rites (what we now call the Anointing of the Sick) as Jack Riley lay dying.  We’ll all be rooned, from Said Hanrahan, is part of the Australian vernacular, a classic expression of inevitable disaster from a professional pessimist.  Fr Patrick Hartigan was born and grew up at Yass, the son of Irish immigrants. His father was a produce merchant. Fr Hartigan was parish priest of Narrandera from 1917 to 1944. Each year Narrandera celebrates a John O’Brien Bush Festival. His best-known publication is Around the Boree Log and Other Verses.

John O’Brien wrote two poems, the Trimmin’s on the Rosary, and the Parting Rosary which are relevant as we are about to celebrate Our Lady of the Rosary on 7 October. The Rosary, as a traditional Catholic practice, predates St Dominic.  The skiting of the Dominicans that the Rosary originated with St Dominic is untrue! but certainly the Dominicans did much to develop the Rosary into its present form and to promote it.

Each poem – the Trimmin’s on the Rosary and The Parting Rosary – may be read as dry humour, recalling a rich personality, the little Irish mother, from late 19th century rural Australia-of which there were tens of thousands of instances, and hundreds of thousands of children to nostalgically recount her exploits-an iconic expression of an Irish-Australian culture which has largely disappeared.  Part of the historical background is that during the long years of persecution of Catholics in Ireland when attendance at Mass became impossible, the Rosary was often said secretly in the home.

Trimmin’s on the Rosary

The vital parts of the Trimmin’s on the Rosary are:

There were no steel-bound conventions in that old slab dwelling free;
Only this – each night she lined us up to say the Rosary;
E’en the stranger there, who stayed the night upon his journey, knew
He must join the little circle, ay, and take his decade too.

I believe she darkly plotted, when a sinner hove in sight
Who was known to say no prayer at all, to make him stay the night.
Then we’d softly gather round her, and we’d speak in accents low,
And pray like Sainted Dominic so many years ago;
And the little Irish mother’s face was radiant, for she knew
That “where two or three are gathered” He is gathered with them too.
O’er the paters and the aves how her reverent head would bend!
How she’d kiss the cross devoutly when she counted to the end!

And the visitor would rise at once, and brush his knees  –  and then
He’d look very, very foolish as he took the boards again.
She had other prayers to keep him. They were long, long prayers in truth;
And we used to call them “Trimmin’s” in my disrespectful youth.
She would pray for kith and kin, and all the friends she’d ever known,
Yes, and everyone of us could boast a “trimmin’” all his own.
She would pray for all our little needs, and every shade of care
That might darken o’er The Sugarloaf, she’d meet it with a prayer.

She would pray for this one’s “sore complaint,” or that one’s “hurted hand,”
Or that someone else might make a deal and get “that bit of land”;
Or that Dad might sell the cattle well, and seasons good might rule,
So that little John, the weakly one, might go away to school.
There were trimmin’s, too, that came and went; but ne’er she closed without
Adding one for something special “none of you must speak about.”
Gentle was that little mother, and her wit would sparkle free,
But she’d murder him who looked around while at the Rosary:
And if perchance you lost your beads, disaster waited you,

For that little Irish mother’s prayers embraced the country wide;
If a neighbour met with trouble, or was taken ill, or died,
We could count upon a trimmin’ — till, in fact, it got that way
That the Rosary was but trimmin’s to the trimmin’s we would say.
Then “himself” would start keownrawning — for the public good, we thought —
“Sure you’ll have us here till mornin’. Yerra, cut them trimmin’s short!”
But she’d take him very gently, till he softened by degrees  – 
“Well, then, let us get it over. Come now, all hands to their knees.”
So the little Irish mother kept her trimmin’s to the last,
Every growing as the shadows o’er the old selection passed;
And she lit our drab existence with her simple faith and love,
And I know the angels lingered near to bear her prayers above,

For her children trod the path she trod, nor did they later spurn
To impress her wholesome maxims on their children in their turn.

The Parting Rosary

The Parting Rosary may be thought of, drawing an analogy with Mary’s desolation seeing the dead body of Jesus brought down from the Cross.  The son has enlisted to fight in the First World War in which he is killed.  On the night before he leaves, there is a cheerful farewell, but mother and son go off from the crowd of well-wishers to say a partin’ Rosary by themselves:

Still, I’m thankful, oh, I’m thankful for one golden memory.
That the last time spent together was to say The Rosary.
Don’t you mind it, boy?  we said it in my own room there beyond,
Where I have the little altar where your early prayers you conned,
By the statue that I cherish of the Holy Mother fair,
With the blue cloak round her shoulders, and her white hands crossed in prayer.
They were singin’ in the parlour, them that came to say good-bye;
And they sang their gay songs to me-och, I knew the reason why!
They are always kind in trouble in this big warmhearted land;
Ah, but their way was’t my way, and they mightn’t understand.
So I lit the little candles, and I beckoned you away,
And you came-God bless you for it, boy-the partin’ prayer to say.
Ay, the partin’ Rosary, darlin’-I can see you kneelin’ there,
With your big broad shoulders bendin’, and your hands joined on the chair,
And your man’s voice like an organ rollin’ out its soul apart-
Och, to-night, boy, in my dreamin’ it is dronin’ in my heart.
Yes, we said it with the music strummin’ ragtime songs throughout,
Just our two selves there together, answerin’ t’other turn about.
‘Tis a quare, quare world, alannah, when the storm can work its stress
On the strong limb, while the withered leaf is left in loneliness.
“Lay your treasure up in Heaven,” for there’s nothing here below;
Och, we Irish mothers learned it in the old land long ago!

Short life’s springtime with its blossom; and it comes not back again,
Only haggard trees in winter stretchin’ naked limbs in pain.
Oh, I’m thankin’ God, my bouhal,* though the achin’s in my breast,
‘Twas He took you from me, darlin’, and He knoweth what is best:
And His Holy Mother Mary, with her Baby on her knee,
Sure she lost Him in His manhood, for He died at thirty-three.

Rosarium Virginis Mariae
Pope St John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter TheRosary of the Virgin Mary (2002) describes the Rosary as a way of contemplating Christ through Mary.  The Rosary is not a boring and monotonous repetition of formulas, but a way of contemplation, open to all in the varied circumstances of life.  Thus, Our Lord’s warning  –  do not heap up empty phrases-reminds us we must pay attention to the words of the Rosary, contemplate the mysteries, and offer them up for our family and friends.  The Rosary may be assisted by the proclamation of a related Biblical passage, according to the circumstances.  The Rosary may also be assisted by a brief period of silence after the announcement of the mystery, and the proclamation of the word.

Contemplation of Christ
The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary.  Mary kept all these things pondering them in her heart.  By immersing ourselves in Christ, what Christ has done, and what the liturgy makes present, Christ shapes our existence.  Through Mary we learn Christ.  We become conformed to Christ.  We pray to Christ through Mary.  We proclaim Christ with Mary.

Mysteries of Light
Pope John Paul II adds to the traditional mysteries, joyful, sorrowful, glorious, the mysteries of light taken from Jesus’ public life-the Baptism in the Jordan, the wedding at Cana, the preaching of the Kingdom of God, the Transfiguration, the institution of the Eucharist.  Although Mary remains in the background except at the wedding at Cana, her words-Do whatever he tells you-address us in every age.

Compendium of the Gospel
The Rosary is a compendium of the Gospel, a complete expression of Christ, God incarnate, capable of being prayed as one walks down the street, as one drives, with one’s spouse and children, with one’s friends, in the most varied of circumstances.  The adage-the family that prays together stays together-is true.

Australia Today
The beads that hang from many a mirror of a vehicle battling the Sydney traffic is a reminder that the Rosary is alive and well in 21st century Australia.  Christ’s urging-pray ceaselessly-continues to be fulfilled by the Rosary.

In The Trimmin’s on the Rosary, John O’Brien expresses, in a down to earth way a person, the little Irish mother, who is on fire with faith and charity – “she lit our drab existence with her simple faith and love and I know the angels lingered near her prayers above”.  The little Irish mother is full of apostolic zeal – “little John, her pride, was he who said the funeral Mass the morning that she died. So her gentle spirit triumphed-for ’twas this without a doubt, was the the very special trimmin’ that she kept so dark about”.  This was a charity that knew no limits – “For that little Irish mother’s prayers embraced the country wide; if a neighbour met with trouble, or was taken ill, or died, we could count upon a trimming.”   Here we see a complete self-abandonment to God’s will – “Twas He took you from me, darlin’, and He knoweth what is best: and His Holy Mother Mary, with her Baby on her knee, sure she lost Him in his manhood, for He died at thirty-three.”  Here we see a heroic expression of hope-“And the Holy Mother’s beckonin’-I can see her through my tears…Sure I’ll tread the House of Glory, where the soul is free from harm, And you’ll know ’tis me, Alannah, by the Rosary on my arm.”  The little Irish mother incarnates the deepest mysteries of our faith.  If we could identify the little Irish mother, we would find a completely contemplative soul, permeated at every moment of her life by the mysteries of faith, a soul who practised the virtues, especially faith, hope and charity to a heroic degree, someone who could be emulated by all of us.

Banjo Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River is a grand expression of life in late 19th century rural Australia-as are John O’Brien’s The Trimmin’s on the Rosary, and The Partin’ Rosary.  Banjo Patterson described a mighty ride down the mountainside with death and danger at every step-and John O’Brien describes something similar, in the humdrum circumstances of family life, with the little Irish mother nurturing her children(and everyone countrywide), led by Mary, to Christ.

Michael McAuley