Alice Guerin Crist (1876-1941)
Two times, two voices.
Though her literary career spanned more than 50 years, Alice Guerin Crist’s reputation really only rests on two brief periods as a public voice, once as a vanguard poet in the socialist newspaper The Worker, the other nearly 30 years later as a voice of Irish nostalgia in the Catholic Advocate. In between times, she gained the experience that became the feedstock for her writing.
She was born Alice Guerin, in county Clare, Ireland in 1876, the first surviving child of devout Catholic parents. In 1878, her father, a school teacher, accepted a position as an immigrant teacher for the Queensland Department of Public Instruction, and the family migrated with him to South East Queensland. His school postings meant the family moved often, from Tent Hill, in the Lockyer Valley, to the bayside settlement of Cleveland, the sugar town of Coomera, and then to Douglas (near Toowoomba).
Despite the disruption this must have caused, Alice was lucky to have two good teachers in her parents. From an early age, she showed literary ambition. Her first story appeared in The Queenslander when she was just 11. It shows a precocious talent, and an interest in fairy stories that she took through the rest of her life, together with a casual racism typical of its time:
A long time ago, before a white man had ever set foot in this country or Australia had ever been seen or heard of, there lived here a race of people called Dalkoots. They were a brave intelligent people, not at all like the aboriginals who live here now.
She also showed promise as an educator. By the age of 12, she began work as a pupil-teacher at her father’s school, and by the time she was 20, she was the sole teacher at West Haldon State School, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Her career there didn’t last long. She was dismissed from her position within 6 months of taking up her duties, apparently while rounding up truant children for her school, by a Protestant inspector of schools.
So, by the age of 21, she found herself unemployed and incapable of earning a livelihood at the one thing for which she was qualified, schoolteaching. It was perhaps the harshness of her dismissal that led her to begin publishing pieces in the Brisbane newspaper The Worker. This journal, founded in 1890, was a classic example of Fabian socialism. Its editorial content was openly socialist: it advocated for the rights of workers, female suffrage, and the policies of the then fledgling Labour party, while drawing advertising from many of the capitalist businesses that sold goods and services to its readers.
Guerin attracted the patronage and support of Mary Gilmore, who edited The Worker’s women’s pages. An early poem shows her sympathy for the plight of workers:
To the music of the world.
Other poems of the time show a sympathy with the Irish nationalist cause, and a good understanding of Irish history. ‘A Young Rebel’ (1901) refers to the ‘Red Hand’ rebellion in Ulster, from the late 16th century, and the Irish Rebellion of 1798:
In the days of long ago.
But whatever her political views, she recognised the multicultural mix of her new homeland. Her short story ‘A Wallabong Romance’ (1902) deals with antipathy between Irish and German settlers and a romance between their children.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Guerin married the son of a German immigrant, Joseph Christ (later Crist), in late 1902. Within a year or two, this first phase of Guerin’s literary career was over, and the serious business of raising a family had begun. Joseph and Alice worked on a farm near Toowoomba, then at Rosedale, 60 kilometres north west of Bundaberg. Just before the first world war, the family moved to Toowoomba, where they settled more or less for good. Alice witnessed the tragedy of war on two fronts, first the discrimination wrought against her husband, and then the loss of a brother in the battle of Paschendaele in 1917.
By the 1920s, the hardest years of child rearing were over. Having some time to herself at last, Alice once again applied herself to writing. She was lucky enough, late in the decade, to find a sympathetic publisher in the editor of the Catholic Advocate, then Queensland’s leading Catholic newspaper, and it was there that she published most of the poems and stories for which she is best remembered today.
The poems of that era are collected in two books, When Rody Came to Ironbark (1927), and Eucharist Lilies (1928). The poems in the first book are better known, and probably better, than the poems in the second. They are unashamedly sentimental evocations of an Irish rural culture that had been transplanted to Australia, written for a readership that most part understood and related to the experiences which form the basis for the poems. Generally, the poems in Rody have a Catholic underpinning, but they are not in any sense didactic.
Eucharist Lilies is narrower in its appeal, being written around the events of the Australian Eucharistic Conference of 1928. The poems are accordingly more difficult for a contemporary reader to enjoy:
Silent is prayer and chant, and Litany.
A lot of her best work remains uncollected, and many of those poems show a particular engagement with people in the landscape that transcends a narrow sectarianism. Take this, from ‘October in Toowoomba’:
Fresh clothed in summer verdure, bright-gleaming after rain. ’
The poems do have weaknesses. Some of Alice’s line don’t scan, and too often she uses word inversions to make rhymes work. Sometimes she uses archaic diction. None of the poetic developments of the first 30 years of the 20th century have any relevance to her work. But I think it would be wrong to dwell on these weaknesses for too long. Her work needs to be appreciated for its evocation of time and place, its sympathy and humour, and its generally positive outlook.
By the mid 1930s, she was recognised as one of Queensland’s leading female writers and a pillar of Toowomba’s literary culture. But by then she was nearing her 60s, and her health had begun to decline. Though her work never betrayed its Irish roots, she was (or became) a monarchist, and in 1936, she published a memorial Ode to King George V. By then her work was also showing more empathy with the aboriginal people.
She died, of pneumonia, following injuries suffered in a fall, in June 1941, aged just 65. Due largely to the efforts of her descendants, she is one of the better remembered poets on this site. And that’s as it should be, because she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
Best book to buy: Crist, A.G., When Rody came to Ironbark, Sydney Cornstalk Press, 1927.
Further Reading: Dornan, D, Alice With Eyes A-Shine, Brisbane,.Church Archivists’ Press, 1998.
 ‘Ara, the Dalkhoot Princess’ in The Queenslander 17 December 1887, p974.
 Ave, Labor! The Worker, 16 December, 1899, p27.
 ‘A Young Rebel’ The Freeman’s Journal, 25 May, 1901, p6.
 ‘A Wallabong Romance’ The Worker 13 December 1902, p3.
 In the Council Hall of Faith in Crist, A.G., Eucharist Lilies, Sydney, Pellegrini, 1928, p11.
 October in Toowoomba’ quoted in Dornan, D., Alice With Eyes A-Shine Brisbane, Church Archivists’ Press, 1998, p186.
 Songs of our own land’ The Queenslander, 21 February 1935, p34.
 ‘The Grief of a Nation’ Maryborough Chronicle, 28 January 1936, p 5.
 See for example, Our Friends The Blacks, in the Catholic Advocate, 18 November 1926, p 27, published under the pseudonym Betty Bluegum.