Eva Mary O'Doherty

Eva Mary O’Doherty (1830-1910)

‘Have faith, I’ll wait’

Eva Mary O'Doherty (SLQ Neg 198114)

Eva Mary O’Doherty, better known as ‘Eva of the Nation’, was probably more famous for a poetic gesture than for the considerable body of poetry that she wrote.

She was born Mary Anne Kelly in County Galway, into a financially comfortable Irish Catholic family, in 1830.  She was educated at home by governesses, and showed literary promise from an early age.   In her mid-teens she began to publish poems in the Irish Nationalist newspaper The Nation, and soon after adopted the pen-name ‘Eva’.

From 1845, Ireland suffered from the potato blight, a disease which caused the potato crop, which was the only food for a third of the Irish population, to decay overnight. The result was widespread famine, from which almost a million people died. The famine contributed to widespread political unrest. A group of young, largely middle class men, founded a journal called the Irish Tribune, which called up its readers to ‘exterminate the English despots, and crush with them the anti-Irish aristocracy forever’. The editors, including a promising medical student, Kevin Izod O’Doherty, were arrested on charges of treason.

Public sentiment was with O’Doherty and his co-conspirators: the jury could not reach a verdict at O’Doherty’s first two trials. During this time a romance developed between Eva Kelly and O’Doherty. By the time of O’Doherty’s third trial, the jury was more carefully selected, and he was convicted. O’Doherty was offered the chance of clemency. He consulted Eva Kelly, and declined. He was sentenced to be transported to Van Diemen’s land for 10 years. At the doorway of the court, Eva whispered to him, ‘Have faith, I’ll wait’.

She did. O’Doherty and his comrades were transported to Tasmania. In 1854, he was granted a pardon, on condition that he did not return to the British Isles, so he tried his hand at the Victorian Gold rushes. He then risked his life by returning to England, and subsequently Ireland, where he married Kelly. They lived briefly in Paris, before O’Doherty was granted a full pardon and the couple relocated to Ireland. However, Kevin O’Doherty grew disenchanted with the politics of his homeland, and shortly after he completed his medical qualifications, the couple migrated to Australia.  

The O’Dohertys lived briefly in Geelong and Sydney, before settling in Queensland, first in Ipswich, then, permanently, in Brisbane. Dr Kevin O’Doherty’s career, as a man of medicine and affairs, prospered. He became a prominent surgeon, and was instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Brisbane Hospital, All Hallows and Brisbane Grammar Schools, and St Stephens Catholic Cathedral. His politics moderated, and he served in both houses of the Queensland Parliament, and for a time as the member for Meath in the British House of Commons. But he seems to have had little business sense. Investments in mines and agriculture failed. Dr O’Doherty died poor in 1905. Eva followed in 1910, survived by only one of their 8 children. Newspaper reports called her the ‘last link with ‘48’'. [1]

Such was Eva O’Doherty’s fame that after her husband died, benefit events were held by the Irish communities throughout Australia to raise money for her. Her main book, ‘Poems, by Eva of the Nation’ appeared in 1909, 60 years after many of the poems in it were written. Its editor commented:

The production of this volume is itself evidence of the affection in which she is ever held by her country men and women at home and abroad. [2]

The O’Dohertys have been the subject of a full length biography and a number of literary studies. But despite her fame and her romantic story, almost nothing appears in the published materials that might tell us about her character. What can we learn from her poems?

First, she was a nationalist. It’s true that her nationalism coincided with her poetic persona, but a good patriotic poem is hard to fake:

For Ireland’s love, for England’s hate,

I swore a solemn vow,

And if I swore it once before

I’d swear it ten times now

                                         From ‘The Rebel’s Sermon’

She loved her husband, but must have despaired at times of his return:

But while the rivers run, or while the green leaves grow,

I’ll never see you again, I know!

                          From ‘No More’

There is a rare note of optimism in her voice on her journey to Australia:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Through sunny, breezy Capricorn

The sweet airs freshly round us play;

We seek the fair and distant bourne,

Thus dancing onward, wild and gay.

                          From ‘On the Sea’. 

But when she arrived in Australia, she found it hard to connect with the land and people. Storm in the Bush ought to be a set piece. Instead, we she gives us a storm that never,  in a literary sense, breaks: ‘’mid pallid shadows, gathering nigher/and threatening, muffled tones of ire’.

So it is, with Eva’s most remembered poem, Queensland:

There is no heart within thy breast, 

No classic charms of memory hoary,

No footprint hath of old Time imprest

On thee of song or story.

But in her own way, she begins to write a story of her own. “L.L.” is one of the early imaginings of that most famous of Australia’s lost explorers, Ludwig Leichhardt, which concentrates on the trail of the missing man. The Boomerang is a poem that finds it necessary to explain to its readers what a boomerang is. Eventually, she expresses a kind of nationalist vision for a federated Australia:

Australia Felix, born to name and fame

Onward to starry heights thy path doth tend…

And reach at length thy glorious destiny-

A place among the nations proud and free!

                           From ‘Ad Astra’.

Maybe it’s the use of the word ‘thy’ or the awkward scansion of ‘onward’ (when the simple word 'on' would have done just as well), or the need for the exclamation mark, but somehow this doesn’t ring as true as the early Irish poems. Is it a lack of sincerity ? Or is it the dedicated workings of a saddened, disappointed woman, transported through duty to a land she could not love? Now, that would be guessing.

Best book to buy: O’Doherty, E.M. Poems by “Eva” of the “Nation”, Dublin, M.T. Gill, 1909.

Select further reading: Patrick, R. and H., Exiles Undaunted The Irish rebels Kevin and Eva O’Doherty, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1989, Buckridge,P. 'Irish Poets in Colonial Brisbane: Mary Eva O'Doherty and Cornelius Moynihan', Queensland Review, Volume 8, No.2, November 2001, pp 29-40. 

[1] Cairns Post, Monday June 6, 1910, p7

[2] J McCarthy ‘Biographical Sketch’ in ‘Poems by “Eva of the Nation”’, Dublin, M.H.Gill and Sons. 1909, pxxi.