James Sweeney (1875-?)
Roving Irish verse peddler.
In the years between the first and second world wars, a small number of men made their living in Queensland, by writing and selling their own verse. James Sweeney was one of these.
Sweeney was born in Ballynew, County Galway, Ireland, in 1875. Little is known of his life until he migrated to Queensland in 1930, at the age of 54. He seems to have lived in the South Burnett region until around 1935, when his first volume of poetry ‘Original Verse’ was published.
Despite its name, Original Verse is a thoroughly conventional book, written in a style familiar to those who have read the bush ballads. It deals with many local and Queensland topics, including the Proston Sports Day, the drought, the end of the drought, a Swagman’s opinion of politics, etc. It also deals with Irish subject matter ('Beauties of Galway'), patriotic matters, ('National Anthem') light topics (‘The Old White Cow’) and international affairs (‘The Conference at Lausanne’).
As most poetry readers know, it is generally easier to buy a first edition of a book of Australian poetry than to buy a second edition. But Original Verse is an exception to this. It went through at least 3 editions under this title, each time slightly expanded. Then, in 1937, the book was further expanded and rebadged for a wider market as ‘Original Australian Verse’ and in that form it was printed several times more by a number of printers. By the second world war it had almost doubled in size, and contained war poetry:
‘Better sleep in valour’s grave
than be enslaved ‘neath Nippon’s laws’
(From ‘A Battle Cry’).
Perhaps in an effort to meet a wider market, the later editions included a wider geographical spread (‘Old Man Murray’) and it even introduced something that might have been product placement:
‘A boon to all travellers who can’t get a car,
The cream of the market is the “Malvern Star.”’
(From ‘The Malvern Star’)
Of course we can only speculate now as to why these books were so popular. The poems are simple, easily remembered and generally light hearted pieces that employ (sometimes erratically) a popular ballad metre, and all of this must have made the books saleable. But they also tap into the fondness for Irish folk poetry that is intuitively familiar to so many Australians. So, Sweeney writes of Clew Bay, in County Mayo (where St Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland):
‘In youthful days I climbed the Reek with companions young and gay,
And thousands of pious pilgrims – Oh, how they knelt to pray!
To offer up their thought to God, that from Him they may not stray,
On that lofty peak, St Patrick’s Reek, that towers o’er Clew Bay.’
(From ‘Clew Bay’)
Some 60 years later an Irish folk pop band, ‘The Saw Doctors’ wrote:
From its rolling coastal waters I can see Croagh Patrick’s peak
Where one Sunday every summer the pilgrims climb the reek
Where St Patrick in his solitude looked down across Clew Bay
With a ringing of his bell called the faithful there to pray.
(From ‘The Green and Red of Mayo’)
They are both drawing from the same well, and it’s a well with which many in Queensland are familiar.
Sweeney returned to Ireland in July 1945, after the victory in Europe, but before peace with Japan. Nothing more is known of him.
Best book to buy: J.Sweeney: Original Australian Verse, Sydney, Tomalin and Wigmore, c 1943.