“Australia’s heroes of the past.” “The pantheon of the Southern Cross.” Lecture by Mr. R. D. Meagher, M.L.A. [23 April 1904]

[Editor: A report on a lecture given by Richard Denis Meagher. Published in The Northern Star, and Richmond and Tweed Rivers Advocate, 23 April 1904.]

“Australia’s heroes of the past.”

“The pantheon of the Southern Cross.”

Lecture by Mr. R. D. Meagher, M.L.A.

When His Worship the Mayor (Ald. Balmer) took the chair at the Federal Hall on Thursday evening last, about four hundred and fifty people (among whom were many ladies) were present to hear Mr. R. D. Meagher (State Member for the Tweed) deliver one of his popular and interesting lectures, entitled “Australia’s Heroes of the Past,” which may be said to be a national eulogium of the dauntless explorers who paved the way for the intrepid pioneers who settled on this great Island Continent. The lecture was in aid of the ladies’ furnishing fund for the Lismore Hospital.

The Mayor, in introducing the lecturer, said that during the visit of the Governor to Alstonville, Mr. Meagher was waited upon and asked to deliver a lecture. Unfortunately for us, Mr. Meagher’s presence was required in his own electorate, but he promised to accede to the request on the first opportunity. Now, however, Mr. Meagher found the time opportune, as he had been to Murwillumbah to open the Hospital there. He need only say that Mr. Meagher’s ability as a speaker was known throughout the length and breadth of this State. (Applause.)

Mr. Meagher on rising was greeted with applause. After a few introductory remarks he proceeded to say that in all countries of the world the names of the great benefactors of the human race are enshrined and cherished in the affectionate memory of a grateful people. Sculptors and artists by the breath and inspiration of genius, preserve and perpetuate the features and fame of these great ones, either in cold marble or glowing tinted canvas, and as the roll of centuries increase so the great doers of heroic deeds in peaceful triumphs are laid to sleep in some national burial place — whether it be Westminster Abbey or some grand Pantheon, with all the funereal pageantry and ceremonial pomp that human sentiment can command or pay. Those mighty ones, who with their pens have moved the world to tears and laughter, those titanic units who left their country better than they found it, be they poets, statesmen, or warriors, are laid to rest with their memory in the safe keeping of those countless numbers whom their deeds or words have touched, charmed and blessed.

Here in our secluded Island Continent, encircled in placid southern seas, we have no Pantheon, though that Australian Statesman, the late Sir Henry Parkes, suggested Centennial Park as a suitable location for such a majestic edifice. Some saturnine critics have remarked we are too young for such a project, as we have no history, no heroes. The title of his lecture precluded him from passing in review the valorous deeds and vigorous assistance rendered by our brethren to the cause of Empire and Britannic predominance in South Africa, demonstrating to the world that after all there is no difference in fibre between old England and the new.

That night he had to deal with the deeds of men who lived when science had not challenged space and distance with telegraph and railways, or as Lawson said, “in the days when the world was wide” — to deal with men whose daily movements were not chronicled with a swarm of newspaper correspondents, affording reading matter to the breakfast tables of countless thousands, nor whose heroism was awaiting the ready approbation of enthusiastic millions under the limelight of martial glory, but of men who, in the silence of a dark continent, were beleaguered with the gaunt and ruthless legions of want, thirst and treacherous savages — who were girded round with the fires of necessity — fires fiercer than those which spout from roaring artillery or rage along embattled lines — the men who gallantly faced every feverish-winged morning’s light, and every fainting evening’s watch — some, indeed, staggered back into the confines of civilisation; others located by strangers of after years in the bleached skeletons in the wilderness, with perhaps some buried pocket book, where brief messages told the last gallant struggle of one who, in his day, without clarion-like advertisement, in an unostentatious way helped to build the glory of the Empire. (Applause).

He was afraid that the heroes of Australia were little remembered, but it was well that they should not forget those who, in the dark days of the past, penetrated the ravines of gaunt and gloomy mountain ranges, scaled impregnable barricades of rock-crossed arid wastes of desert and desolation, fighting alike drought, hunger, disease, and hostile savages, to open up the land that we to-day enjoy in security, comfort and happiness.

After rendering in splendid voice Marcus Clark’s (the great Australian novelist) graphic description of Australian bush, in a comparison made with other portions of the globe, Mr. Meagher observed, in graphic words, that “it was into this wild dreamland of desolation that our explorers, with hearts of steel, first burst, and gave us what we to-day enjoy,” and he paid an appropriate tribute to them by reciting in good form a poem given to him by an Oxford graduate who was a rouseabout on a station on the Darling.

Proceeding, the speaker said they to-day surveyed their cities, cultivated fields, and broad pastures; their immense pastoral and mineral wealth, the forests of masts in their harbours, the pulsations of industrial and commercial life, and could hardly realise that scarcely a hundred years ago in this very harbor Dr. E. Darwin (father of the gifted scientist the great Charles Darwin), from the deck of his vessel, as he surveyed the undulating thickly wooded hills which run down to Sydney Harbor, composed his prophetic poem “Hope’s Visit to Sydney Cove.” This the speaker recited in a masterly manner. He said the foresight of the poet could best be appreciated in the light of history.

Mr. Meagher then gave a brief review of the work of the Australian explorers from the time that Captain Cook first placed his foot on Australian soil at Botany Bay, at a most eventful epoch — ten years before the French Revolution burst upon the world, and ten years after King George of England had sacrificed his American Colonies on the altar of what the speaker tersely designated “Kingly stupidity” — up to that of Burke and Wills.

Mr. Meagher next referred to the explorations of Bass and Flinders in an open boat, Captain French (who discovered Nepean in 1789), the triumvirate William C. Wentworth (patriot and statesman 1813), and Blaxland and Lawson (who crossed the Blue Mountains), Deputy Surveyor Evans (discoverer of the Lachlan and Marquarie), Allan Cunningham (botanist, who discovered the Gwydir or Namoi River and Darling Downs), Captain Sturt’s expedition to the Interior (1828), Hamilton Hume’s expedition, Lieutenant Collins and Port Phillip, Hume and Hovell (1834), Major Mitchell’s journey to the Darling (1838), Lieutenant Grey’s (afterwards Sir George Grey) expedition to the N. W. portion of Australia (1838.)

“Now we come,” said Mr. Meagher, “to one of the bravest in the glorious roll of Australian explorers, E. J. Eyre, who in 1838 made an attempt to reach West Australia from Adelaide, but was compelled to return.” He referred to Eyre’s next attempts in 1830 and again in 1840, and passed on to the unfortunate Leichhardt, who left Mount Abundance over 50 years ago and who, with his party, was never found.

Then followed Kennedy (1848) who tried to cross York Peninsula to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the lecturer paid a touching tribute to the faithfulness of Jacky Jacky, and said he hoped the aboriginal’s pathetic words when his master was dying, would yet form the theme for verse from some future poet.

Mr. Meagher detailed Burke and Wills’ journey (18060), and their tragic end. He also spoke of M’Dowal, Stuart, and King’s good work. The lecturer next recited A. L. Gordon’s poem “Give,” which deals with the monument erected to the memory of the ill-fated explorers.

He concluded by saying that if he had awakened and reverberated the distant echoes of the grand pioneers of the past, if he had made the fire of their dauntless deeds burn brightly in the living embers of a new generation, he would feel his humble efforts had not been in vain. They must feel that in their day these undaunted explorers and intrepid pioneers had done much for the flag, and that the generous Australian heart, pulsating always with throbs of admiration for that which is manly, noble, and heroic, will always keep enshrined in cherished memory and veneration those stout hearts whose self-sacrificing deeds time will not obscure; and when the generations in the womb of futurity unfold their countless millions over the face of this great Continent, those terrible trials and untold sufferings he had narrated will not and cannot be forgotten.

They were proud of their Commonwealth and its symbol, the national flag. If, as a great orator once said, “the flag is the illuminating diploma of a nation’s authority, the epilarnization of a nation’s history,” then within every furl of that flag — the flag of federated Australia, proudly waving and kissed by the ambient zephyrs of their southern sky, acting as a meteor of peace, love and progress to their human brethren — then enveloped in every furl of that flag shall be the glory of Australia’s heroes and their brave deeds through the ages living in historic pages will brighter glow and gleam immortal and unconsumed by moth or rust. (Loud applause).

Alderman Lockett, President of the Hospital, moved a very hearty vote of thanks to Mr. Meagher for his interesting and intellectual speech, which had been enjoyed by all. He referred to the kindness of Mr. Meagher in coming such a long distance and giving the lecture in aid of so noble an institution as a hospital. (Applause). The audience must be pleased, and the thanks of the community are due to Mr. Meagher. The institution was badly in need of assistance at the present juncture. They had just erected a new building, and it was necessary to furnish it. The funds were about exhausted, not only for building, but for carrying on the work, and they needed some £1000 or £1100 to last till the end of the year. He asked them to carry the vote by hearty acclamation.

Alderman Quilty seconded the motion in similar strains.

Mr. Meagher, in acknowledging the vote, said it had been to him a labor of love. The hospital was an institution of the highest possible order in a district where they had material progress, and it was a pleasant task to help that which awakened sympathy and tended to the elevation of humanity. He joined with them in appreciating the work of the ladies of the Tweed and Lismore. He was only too pleased when he had the opportunity to place his services at the disposal of objects of a similar character. The best vote of thanks they could pass was the patient hearing he had. Lectures were usually “dry,” but the fact that none of his audience disappeared was the highest compliment they could pay him. He proposed a vote of thanks to the Mayor for presiding, and asked them to carry it by acclamation.

The vote was briefly acknowledged, and the proceedings terminated.

Mr. Meagher’s lecture was interspersed with recitations, poetic gems from Australian poets, and several of these, notably “Christmas Creek” (Kendall), and “Clancy of the Overflow,” were given in a masterly manner, and brightened the address, which was punctuated with much applause. The lecture, of which the foregoing is a mere outline, was an able production, sympathetic, and couched in eloquent, rhythmic language.

Mr. Meagher left for Sydney via Brisbane by the morning train yesterday.

The Northern Star, and Richmond and Tweed Rivers Advocate (Lismore, NSW), 23 April 1904, p. 4

Editor’s notes:
Ald. = Alderman

gird = surround; to encircle or bind with a band or belt; to fasten or secure with a band or belt (used in the expression “gird your loins”, i.e. to put on or tighten your belt, in order to prepare for an effort needing endurance or strength)

M.L.A. = Member of the Legislative Assembly

saturnine = gloomy, melancholic, sullen, surly; dark in colour; mysterious; slow, sluggish (a reference to the supposed effects of being under influence the influence of the planet Saturn, which was regarded in earlier times as the planet furthest from the Sun and therefore cold in temperature and slow in its planetary revolutions

zephyr = a breeze from the west, especially a gentle breeze (from Zephyrus, or Zephyr, god of the west wind in Greek mythology)

[Editor: Corrected “illfated” to “ill-fated”; “A. L Gordon’s poem” to “A. L. Gordon’s poem” (added a full stop after “A. L”).]

[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]

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