[Editor: This poem by John O’Brien was published in The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, 1954.]
The Old Home
’Twas when the crisis came to us, and failure was the prize
For toil that never shirked the task through all the weary years,
That we were forced to leave the home to which with silken ties
Our hearts, our hopes, our lives were bound in love and smiles and tears.
A simple old bush home it was, just rough-and-ready made;
And rough and ready hands forsooth, had ever builded thus;
No fancy touched its hard-drawn plan, nor round its angles played,
But it was snug and clean and good, and it was Home to us.
A humble old bush home it was, and humble folk were we,
Though wise in love and simple faith which soothe the lowly breast,
We envied no man’s rich estate or felt our poverty,
Because we were the clean of heart whom God had always blessed.
So round the cosy kitchen fire we sang our tender songs,
Or conned our tasks, or hearkened to the tales our elders told,
And knelt and said the Rosary to right the world’s sad wrongs,
And knew the angels guarded us as shepherds guard the fold.
I mind the day we drove away — a lad of summers ten,
Too young to say the hopeful word or lend the helping hand —
I still recall the heavy heart that ached within me then,
Too young to ease the load but not too young to understand.
The paddocks like a garden lawn stretched out beneath the trees,
The wild bush flowers were pink and blue and gold along the track,
The clover by the river bend was to the horses’ knees,
The ranges in their purple haze seemed fain to call us back.
The birds, how I remember them, their songs how well I knew,
The magpies and the butcher-birds, the wiree and the wren,
Sang on as though their hearts would break, and this was their adieu:
“God bless you all upon your way and bring you home again.”
On slow complaining soulless wheels we laboured up the rise,
And there beneath, a lonely thing, the old house silent lay:
A farewell glance — too well I saw the tears in Mother’s eyes —
Then down the other side we sped upon our weary way.
’Twas then in my breaking heart I made a boyish vow:
I vowed that when I grew a man and strength to work would come,
I’d work as never man had worked — no matter where or how —
To buy the old place back again and hand it on to Mum.
And then, I own, I had my dreams — and precious dreams they were —
I brought them out and fondled them, then folded them away,
I saw the tears which filled her eyes when I would make to her
A gallant speech which I rehearsed a dozen times a day.
And how she’d look, and what she’d say — the doubt, the big surprise —
I had them all set out in form, and happy thoughts aglow
Would stir the pulse and warm the blood to see her tear-wet eyes
That told the pride she could not speak; but that was years ago.
I’ve wandered many a mile since then and chance and change have come,
And other dreams and other cares have supped betimes with me,
And many a bird has warmed its brood above the grave where Mum
Was laid away in holy sleep beneath the wilga-tree.
Today I took the old road back, and, oh, the scene was fair,
And memories peeped from every bush and stump along the track;
The grass was to the horses’ flanks, and flowers were everywhere
And tossed their bonnets in the breeze to give me welcome back.
And, oh, the joy and, oh, the ache to hear the birds again!
The magpies warbled in the gums their well-remembered song —
The thrushes and the butcher-bird; but this was their refrain,
“His homing heart shall chastened be who tarries overlong.”
Ah, what the years have brushed aside and what they’ve brought, alas!
The little lad I used to be was driving with me now
Along the dappled winding road where oft he drove to Mass,
And here it was that he and I recalled that boyish vow.
My slowing pulse kept time with his, and held it beat for beat
What time we hastened up the rise, once more to gaze upon
The Mecca of a wanderer’s dream that peeped across the wheat;
But — ah, the chastened heart, indeed — the old bush home was gone.
A big brick house stood in its place, and everywhere was change;
Proud boastful wealth and social ways play “Lords and Ladies” now:
A stranger turned with eyes that pained to where the friendly range
Was sleeping in the afternoon with mists upon its brow.
To buy the old place back — the dream! No gold can buy the past;
The tender things that made it Home would not to auction come:
The gentle love, the peace, the trust — they’re garnered in at last
They’re treasured in that better home which God has made for Mum.
John O’Brien. The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954
fain = content/contented, glad/gladly, happy/happily, willing/willingly; desirous; eager, pleased, with pleasure; ready (also can be: obliged or required)
wiree = (wiry) a whistler (species of bird); in John O’Brien’s poem “The Little Irish Mother”, he explains what a wiree is, thus: Also known as the Chocolate Wiree (pronounced “wiry”): a very fine songster, called by ornithologists “Rufous-breasted Whistler.”
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