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Farrell, John (1851–1904)

by B. G. Andrews

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

John Farrell (1851-1904), poet and journalist, was born on 18 December 1851 at Buenos Aires, Argentina, the third son of Andrew Farrell (d.1897), chemist, and his wife Mary, née Parley (d.1862). His parents had migrated to South America from Dublin in 1847. Attracted by the goldfields the family arrived in Melbourne in 1852 and settled in the Loddon district, near Baringhup.

Farrell had little schooling and at 11 was on his father's farm, but he found time to read English poetry, to fiddle for the local Christy Minstrels and to share in recitation evenings, activities that were to influence his writing. At 19 he walked to Bendigo and worked in a brewery, then went gold digging at Darwin and cutting timber and droving in Queensland. In 1875 he returned to the family home but soon moved to Camperdown to manage a brewery. Still restless, he tried farming on a selection near Benalla but by 1878 he was again a brewer. For the next nine years he worked for Gulson's breweries at Albury as manager, then at Goulburn and from 1884 at Queanbeyan, where he was a partner in the branch and contributed to the Queanbeyan Age.

Later Farrell recalled that 'I never discovered or suspected that I had any literary faculty earlier than 1877', but while at Albury he contributed satirical verses to the local press; they were reissued as Ephemera: An Iliad of Albury in 1878. In 1882 Two Voices: A Fragmentary Poem appeared, with the first of Farrell's Bulletin contributions, including 'Jenny', a long verse narrative that ran for nearly a year. Farrell had only intended the first instalment as a specimen but 'Traill was in America, and in his absence John Haynes shoved it in, and I was bound in honour to go on supplying the copy from week to week'. Until 1889 Farrell was a regular Bulletin contributor of verse, and he is credited with its first story about Australian life and people: 'One Christmas Day' on 27 December 1884.

In January 1887 How He Died and Other Poems was published in Sydney and well reviewed; by November Farrell, now an 'unqualified and ardent believer' in Henry George, whose Progress and Poverty had converted him in 1884 to a strong belief in single tax, had left brewing and was in Lithgow editing the Lithgow Enterprise and Australian Land Nationaliser, one of the movement's earliest journals. By 1889 Farrell was editor of the Australian Standard in Sydney and wrote on 'The Philosophy of the Single Tax' for the Daily Telegraph between October 1889 and 1 February 1890; in March 1890 he accompanied George on a lecturing tour through three colonies. On his return he became editor of the Daily Telegraph but wisely decided that he could not manage a large daily; he resigned, although he continued until 1903 to write its leaders, to review books and as 'Niemand' to run a column. Farrell continued, too, his work as a single tax publicist: his Australian dispatches appeared in the New York Standard, while at home he contributed articles and poems to the Single Tax.

This grind of journalism prevented Farrell from writing much poetry after 1890, although 'Australia to England', praised by Kipling and recited by elocution students for years, was published in Sydney in 1897, and his 'Hymn of the Commonwealth' was sung by the choir massed in Centennial Park for the Federation inaugural celebrations. In 1903 Farrell began revising his poems for a new edition, but had not finished when he died in Sydney on 8 January 1904. He was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery, survived by his wife Elizabeth, née Watts, whom he had married in 1876, four sons and three daughters. His estate was valued at £827.

Later in 1904 a memorial volume of the poems, edited by Bertram Stevens, appeared as My Sundowner and Other Poems; it was reprinted as How He Died and Other Poems, though only three of the poems in the 1887 edition of How He Died were included. Despite his contemporary fame, Farrell is not a major Australian poet. Much of his topical satire is now dated, his verse narratives are stilted and his commemorative poems are excessively sentimental; he is more significant as an up-country reader of the Bulletin who responded, like the tentative Henry Lawson, to the magazine's encouragement to send in material. But Farrell knew his limitations: when asked once whether he had deserted the Muse, Farrell replied, 'I can't say I ever knew the lady'. To the virtue of humility he added compassion. At his death his friends remembered the rotund Irishman with his drooping moustache and a pipe that was seldom from his mouth but seldom lit, and remembered how his 'rich seducing brogue', his humour and his optimism had brightened dark days in the 1890s. Their tributes are aptly summarized on his gravestone:

Sleep Heart of Gold! 'Twas not in vain
You loved the struggling and the poor,
And taught, in sweet and strenuous strain
To battle and endure.
The lust of wealth, the pride of place,
Were not a light to guide thy feet,
But larger hopes and wider space
For hearts to beat.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Thomas (ed), The Early History of Baringhup (Bendigo, 1950)
  • B. Stevens, ‘John Farrell: Poet, Journalist, & Reformer’, New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, Aug 1904
  • G. Mackaness, ‘Gordon, Kendall and Farrell: Some Literary Curiosities’, Southerly, vol 11, no 1, 1950, pp 48-52
  • K. Levis, ‘The Role of the "Bulletin" in Indigenous Short-Story Writing During the Eighties and Nineties’, Southerly, vol 11, no 4, 1950, pp 220-30
  • Bulletin, 14 Jan 1904
  • Astley papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Farrell (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

B. G. Andrews, 'Farrell, John (1851–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/farrell-john-3501/text5379, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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