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O'Dowd, Bernard Patrick (1866–1953)

by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Bernard Patrick O'Dowd (1866-1953), by Will Rowell, c1930

Bernard Patrick O'Dowd (1866-1953), by Will Rowell, c1930

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12002126

Bernard Patrick O'Dowd (1866-1953), poet, radical and parliamentary draughtsman, was born on 11 April 1866 at Beaufort, Victoria, son of Bernard Dowd, constable, and his wife Ann Dowell, née Mulholland. Both parents were Catholic migrants from Ulster, preoccupied with Irish legend and Celtic ancestry. Bernard, their eldest son, was educated at Pennell's private school at Beaufort, Snake Valley State School, and Soldiers' Hill and Mount Pleasant State schools, Ballarat. Unlike his brothers and sisters, he was not sent to Catholic schools, in the hope that he would win one of the eight exhibitions which paid secondary school and university fees for six years. At 14 he won his exhibition, matriculated and moved to Grenville College, Ballarat, from which he passed first-year arts at the University of Melbourne. While at Ballarat he was one of three students selected to meet the Irish rebels John and William Redmond.

After his father had been kicked by a horse, Barney O'Dowd was obliged to earn his living and, at 17, was offered the 'headmastership' of St Alipius' school at Ballarat. His increasing secularism and scientism led to his being dismissed from this post and in 1884 he opened a school at Beaufort. A Ballarat journalist Thomas Bury ('Tom Touchstone') encouraged him to publish his verse in the Ballarat Courier and introduced him to the poetry of Walt Whitman, a lifelong influence. Late in 1885 O'Dowd passed the public service examinations and entered the Crown Solicitor's Office in Melbourne. In 1888 he resumed university studies (B.A., 1891; LL.B., 1895), in effect as an external student, and won second-class honours in logic and philosophy in 1891.

O'Dowd soon revealed an abiding interest in joining innumerable clubs and societies: literary, secular, religious or radically political. One such was the Melbourne Progressive Lyceum. In 1888 he edited The Australasian Secular Association Lyceum Tutor, an anthology which included many contributions of his own; on 25 October 1889 he married Evangeline Mina Fryer, daughter of the conductor of the lyceum. In their Carlton home they established a weekly discussion club, the Australeum, with secular and Whitmanesque inclinations. In March 1890 O'Dowd embarked on a short-lived but impassioned correspondence with the aged Whitman. This was a milestone in his life. George Higinbotham was another inspiration, Francis Longmore and Marshall-Hall were important influences, and the anarchist J. A. Andrews was a close friend.

On first contributing to the Bulletin in 1894, O'Dowd made contact with A. G. Stephens, who was to inform him, 'Well, there's one thing you lack, … and that's a sense of humour'. O'Dowd's most remarkable poem, the sonnet 'Australia', was a 'Red Page' prizewinner in 1900. At this time he also met Sydney Jephcott, one of two Australian poets who were to play lasting parts in O'Dowd's life. The other was the lyric poet Marie Pitt whom he met in 1907 and for whom he left his wife in 1920.

On 2 October 1897 O'Dowd and two colleagues published the first number of a radical weekly, the Tocsin, associated with the United Labor Party. (He marched on May Day.) In this paper he wrote a regular column as 'Gavah the Blacksmith'. At the time of Federation he posed the question, 'Does Australia have a soul?' His 1902 Tocsin pamphlet, Conscience and Democracy, was at once opposed to the South African War and expressive of a fear of mob rule, an anxiety which always played a part in his 'Young Democracy'. Typically, O'Dowd's sons were always expected to address him as 'mate'.

Dawnward? (1903) established O'Dowd's identity as a radical poet. His beliefs were in flux, and in an author's note to this book he announced that he had 'returned to Christianity', a provisional assertion. The Melbourne publisher Thomas Lothian brought out The Silent Land (1906) and four other books of verse by 1912. Lothian also published in 1909 his central statement of artistic purpose, the pamphlet, Poetry Militant, which had been ardently delivered as a lecture to the Literature Society of Melbourne that winter. It includes his central claim that 'in every age of human progress the poet has been the most authentic and effective creator of gods and of the mythologies that give them blood and bone and power'. Katharine Susannah Prichard left the lecture 'almost too exalted and exhilarated to speak'. Nettie Palmer similarly found him inspiring, especially for his belief in a better future for humankind, a sage. (Sir) Walter Murdoch, who was associated with him in producing The Trident and as a member of the Boobooks, remembered him as looking like an 'Irish Messiah' and 'of all the men I have ever known … the most eloquent in private conversation'.

The Bush (1912) was a single long poem couched in the deliberately mixed diction which was a hallmark of O'Dowd's verse, and an aspect of his conscious, eclectic design. In this large poem he could give his Whitmanian appetite room to gather its materials and bring the theme of eternal recurrence to bear on an Australian image. Of Australia, he declared, 'She is a prophecy to be fulfilled!' This work remains the most important basis for his literary reputation, treating the national landscape as profoundly numinous. His last separate volume was Alma Venus! (1921) which turned to sexual drives and the female principle. A celebration in couplets of Venus Pandemos and Uranian Venus, approximately Eros and agape, it generated a sceptical response from reviewers. In retrospect, however, it has become plain that changing conceptions of the role of sexual love in human lives were a powerful dynamic of O'Dowd's poetry. At every stage, his poems were limited in their general appeal by an Olympian diction that could seem knobbly, contorted, arcane and devastatingly abstract.

Over the years, O'Dowd's official career had remained intriguingly distinct from his poetic and political avocations. In his fiery private capacity he had joined the Theosophical Society, Dr Charles Strong's Australian Church and, later, Frederick Sinclaire's Free Religious Fellowship. Active as a lecturer in the Victorian Socialist League from about 1900, he was a foundation member of the Victorian Socialist Party in 1905. In 1907 he founded the Essendon Socialist Group and in 1912-13 assisted in editing the Socialist. One of his colleagues in the V.S.P. was John Curtin. In 1912 he denounced the White Australia policy as 'unbrotherly, undemocratic and unscientific'. In 1913 O'Dowd was president of the Victorian Rationalist Association. On the official side, he had been appointed, 'on loan', assistant librarian in the Supreme Court, Melbourne, in 1887. From the mid-1890s he had written and edited—sometimes ghosted—several law books. In 1913 he became first assistant parliamentary draughtsman. Brooding subsequently on the drying up of his poetry, he was to write that 'The Muse of Lawmaking is a jealous lass'. On the other hand, members of parliament were to assert that his work as a draughtsman gave Victorian Acts 'a classical character'. In 1931-35 he was State parliamentary draughtsman.

During his latter years, although he had virtually ceased writing poetry, O'Dowd was very much the visible poet, addressing meetings, writing verses for public occasions and receiving literary visitors at the home which he shared with Marie Pitt at Northcote. His verse-readings, with hand or foot beating emphatic time, were famous. Remembered as 'tall, thin and pale, with bright gingery hair' and a 'flaming red beard' in his youth, in old age he remained ascetic-featured with a moustache but no beard and alert eyes behind his spectacles. In 1934 O'Dowd declined an offer from the prime minister J. A. Lyons of a knighthood; he kept this refusal secret for years afterwards so that no one might think he was making capital out of it. He emerged from retirement to work as a communications censor during World War II. A collected edition of his poems, introduced by Walter Murdoch, was published in 1941.

O'Dowd's restless and, as he would have insisted, Celtic energies lasted him through to the end, despite Marie Pitt's death in 1948. In 1952 he broke a long poetic silence by producing two poems for the centenary of Australian Unitarianism. One of them included the hope 'That we shall see our dream of Oneness realized'. His optimism about human destiny had never failed. He died on 1 September 1953 and was cremated with a Unitarian ceremony. His estranged wife (whom he had continued to support) and their five sons survived him. There is a plaque to his memory in the Ballarat Municipal Library and a bronze bust by Web Gilbert is in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Kennedy and N. Palmer, Bernard O'Dowd (Melb, 1954)
  • H. Anderson, Bernard O'Dowd (1866-1953: An Annotated Bibliography) (Syd, 1963)
  • H. Anderson, Bernard O'Dowd (NY, 1968)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 12, no 4, 1953, 14, no 1, 1955
  • Overland, 1962, no 1
  • Recorder, 2, no 1, 1966, no 81, 1976
  • P. Serle, Autobiography (State Library of Victoria)
  • Pitt papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • O'Dowd manuscripts (State Library of Victoria)
  • O'Dowd papers (State Library of Victoria and National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Chris Wallace-Crabbe, 'O'Dowd, Bernard Patrick (1866–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/odowd-bernard-patrick-7881/text13701, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Bernard Patrick O'Dowd (1866-1953), by Will Rowell, c1930

Bernard Patrick O'Dowd (1866-1953), by Will Rowell, c1930

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12002126