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Barbara Willard McNamara (1913–2000)

by Cheryl Taylor

This article was published online in 2024

Barbara McNamara, c.1960

Barbara McNamara, c.1960

Barbara Willard McNamara (1913–2000), writer, was born on 31 August 1913 at Dunedoo, New South Wales, eldest of three daughters of New South Wales-born parents Eric Edward Lowe, novelist and grazier, and his wife Nina, née Jeffreys, short-story writer. Named after Barbara Willard, her great-great-grandmother, who with her husband, Robert Lowe, was an early settler of New South Wales, Barbara began her childhood on her parents’ sheep property near Dunedoo. In 1921 the family moved to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. A timid girl, she was also a daydreamer and had an instinct for a good story, staging elaborate dramatic plays with her sisters. Both her father and her neighbour and friend, the novelist Eleanor Dark, encouraged her literary efforts.

During the 1930s Lowe studied art in Adelaide and at the Julian Ashton Art School, Sydney, before finding employment as a junior house mistress at Somerville House, Brisbane, an elite secondary school for girls. She subsequently worked as a governess for the Collins family at Spring Creek station, near Mount Surprise in Far North Queensland, where she met the head stockman Philip Birmingham McNamara. They married on 3 March 1942 at St John's Church of England in Cairns, Queensland. The following year, soon after the birth of their first child, they moved to Forest Home, a cattle station of 1,200 square miles (310,799 ha) on the Gilbert River in Queensland’s Gulf country, which Phil managed. They raised four children there: Robin, Anne, Helen, and David.

In 1958 McNamara published her first book, Steak for Breakfast; worried about its reception, she employed a pen-name, Elizabeth O’Conner. Written progressively over two years, it comprised a series of light-hearted reminiscences from her first six years at Forest Home. Praised for its wit, anguished humour, and iconic outback characters, it was a popular success, with several editions published between 1958 and 1984. It was also serialised in the Daily Telegraph, dramatised for radio by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1958–59), and adapted into a children’s book by Gail Holst-Warhaft in 1981. A sequel, A Second Helping (1969), would later be published to mixed reviews.

The family moved to Lyndhurst station near Einasleigh on the Atherton Tablelands in the late 1950s. There McNamara tried her hand at fiction. The genre gave full rein to her literary talent and gifts as an entertainer, and in 1960 she published The Irishman, which won the Miles Franklin award the same year. She was the first woman to win the prize. The book was inspired by her husband’s stories about his father, and told the story of the Doolan family, in particular an Irish teamster and his son, as they face the advent of motorised transport and the decline of gold mining in northern Queensland in the 1920s. Described as an epic, family melodrama, and tragedy, the book’s dust jacket bore Dark’s praise that McNamara had the ‘gift of conveying much in a few words; without elaborate analysis, she creates real people, and without overmuch description, she shows a vivid and authentic scene.’ The Irishman garnered new attention in 1978 when it was adapted to film (directed and written by David Crombie) to moderate acclaim. McNamara attended the Townsville and Sydney premieres, describing the adaptation as ‘a sensitive and accurate portrayal of the book’ (Smith, 1978, 14).

Following the success of her first two books, McNamara published Find a Woman (1963), The Chinee Bird (1966), and Spirit Man (1980). She also wrote short stories for magazines and published two romance novels, The Winds of Fate (1977) and Darling Caroline (1980), under the pen-name Anne Willard. The last of these was written in Cairns, where she retired after several years at Kangerong station near Charters Towers. Predeceased by her husband in 1984, she died from a heart attack on 6 May 2000 in the Mary Potter Nursing Home, Cairns, and was buried in the Atherton Lawn cemetery. She was survived by her four children.

Quietly spoken, with a fair complexion and dark short hair, McNamara did not believe herself to be the ‘pioneering type’ (McNamara 1978, 160). Yet for almost forty years she lived on outback stations and fell in love with the quiet beauty of the Gulf country, though a lifelong fear of feathers made visits to the fowl-house one of the great perils of her daily life. Following the example of her father, who published a trilogy about a pioneering family between 1938 and 1951, all her books took station and family life as their subjects. They also celebrated frontier and paternalist bush mythologies which, though often read uncritically by contemporaries, reproduced racist tropes about Aboriginal people. In the wake of progressive social change that began in the 1970s, her books were seen in a more critical light, surviving as portraits of the gendered, class, and racial inequalities that often governed station life.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Chalmers, Gillian. ‘When The Irishman Came to Town.’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 March 1978, 11
  • King, Jonathan. Obituary. Australian, 1 June 2000, 11
  • Musgrove, Nan. ‘She Writes Her Books after Afternoon Tea.’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 3 December 1958, 12
  • O’Conner, Elizabeth. ‘My Aunt’s Pigeons.’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 30 March 1966, 33, 67–70
  • Smith, Margaret. ‘Voice Of The Gulf Has Gift Of The Irish.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 1978, 14

Additional Resources

Citation details

Cheryl Taylor, 'McNamara, Barbara Willard (1913–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcnamara-barbara-willard-33182/text41398, published online 2024, accessed online 22 February 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Barbara McNamara, c.1960

Barbara McNamara, c.1960

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Lowe, Barbara Willard
  • O'Conner, Elizabeth
Birth

31 August, 1913
Dunedoo, New South Wales, Australia

Death

6 May, 2000 (aged 86)
Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Education
Occupation
Awards
Key Places
Workplaces