Bolters, Bushrangers & Duffers

Notes on the Songs by Edgar Waters (1965)

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(From Side One of the LP)
Moreton Bay
Jim Jones
The Cyprus Brig
Bold Jack Donahue



About a third of the convicts transported to Australia were born in Ireland; and, seemingly, Ireland supplied an even higher proportion of the poor free migrants who arrived here before the gold rushes of the 1850s. So it is hardly surprising that many of the bushrangers had Irish names, or that many of the bushranger and convict ballads are set to Irish melodies.

The penal settlement at Moreton Bay was a place of secondary punishment for convicts who had been found guilty of further crimes after their arrival in Australia. The discipline in such places was generally brutal. Captain Patrick Logan, the first commandant at Moreton Bay, was speared by Aborigines; it was said that they had been egged on by convicts, and it may be so. Logan was killed in 1830, and no doubt this song was made soon after his death. Ned Kelly knew the song and referred to it in the account and defence of his life which is known as The Jerilderie Letter.

Two or three slightly different versions of the song have found their way into print. Gary Shearston learnt the song from the singing of Simon MacDonald of Creswick in Victoria (from a tape recording made by members of the Folk Lore Society of Victoria). Simon MacDonald learnt it from an uncle. The melody is an Irish one, sometimes known as Youghal Harbour. Brendan Behan used it for one of his songs, The Royal Canal.

Erin - Ireland
circular sailing - a technical term in navigation; navigation by the arc of a great circle.
time places - presumably, places where convicts "served time".



It is a popular belief amongst Australians that poachers made up a large proportion of the convicts transported to Australia. In fact, the records show that only a handful of men were transported for poaching.

However, the numerous poaching songs of the English countryside - such as the well known Lincolnshire Poacher&emdash;show that poachers were often men of great spirit and daring cheerfully defying the law. It is not hard to see how such a man (after being transported to Australia) might remain defiant, but become bitter, and dream of joining the bushrangers.

This song was presumably first sung in the late 1820s, when Jack Donahue's gang was still at large. The words were preserved for us by Charles Macalister, who grew up in the southern highlands of New South Wales in the 1830s and 1840s. He printed the words in a book of reminiscences, Old Pioneering Days in the Sunny South, published in 1907, and said that it was a typical song of the convict days. Macalister did not print the melody, but said that it was Irish Molly O. It happens that, like many folk songs, Irish Molly O is sung to more than one tune, but when the Scottish singer Ewan MacColl recorded Jim Jones a few years ago, he chose this one. It seems to fit very well. Gary Shearston learnt the song from the singing of Ewan MacColl.

iron gang - convicts set to working in chains.


Bold Jack Donahue drawn after death by the famous Australian surveyor and explorer, Sir Thomas Mitchell.


Jack Donahue was a fairly typical convict transport in many ways. He came from one of the great cities of the British Isles, he was young and he seems to have been an habitual criminal . He was sentenced in Dublin in 1824 to be transported for seven years, for "intens to commit a felony." He arrived in Sydney in 1825, took to the bush for the first time in 1827, was captured and sentenced to death for robbing two carts with a mate. He escaped and took to the bush again becoming leader of a gang that ranged over the country between Sydney and the Blue Mountains. The police caught up with Donahue and two mates in 1830, and Donahue was killed in the fight.

The ballad about him was no doubt sung soon after this, and fat a long time, seems to have been the most widely sung of all the bushranger ballads, perhaps of all bush songs. Many different versions have been collected from singers in Australia. It spread to the British Isles, where it was printed on the ballad sheets sold in the streets, apparently in the 1860s. It was taken up by Irish-American music-hall singers in New York, and was sung by cowboys in Texas and fishermen and sailors in Nova Scotia. It became one of the most favoured ballads of Canadian lumberjacks and is still remembered amongst them today.

Gary Shearston learnt this version of the ballad from the singing of A.L. Lloyd, the English folklorist, who spent some time as a bush worker in New South Wales in the late 1920s. Lloyd first heard the ballad from Bob Bell, a rabbiter of Condobolin, New South Wales, and later added other verses from printed sources. The melody, naturally enough, is Irish. It is also used for a ballad which tells how Sean Hogan, an Irish Guerrilla fighter,was rescued from his English captors in 1919 -almost ninety years after Donahue was killed.

carabine - carbine.
dingo - Australian wild dog.



In 1829, prisoners on board the Cyprus brig - which was on its way from Hobart Town to Macquarie Harbour (a penal settlement on the Tasmanian Coast) - seized the ship, put the crew and guards on shore, and sailed for China. Most of the fugitives came to a sad end in the long run. There is a poem about the event, called The Seizure of the Cypress Brig in Recherche Bay, and thought to be the work of the Irish convict known as Frank the Poet.

This song shares most of its lines with that poem - though no-one can tell whether the song or the poem came first - but it borrows its first verse and melody from some version of Van Diemen's Land, which was probably the most widely-sung of the many British street ballads about transportation.

Gary Shearston learnt the song from the singing of J.H. Davies of Hobart, who was eighty-eight years old when he recorded the song in 1961 for the historian Lloyd Robson (who is the author of The Convict Settlers of Australia, one of the most important books about the convicts).

game act - a reference to the various laws which made the poaching of some kinds of game a heavily punished criminal offence.
brig - a type of sailing ship.

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