By Martin Gleeson
Percy French (pictured below)worked as a civil engineer for the Board of Works in County Cavan from 1881 to 1887. He often described himself as a ‘surveyor of drains’. When he needed to be transported to examine works in progress, Paddy Reilly was his coach driver (jarvey).
We have just a few facts about Paddy Reilly. It seems he was an impetuous man. His business of coach driving came to an end on the day he drove his two horses to Carrick-on Shannon Railway Station and boarded the train to Dublin, leaving the horses and cart behind.
He then travelled to Scotland where he worked for a number of years (a legend grew that the horses spent the rest of their lives trotting around Ireland looking for Paddy Reilly, and that is a lovely story!)
Now Paddy Reilly was one of the few that did come back to Ballyjamesduff, where he spent the rest of his life. He is buried there in St. Joseph’s Cemetery.
His daughter Bridget said that her father had little interest in the song when he heard it. He looked on Percy French as just another fare. Remember that this song was not written until 1912, many years after the two had known each other. It is obvious that this is not a love song but one that laments the heartbreak of emigration. French empathised with the large numbers affected by emigration from this country.
The bronze statue of him in the square of Ballyjamesduff, just like this song, is a reminder of the thousands that did not come back.
Dan Sheahan and his brother Ben left Barleyhill, Newmarket, Co. Cork, in 1904, to emigrate to Australia. Dan was the eldest of a family of 14. When they arrived in Melbourne, they worked in the city for a few years but preferred the countryside, and moved to New South Wales where they bought 600 acres of land. In 1915, Dan joined the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Forces, and became a machine gunner. He saw active service in France and Flanders and was at the Battles of the Somme and Messine. He wrote several poems while in the trenches.
After the war, using the £75 from his deferred soldier’s pay, he bought 40 hectares of land in Queensland. He cleared this land and became a sugar cane farmer. He married a girl, Molly Walsh, from Co. Limerick and started a family. Dan continued writing poetry and often his letters home were in verse. In time his poems earned him the title ‘Bush Balladist’.
In 1943, Dan rode his horse 20 miles to the town of Ingham to have a drink in the Day Dawn Hotel. This was during the War, and beer was rationed. A group of American servicemen en route from Brisbane to Port Moresby had stopped there on the previous night and had drunk the whole quota. Dan’s journey was in vain and he had to do with a glass of tepid wine! He went to the back of the bar and wrote a poem which contains these lines:
IT IS LONELY AWAY FROM YOUR KINDRED AND ALL
IN THE BUSHLAND AT NIGHT WHERE THE WILD WARRIGALS CALL.
BUT THERE’S NOTHIN’ ON EARTH HALF AS LONELY AND DREAR
AS TO STAND IN THE BAR OF A PUB WITH NO BEER.
The poem was published the following year in a local newspaper The North Queensland Register.
Many years later Gordon Parsons adapted this poem to produce the song as we know it. In 1957, Slim Dusty’s version of the song became the first Australian single to become an international pop hit.
Dan Sheahan (pictured) died in 1977 aged 95. Dan’s son Shaun unveiled a plaque to commemorate the writing of the poem in Ingham in December 1988.