Narrandera’s John O’Brien Festival – the Australian festival of Word & Song

Mr Noel Stallard as "John O'Brien", has been a part of the festival almost from its inception, and it has been his life’s passion to perform and preserve the work of Fr Hartigan.

Fr Hartigan’s legacy lives on

The 23rd John O’Brien Festival will be held this weekend, a celebration of bush poetry, Narrandera’s history and, most importantly, the poems of Father Patrick Hartigan.

“I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping it’s going to be really good,” said Joan Graham, John O’Brien committee president. “I’m hoping the local community will really get behind it; we need everyone to support the festival.”

The festival will run from Friday March 16 to Sunday March 18, and will encompass performers, poetry, music, art and a street parade.

The festival celebrates the work of bush poet Fr Hartigan, who wrote poetry under the pseudonym “John O’Brien”.

According to Gwen Nielson, one of the original organisers of the festival, John O’Brien was the name of a local milkman who
would water down the milk; Fr Hartigan believed his offerings to be equally watered down.

“The good thing about bush poetry is that most of it is funny. I never really thought I like bush poetry until I heard it,” Mrs Graham said. “That’s the lovely thing; the festival is a chance to really get a good idea of what this kind of poetry is all about.”

John O’Brien’s poetry is often seen as an extension of the long tradition of ‘bush poets’ in the same vein as AB Paterson and Henry Lawson – as a young priest, Fr Hartigan gave the last rites to Jack Riley, believed to have been the inspiration for
Banjo Paterson’s “The Man From Snowy River”.

Fr Hartigan’s work is filled with a genuine affection for his subjects, with often Austin-like wry observations, particularly in the poem “Said Hanrahan”.

The weekend’s events will kick off with an Irish Luncheon at St Joseph’s Primary School, where festival favourites Noel Stallard
and Greg North will perform. Mr Stallard has been a part of the festival almost from its inception, and it has been his life’s passion to perform and preserve the work of Fr Hartigan.

“Father Hartigan had 27 years in Narrandera; it is Narrandera who needs to wave the flag and pick up the banner,” Mr Stallard said. “In all the time of the John O’Brien Festival, over 150,000 people have come to Narrandera. That’s like filling the SCG one and a half times.

“People know Narrandera as a place because of John O’Brien’s story. Narrandera doesn’t have any other person as significant.”

According to Mr Stallard, there is one thing that is unique to O’Brien’s poetry.

“One of my favourite poems is “The Little Irish Mother”. It’s a beautiful ode, both to Father Hartigan’s own mother but also to the strength of the pioneering women.

“When I first began to perform John O’Brien’s poetry, a woman called Julie Briggs showed me a research thesis by a local student, on women in pioneer poetry. This student had found that John O’Brien wrote more in praise of women than any other pioneer poet. More than Lawson, Paterson, CJ Dennis or Ogilvie. “”Josephine”, “The Little Irish Mother”, “Old Sister Paul”, “Laughing Mary”; there’s many that celebrate the efforts of early Australian women. It’s extraordinary, that this celibate priest would write with such praise of women.”

Fr Hartigan also originally submitted pieces and articles to The Bulletin under the pen name ‘Mary Ann’ in his youth.

The festival first began in 1994, the brainchild of Gwen Nielson and Julie Briggs.

“It was only Julie Briggs and I at the tourist centre,” Mrs Neilson said. “We were looking at things to promote Narrandera. We were given a poem written by a train guard – a local man who used to work on the postal deliveries. They’d sort the mail on the train on the way to Sydney.

“He wrote a poem called “The Town that Forgot”. Father Hartigan used to be a big name in Narrandera. We looked at it and
thought, this is a perfect idea for a festival. Folk festivals were all the rage then, so the first year it was the John O’Brien Folk Festival.”

The first year of the festival started modestly, with a barbeque lunch and a wood chopping exhibition.

“It grew into something quite big. The two things that kept it going was support from the shire and support from the community. There was not nearly as much red tape as there has been in the last decade. That just strangles things,” Mrs Nielson said.

Preserving a vital part of our history

The restored John O’Brien Heritage House will be open for the John O’Brien Festival after seven months of dedicated work from volunteers bringing it up to scratch. The house will be open to visitors during the festival, although its official opening will be on March 25 after the 9.30am Palm Sunday Mass.

The plan is to keep the museum open to the public after the festival. The house, which was originally the presbytery and has been now restored to its original use, was built in 1884.

“We’re not sure, but in about the 1920s they extended onto the other side of the house, so it’s now twice as big,” explained Father Bradley Rafter, the current Catholic priest of the Narrandera Parish. “So this is where the priest lived up until about 2006 – for well over 100 years. Then he moved down to the old convent and the place was kind of abandoned and converted into a museum for Father Hartigan’s poetry.”

Fr Rafter is now back living in the rectory, after encouragement from the community.

“The parishioners wanted me to come up here, because it has such history and it had been abandoned. We were given $50,000. We sold the Morundah church, and then our bishop gave us some money, and we were told to spend the money on this place.

“So we got all the quotes from the builder, the plumber, the electrician, the carpet guy. When these quotes were in it came to $49,800 – thank God!”

Half of the house was renovated to be brought back to an habitable state. The other half has been given over as a museum to
Fr Hartigan.

“That’s where Tony and Barbara Andracchio came in – they decided to start helping and they’ve done all of this. We’ve had donations from people, but Tony and Barbara have done all this work,” Fr Rafter said. “These two have worked so hard; I can’t stress that enough.”

Father Bradley Rafter, Barbara Andracchio, and her brother-inlaw Tony Andracchio.

In-laws Tony and Barbara have worked tirelessly for the last seven months to bring the house up to scratch. Rooms have been restored and repainted; furniture has had to be re-upholstered and many of the objects in the room were in desperate need of care and repair.

“The chapel was full of rubbish, full of stuff that had to be re-done,” Barbara said.

The duo have been devoting whatever time they had to the work.

“I think we started way back in August, doing it a bit at a time. Not every day, but a few hours whenever we had time to spare. Barbara has done a fantastic job, polishing all the furniture,” Mr Andracchio said. The new rooms include a completely restored study, which is now in the condition it would have been in while Fr Hartigan was in residence; a small chapel for reflection;
a completely restored bedroom and a fully furnished dining room.

“A lot of the things in the dining room were in very poor condition. So Barbara was taking it home at night and brassing it and polishing it. I can’t stress enough just how much hard work has gone into this,” Fr Rafter said. “It was a mess. It’s been seven months – every day, just chipping away.”

Fr Hartigan’s desk, which has been arranged almost exactly as he used it – framed photo of the man himself aside.

There are other parts of the restoration that have sprung up from the generosity of parishioners.

“All the renovations on the outside – the fences were falling down, the garage was falling down, the trees were rotten and dead –
another parishioner came to me and said, ‘Father, if you want to knock those fences down, build a new garage, pull those trees out, I’ll pay for it,’” Fr Rafter said. “Another parishioner said ‘I want to pay for all the paint; all the paintbrushes, all the rollers’. So Tony did most of the painting and my father used to come up and help, and I chipped in where I could, so that’s how all the
painting got done. It’s all voluntary, mostly Tony.

“Everything you see, inside and outside, has all been paid for by the generosity of people. It’s come from the parish.”

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