Monthly Archives: January 2014

Waltzing Matilda. A tale of love and murder?

A small village in the north-west corner of Ireland, the U.S  Marines, a dead sheep, mighty battle maidens! An unlikely combination, yet they are inextricably linked in the oddest of forms – an Australian bush ‘ditty’ that has become known and recognized the world over. The ‘ditty’ is Waltzing Matilda,the unofficial National Anthem of Australia, sung very proudly on many occasions, and one of the most recorded songs worldwide.


Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

Waltzing Matilda was written by Andrew Barton Paterson, (1864–1941). Otherwise known as ”Banjo” Paterson, he was a prolific Australian poet, journalist and author.The nickname ‘Banjo’ came from one of  his favourite horses – he wrote bush poems under the pseudonym ‘The Banjo’ for some time. Banjo’s great-great grandfather was General Charles Barton of Waterfoot, near the small village of Pettigo, Co Donegal, Ireland. The Bartons were a well-to-do family with a record of military service. General Charles Barton’s son Robert, had a daughter Rose Isabella who married Andrew Paterson and Banjo was their son, the ‘Barton’ part  of his name coming from his mother’s family.

Banjo Patterson was engaged to Sarah Riley for about 8 years. On a visit to the Dagworth sheep farm in Western Queensland  in January 1895, Banjo met Sarah’s friend, Christina MacPherson. Christina introduced Banjo to the tune ‘The Craigielee March’ which was a variant of a Scottish song , and he then wrote the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda to fit the tune.

The song that is familiar to us is something like this:

”Once a jolly swagman (a travelling worker who carried his possessions in a swag, or cloth) camped by a billabong (a water hole)
Under the shade of a coolibah tree, (a type of  Eucalyptus tree)
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy (a tin can) boiled:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Down came a jumbuck (sheep) to drink at that billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker (food) bag:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me”,
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Up rode the squatter (land holder), mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers (police), one, two, and three.
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me”,
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me”,
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

‘Swagman’, ‘billabong’  ‘coolibah’ ‘jumbuck’ – such strange words yet they trip off our tongues the world over. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is probably derived from the German ‘auf der walz’ which means ‘to take to the road’, while ‘Matilda’ was the name  given to female camp followers who accompanied soldiers during the Thirty Year wars in Europe. ‘Matilda’ came to mean ‘to be kept warm at night’ and later to refer to great army coats or blankets that soldiers used. These were rolled into a swag and tossed over a shoulder while marching. The meaning of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ evolved into going  walkabout with the tools of your trade.

The song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ tells the tale of a swagman and petty thief  who stole a young sheep and to avoid capture  jumped  into a billabong.  In the 1890s there was widespread industrial unrest among Australian sheep shearers,reportedly akin to civil war in some places. Having no fixed abode and  unable to vote, trade union membership  gave the shearers a voice. When improved pay rates were demanded, sheepowners  brought  non-union labour in to replace them and widespread trouble erupted, with shootings and burning of buildings. In 1894 at Dagworth Station in Queensland, sheds were burned down and sheep were burned alive. Hoffmesiter was found dead and the story was that he had committed suicide. Some months later, in January 1895, Banjo Patterson visited Dagworth Station, owned by the MacPherson family . His fiancée Sarah accompanied him – she was a close friend of Christina MacPherson.

In his book, ‘Waltzing Matilda – the secret history of Australia’s favourite song‘ author and songster Dennis O’Keeffe tells us that 20 years of research have led him to believe that Waltzing Matilda is a song with 2 stories: political comment on the Shearers strike on one hand, while  the chorus is a flirtatious reference to Christine as the pair had become romantically involved during the visit.


Waltzing Matilda manuscript. Image Wikimedia Commons.

In this manuscript, the lyrics  have ”Matilda, my darling.” O’Keeffe says that this is a reference to Christina. Another manuscript he has inspected has the line ‘Who’ll come roving Australia with me’, and the words  ‘roving Australia’ have been crossed out and replaced with ‘waltzing Matilda’. The love affair between Banjo and Paterson, in the presence of Sarah,caused a great scandal and caused heartache and deep embarrassment to all three of them. Paterson  had to leave Dagworth in disgrace. O’Keeffe goes so far as to say that it  ‘ruined the lives’ of the two women, who never married. The scandal also caused Paterson to distance himself from the song for many years afterwards.

O’Keeffe has researched the events at the billabong on the Dagworth sheep farm and has discovered that  Hoffmeister , who was a union shearer, torched a sheep shed at Dagworth resulting in the deaths of about 150 sheep.  The following day Hoffmesister’s body was found near a billabong. He had gunshot wounds. The inquest brought in a verdict of suicide  but O’ Keeffe  thinks that he was  more than likely murdered by policemen and that  there was a cover-up.  The theory is contested, but in general there seems to be agreement that the song is a political commentary on the shearers strike at that time.

Notwithstanding the darker side of the story of Waltzing Matilda it is a rousing song  that is sung with great gusto.  The lyrics were altered in 1903 when it was used in an advertising campaign for Billy’s Tea. It was this advertising campaign that led to it becoming widely known.

Waltzing Matilda became an anthem and battle cry in  the 2nd world war . The story is told of a platoon of Australian soldiers who were pinned down by the Japanese, but in a last corageous act he Australian soldiers sand Waltzing Matilda as they charged to their deaths. After  a 6 month-long struggle against the Japanese at Guadalcanal and Tulagi, and after taking over 3,000 casualties, the 1st Division  US Marines were sent to Australia for rest and recovery. It was here that they heard ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and immediately adopted it as their marching song. To this day ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is  played as the US marines are being shipped out.

A jolly ditty, a stirring marching song, a national anthem, a tragic love story, industrial turmoil,  a political comment, a murder story or a suicide, – regardless of  its origins Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda is loved the world over and its true meaning has probably been lost in the mists of time.

References :

Waltzing Matilda – the secret history of Australia’s favourite songby Dennis O’Keeffe.




Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish Australian

Postcards from Kells, County Meath, Ireland

As we huddle and shiver our way through an Irish winter, it is a perfect time to recall the sunnier warmer lazier days of summer. At the winter solstice here in Ireland, we just about make 7 and a half hours of daylight, but in reality it seems much shorter under our wet leaden skies. Come January we can already see a ‘stretch’ in the evenings and we  can look forward to the heady days of midsummer that stretch out to a magnificent 17 hours of daylight. The longer days of summer are great for taking  day trips to discover unexplored  parts of Ireland. As a native Irish person living in Ireland,the ‘hidden Ireland’ never ceases to amaze me. I am often reminded of an Irish Tourist Board television advertising campaign from some years ago, for the domestic market  that had as a buyline: ‘You haven’t seen the half of it.’ I certainly have not, but I am working on it !

So to brighten these dark cold days, I am looking back at activities and intended posts that never saw the light of day. And where better to start than in the historic and very attractive little town of Kells in County Meath, possibly one of the oldest continuously settled places in Ireland. The name is familiar to many, because one of Ireland’s major cultural treasures and our most visited tourist attraction, The Book of Kells, takes its name from an Abbey in the town where it was kept for hundreds of years.  The Book of Kells is a 9th Century elaborately illuminated manuscript of the 4 Gospels. (This wonderful treasure is on permanent display at Trinity College Library, Dublin, where it has been held since 1661, much to the chagrin of some of the Kells locals.)

There is far more to Kells than the Book it does not have, for it has some of the most striking and unique  features of any town in Ireland, ranging from modern sculpture to Georgian buildings to ancient High Crosses and monastic remains. On the day I visited I was lucky enough to see much of what Kells has to offer.


The sculpture “Angel of the Past” is by a local artist, Patrick Morris, carved from a sycamore tree which stood here when Charles Stewart Parnell addressed the people of Kells about land rights for Irish tenants and Home Rule.

The sculpture “Angel of the Past” is by a local artist, Patrick Morris, carved from a sycamore tree which stood here when Charles Stewart Parnell (1846 – 1891) addressed the people of Kells about land rights for Irish tenants and Home Rule.

Just behind the sculpture, which stands in the Parnell memorial garden, is a symmetrical building which turns out to be a pair of schools – one for boys, one for girls. These were built  in 1840 by the generosity of  Catherine Dempsey, who bequeathed her entire fortune to the education and clothing of  poor children of the area.

Kells has some fine Georgian houses – many of which seem to be in use as private homes. I was particularly taken by some of the lovely door knockers!

Also in the main street is a very ornate drinking fountain, erected to the memory of a beloved spouse.

Kells is an ancient town where St Colmcille (or St Columba) established a monastery  in the 6th century. He was then exiled and he set up a monastery on the Scottish Island of Iona. It is thought that the Book of Kells was begun on Iona, and brought to Kells later when the monks fled Viking invaders. They reestablished the Kells monastery in 807.a.d
The remains of St Colmcille’s Monastery are in the grounds of St Columba’s Church of Ireland parish church.
The square tower is all that remains of the medieval church. There are some interesting carvings of 3 heads above the door.  The spire is an 18th Century addition.
Within the grounds are a round tower and  several High Crosses. The ringed High Cross is one of the most iconic of Celtic symbols and Kells has some fine examples. Dating from about the 9th or 10th Century,they stand up to 12 feet in height and are beautifully carved from blocks of limestone.

Away from the  monastery, and in front of the Heritage Centre stands the Market Cross. Like the others, it is elaborately carved with scenes depicting various biblical themes. This cross was supposedly used as a gallows after the uprising of 1798.

My stop in Kells was a short but enjoyable one, and I am glad to have finally ‘discovered’ such a rich and impressive heritage.  Kells is easily reached from almost any part of Ireland, is only 40 minutes from Dublin and should be a ‘must see’ for anyone interested in our rich heritage.

The Book of Kells can be viewed online here.



Filed under Ireland, Irish Countryside, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Living in Ireland, My Travels

Irish Christmas tradition lives on

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

Epiphany: The 3 Kings arrive with gifts

On Monday next, January 6, thousands of women across Ireland will gather to celebrate Nollaig na mBan or Womens Christmas.

All over Ireland, January 6 marks the end of the Christmas season – it is the day on which the fairy lights, the Christmas tree, the decorations and the Christmas cards are taken down and put away for another year. It is considered bad luck if decorations remain displayed after this date! January 6 has many titles – Epiphany, Little Christmas, 12th Night, Women’s Christmas,  Women’s  Little Christmas, and Nollaig na mBan. Such an important day to have 6 different names!

In Ireland, ‘Little Christmas’ is one of the traditional names for January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian celebration of the day on which the Magi arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honour the new-born baby Jesus, the day on which Jesus is revealed to the gentiles. Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holy days that originated in the Eastern Church and was adopted by the Western church in the 4th century. ‘Little Christmas’ is so-called because under the Julian Calendar, Christmas day celebrations were held in January, whereas under the Gregorian calendar, Christmas day falls on December 25.

Twelfth Night, which coincides with Epiphany has been celebrated as the end of the Christmas season for centuries. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Twelfth Night was one of the most important days in the Christian calendar. Twelfth Night parties were common where participants enjoyed food and drink and games. A special Twelfth cake, the forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, was the centrepiece of the party, with a slice offered to all members of the household, above and below stairs. In 1756, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that: the king, and his entourage” went to the Chapel Royal at St James’ and offered gold, myrrh and frankincense” on Twelfth Night.

21 years ago I found myself in County Kerry on January 6. I was astonished to see hotels crowded with women – and no men to be seen! On enquiring, I was informed that they were celebrating ‘Women’s Christmas’ or ‘Nollaig na mBan’ in Irish. This has been a long-standing tradition in Counties Kerry and Cork, when women celebrate the end of the Christmas season, the decorations are down, the long season of preparation and cooking is over and the women folk have a celebratory meal. It is also celebrated in Newfoundland which has a strong affinity with Ireland and in some states of the United States of America where the tradition was kept alive by Irish immigrants.

The fascinating thing about this tradition is that, rather than dying out like so many other traditions, its popularity has begun to grow and it is now being celebrated across the country. Women in Dublin organize lunches for their women friends, Limerick women are meeting in their own homes for lovely dinners, Galway women are having poetry recitals, Sligo women are coming together to enjoy female company – women only ‘get-togethers’ are being organized all over the place! Long may it continue to grow and grow!

Happy Nollaig na mBan (pronounced null-ag na man) to all readers!

This post was first published in January 2012.


Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland