Documentary on One

Frank the Poet - A Convict's Tour to Hell

This Tipperary man's songs and poems were spread throughout convict Australia by his fellow prisoners - Today a new generation of musicians regard him as giving Australia a tradition akin to the Mississippi blues.

Frank the Poet - A Convict's Tour to Hell

Memorial Park, Mudgee, contains headstones from three earlier cemeteries which were converted into parks. Frank the Poet died near here, but his burial place remains a mystery. Photograph - Joe Franklin
Memorial Park, Mudgee, contains headstones from three earlier cemeteries which were converted into parks. Frank the Poet died near here, but his burial place remains a mystery. Photograph - Joe Franklin

An Irishman who was a miner, shepherd, prisoner, slave - he wrote witty vicious verse - Australia's Dante, a bard of the blues. August 2012 was the 151st anniversary of the death of Francis MacNamara, better known in convict Australia as "Frank the Poet".

He was originally from Cashel, Co. Tipperary who worked as a miner in Kilkenny. He was transported to Australia after breaking a shop window and stealing wool cloth. Possibly, he did this deliberately to get transported. When he got to Australia, he was held for two years on a ship off shore.

According to one of Australia's leading contemporary poets, Les Murray, MacNamara's epic work 'A Convict's Tour to Hell' should be placed right at the beginning of English literature in Australia.

Frank's attitude to the colonial authorities, embodied in this now famous poem, can also be gauged from the punishments he received. Lashed 590 times, he was sent to solitary confinement, to the treadmill, and worked on chain gangs.

All through his incarceration, Frank continued to entertain his fellow convicts with his rebellious verse.

Now a new generation of musicians is producing fresh work inspired by Frank the Poet, whom they regard as giving Australia a tradition akin to the Mississippi blues.

Folklorist, and co-producer of this feature, Mark Gregory, has spent thirty years searching for this often elusive poet, accompanied by his sometimes doubting partner, film maker Maree Delofski.

He says, "Radio documentary reaches out to a large and varied audience, and it is quite on the cards that more information about "Frank the Poet" will come to light from audience feedback. This has been the case in Australia, and we hope it will also be the case in Ireland, particularly as we know very little of the poet's life in Ireland between his birth in 1811 and his exile in 1832."

"Oddly enough the first poem we have from him comes from his farewell speech to the court that sentenced him, as his exuberant behaviour in the court was extensively recorded in the local newspaper, the Kilkenny Journal. We hope this documentary provides a fitting if belated 'welcome home' to the poet."

If you would like to contact Mark via the Documentary on One, email documentaries@rte.ie.

First broadcast on the "Hindsight" programme on ABC National Radio in Australia.

Participants:
Les Murray
Emeritus Bob Reece
http://www.murdoch.edu.au/News/Find-an-expert/History-and-Theology-experts/

Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart

Keith Cameron Chair of Australian History, School of History and Archives, University College, Dublin

Professor Bob Hodge
http://www.uws.edu.au/ics/people/researchers/bob_hodge
Further Information

music group Stobie Sounds' website

Producers: Maree Delofski / Nick Franklin / Mark Gregory

Sound Engineer: Timothy Nicastri

Learn more about Frank MacNamara here

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