Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Drought, fires, floods and the coronavirus: "We'll be rooned (ruined) before the year is out"

Said Hanrahan is one of Irish-Australian poet John O'Brien's (Monsignor Patrick Joseph Hartigan) best known poems, one that has added the ironic phrase "We'll be rooned (ruined) before the year is out" to Australian English. The poem reads:
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
In accents most forlorn,
Outside the church, ere Mass began,
One frosty Sunday morn.
The congregation stood about,
Coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock, and crops, and drought,
As it had done for years.
"It's lookin' crook," said Daniel Croke;
"Bedad, it's cruke, me lad,
For never since the banks went broke
Has seasons been so bad."
"It's dry, all right," said young O'Neil,
With which astute remark
He squatted down upon his heel
And chewed a piece of bark.
And so around the chorus ran
"It's keepin' dry, no doubt."
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"Before the year is out.
"The crops are done; ye'll have your work
To save one bag of grain;
From here way out to Back-o'-Bourke
They're singin' out for rain.
"They're singin' out for rain," he said,
"And all the tanks are dry."
The congregation scratched its head,
And gazed around the sky.
"There won't be grass, in any case,
Enough to feed an ass;
There's not a blade on Casey's place
As I came down to Mass."
"If rain don't come this month," said Dan,
And cleared his throat to speak--
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"If rain don't come this week."
A heavy silence seemed to steal
On all at this remark;
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.
"We want a inch of rain, we do,"
O'Neil observed at last;
But Croke "maintained" we wanted two
To put the danger past.
"If we don't get three inches, man,
Or four to break this drought,
We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"Before the year is out."
In God's good time down came the rain;
And all the afternoon
On iron roof and window-pane
It drummed a homely tune.
And through the night it pattered still,
And lightsome, gladsome elves
On dripping spout and window-sill
Kept talking to themselves.
It pelted, pelted all day long,
A-singing at its work,
Till every heart took up the song
Way out to Back-o'Bourke.
And every creek a banker ran,
And dams filled overtop;
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"If this rain doesn't stop."
And stop it did, in God's good time;
And spring came in to fold
A mantle o'er the hills sublime
Of green and pink and gold.
And days went by on dancing feet,
With harvest-hopes immense,
And laughing eyes beheld the wheat
Nid-nodding o'er the fence.
And, oh, the smiles on every face,
As happy lad and lass
Through grass knee-deep on Casey's place
Went riding down to Mass.
While round the church in clothes genteel
Discoursed the men of mark,
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed his piece of bark.
"There'll be bush-fires for sure, me man,
There will, without a doubt;
We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"Before the year is out."

It's been a strange topsy turvey time here in Australia, one that would do Hanrahan proud.

The fires spread south with remarkable footage caught by NSW RFS (Rural Fire Service) cameras. Then came heavy rain and floods in parts of Eastern Australia that have put most of the fires out. Despite the rain, drought continues in many parts of the country. In the midst of all this came the coronavirus. The number of Australians infected is still very small, with the real effects coming from the impact of supply chain breakages and border controls. Those Australian universities heavily dependent on Chinese full fee paying students have been especially affected.

The public discussion around drought, flood, fire and viruses has been quite febrile, not helped by national politics that has taken the idea of febrile to a new level. It's hard to keep up with ministerial resignations, political infighting, application of fixed positions constantly over-run by events and a rolling National Party implosion.  Australia is fortunate that our basic systems work quite well.

The difficulty with rolling febrility that reacts to events is that we respond with emotion and then effectively roll on before issues can be effectively discussed.

The drought, fires and floods revealed some of the best features of the Australian character, the responses to coronavirus some of the worst, fear combined with a degree of xenophobia that I find repellent. There are many issues that will need to be worked through from recent events. Still, as the present king tide of events moves on, I think that it pays us to remember Hanrahan and the ironic meaning Australians attach to the phrase we will all be rooned before the year is out.