© Ed Walker

Winner, 2008 Bryan Kelleher Literary Award (Australian Unity), South Melbourne, Victoria.

It was conceived on English soil but British born was not;
the mum a dauntless Irish lass, the dad a sturdy Scot.
The mum then erred and stole a loaf; she starved and had to eat
but she was apprehended by a lawman on his beat.
The stern judge at Old Bailey then harangued her for her crime,
and ordered her across the seas to serve her years of time.
She wept within, but Irish pride would not reveal her shock.
She left upon a First Fleet ship that sailed from Portsmouth dock.

Below the deck she trembled in the fetid air and gloom
and worried for the soul to be that travelled in her womb.
She missed her loving husband’s arms, she yearned for solid land
but fifteen thousand miles she’d sail before on soil she’d stand.
She’d be allowed upon the deck if days were calm and nice,
then back below to ghastly gloom with slinking rats and lice.
The small and wooden sailing ships on stormy seas would toss,
while helmsmen prayed for land they sought beneath the Southern Cross.

Then half way through the first month in the year of ‘Eighty-Eight
the First Fleet reached the east coast of the land that would be ‘Great’.
They searched and found a harbour into which at last they drove
and on the famous twenty-six they moored in Sydney Cove.
But to the wretched convict gangs, their future looked so grim;
they could be flogged, or starved, or hung, just on a judge’s whim.
The trees they’d fall were tough to hew, the soil was hard to till
the summer heat would sap their strength and wear away their will.

But when the convicts were on shore one bright momentous morn’
the mother heard the bushland call and that’s where it was born —
and though it was invisible, its presence could be felt
by convict women gathered round, who by the mother knelt.
And convict men who wore the chains, or later faced the rope,
now felt their courage start to grow and light their lamp of hope.
This new born spirit told them they’d find justice and relief;
to them it was a prophesy — the birth of self-belief.

This brave Australian spirit, by some sacred source was planned
to draw its strength and courage from the wonders of our land;
from green and timbered ranges with wide rivers far below,
from red and rocky outcrops where the waters seldom flow,
from Cootamundra wattles glowing golden in the sun,
from black and scarlet desert peas out where the dingoes run.
This spirit spreads through all our land to give Australians pride
and when that spirit stirs our soul, no challenge is denied.

The gnarled old river red gums that withstand the rushing flood
instil in us a stubbornness that steels Australian blood.
The spinifex and mulga that survive the constant drought
have given us the will to stay and see the tough times out.
The snow gums in the mountains that must stand the winter chill
have taught us to be stoic — to survive you must have will.
The casuarina’s graceful leaves that whisper in the breeze
have given us a friendliness the stranger always sees.

A big red boomer standing tall with proud majestic stance
tells all that we are proud and free throughout our land’s expanse.
A mighty wedge-tailed eagle gliding in a sky that’s bright
will left our spirits with it on a soul inspiring flight.
When lyrebirds are mimicking the whipbird’s cracking sound
the dampened forest floor you tread seems like it’s hallowed ground.
The butcherbird’s sweet haunting tune at sunrise when it sings
will lend elation to the soul as children’s choirs brings.

The wide and golden beaches that encircle this wide land
absorb the strength from breakers for our spirit through the sand.
The desert’s peaceful silence ‘neath their bright stars will impart
a solace for the spirit, inspiration for the heart.
Big rivers, lined with red gums, or the languid outback stream,
the billabongs, and babbling creeks gives souls a place to dream.
A full moon beaming softly on an inland lake at night
conveys to us compassion so we’ll ease a victim’s plight.

And from the day that it was born the spirit quickly spread
to immigrant, and convict and to each child native bred.
The spirit gave them courage which in time would bring to them
a confidence and freedom that no tyrant could condemn.
And tribal aborigines from whom we claimed this land
tried hard to hold their land they loved but guns took upper hand.
But they possess their Dreamtime that sustains their noble race,
and they have shared their land with us with dignity and grace.

Sea captain Matthew Flinders navigated our long coast
and called our land Australia — it’s a name we’re proud to boast.
Now as the migrant presence grew and Sydney’s farms were few,
there was an urgent public call to search for land anew.
Though beauty of the country was a magnet that was strong,
its vast expanse was challenging for treks were hard and long,
but prospects stirred the spirit of the braver souls to seek
the fertile flats, the grazing plains, the river and the creek.

So Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth were the first explorers through
to trace the rugged ridges and to cross the Mountains Blue.
Then Sturt’s men rowed the Murray to the lake mouth far below
and staunchly rowed the boat’s return and pulled against the flow.
Brave Stuart’s health would suffer as he crossed the desert sand
but never shirked an order that the spirit would command.
The great explorers always heard the spirit’s tempting call
and Cook who found its birthplace was the greatest of them all.

Then overlanders followed with the cattle and the sheep;
across the wide and endless plains new station stock would creep
till Duracks crossed the continent into the Kimberley;
a trek that took great courage and a spirit strong and free.
The women with their children followed close their husbands’ tracks
with few possessions carried in a dray or horses’ packs.
They worked and lived in loneliness so good times might come round,
their only solace courage if their fortunes were not found.

The population’s spirit soared from stories that were told
and men were soon impassioned with the search for finding gold.
Prospectors tramped with panning dish or sunk a mining shaft
then crushed the ore to gain the gold, and all was heavy graft.
But laws were harsh and government increased the licence fee
so diggers camped on Ballarat resisted wild and free.
Young Peter Lalor lead them, and beneath the Southern Cross
they swore to fight the tyrants that imposed financial loss.

The diggers built upon a hill an improvised stockade
and raised the new Eureka flag the diggers’ wives had made;
they swore to fight injustice, for the spirit stirred their heart,
but didn’t know the huge effect their courage would impart.
For Redcoats, sent by Hotham this rebellion to repel,
slayed many mortal miners, but their bayonets couldn’t quell
their spirit, nor the legacy the diggers forged that day —
that ever present tyrants must be always kept at bay.

Ned Kelly was convict’s son, an outlaw bold and wild
who never hurt a woman, nor had ever harmed a child.
The good or bad we’ll never know, the truth is hard to find,
but he possessed conviction and the spirit stirred his mind.
He felt the great injustice to his family and the poor,
and stood with steady courage when he trod the hangman’s door.
But Kelly’s legend is alive, his spirit still abounds,
despite a vengeful unmarked grave within the prison grounds.

Our famous poet Paterson, and Henry Lawson too
had found their pen hands writing lines the spirit had sent through.
With countless other poets they have filled Australia’s heart
with courage, and compassion, so our nation stands apart.
Our painters feel the spirit too, we see it through their eyes
when soul and mind combines to paint the beauty of our skies;
the mighty Messmates standing on a southern mountain chain,
or stark and arid beauty of a northern gibber plain.

As time passed by a storm cloud cast a shadow on our shores,
a conflict that was later called, ‘The war to end all wars’.
Three hundred thousand fine young men, and each a volunteer,
sailed overseas to fight the foe protecting freedom here.
Their convict forebears wore the chains and felt the flogger’s lash,
but now this free Australian race had self esteem and dash,
and tempered by the bushland to withstand the toughest test,
the spirit stirred their natural pride to fight on when hard pressed.

The landing at Gallipoli that fateful April morn’
saw diggers decimated as they waded in the dawn.
Machine guns raked the water and the shrapnel sprayed the land,
their bloodied bodies dyed the sea and stained the foreign sand.
They scaled the cliffs and gullies as they strove to reach the Turk,
they founght with wounds, and suffered thirst, but never thought to shirk.
Their spirit now had reached new heights — their mateship bound like chain,
they’d courage and compassion that their foe could not explain.

For eight long months they fought the Turk, then sailed one silent night,
but left behind eight thousand mates who’d perished in the fight.
Eight thousand dead, nine V.C’s won, what legend to behold
of courage and commitment, and a spirit that is bold.
How they charged at Beersheba tells a tale of spirit too,
when Lighthorse diggers’ daring beat the odds to ride on through
to reach the wells and water that the enemy thought safe;
the diggers’ daring spirit always made the foeman chafe.

The battlefields in Europe were a hell on earth to all,
but diggers never wavered for they’d heard the spirit call.
The shrapnel was a killer, and the mustard gas that stung
brought terror and a torture as it burnt the eye and lung.
They died in wire entanglements and cold and muddy trench,
they shared each day with constant death and decomposing stench.
They gave their all and then at last the Armistice arrived;
but sixty thousand spirits now were of their lives deprived.

The Great Depression brought harsh times and poor folk felt it most
but always showed compassion and a kindness we can boast,
for many swagmen tramping out’, or men short of a ‘bob’
were grateful for a meal they shared earned by a token job.
When World War 2 was then declared, soon men and women too
would hear the spirit’s urgent call, “Stand fast and see it through.”
Old diggers always told their sons how cruelly comrades died,
but when the spirit called the sons it never was denied.

The men who suffered prison camps, or Burma railway line
were strengthened by their mateship, for compassion they’d enshrine.
The youngsters on Kokoda Track were scarcely trained to fight
yet stopped the enemy’s advance till fresh troops came in sight.
Their courage stalled the ruthless foe, their spirit saved our land
and we’re in debt forever to that young and gallant band.
We’ve fought in many awful wars and there are tyrants still,
but we are confident to know the spirit gives us will.

The spirit in Australians makes them act a special way
when playing in arenas, or attacking in a fray.
They feel the spirit flowing as it pours out from the land
and strangers can’t describe it for it’s hard to understand.
It is a thing intangible, a thing of soul and mind,
it’s there in dashing courage, or the slow determined grind.
It’s bravery in a battle or compassion in a plight,
and when there is a mad retreat it makes a stand to fight.

Our nation has been tardy for we’d not correct a wrong.
Our spirit tried to tell us, we ignored it far too long.
At last we’ve said, “We’re sorry,” to the first Australian race
who felt the strength within the land before we took their place.
Our spirit will be happy now we’re walking hand in hand,
and we will draw more courage and compassion from our land.
We’ll share our God and Dreamtime, and I know we’ll all agree
our spirit will feel prouder now we’ve set our brothers free.

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