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Bernard O'Dowd 1866-1953

P.D. Gardner & Joe Toscano
Bernard O'Dowd, poet, radical, parliamentary draughtsman, and....anarchist.

Available Writings of Bernard O'Dowd
Photograph of Bernard O'Dowd and two sons at the State Library of Victoria (Library Record Number: 780259)

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Bernard O'Dowd's poem,
May Day

Come Jack, our place is with the ruck
On the open road today,
Not with the tepid "footpath sneak"
Or with the wise who stop away.

A straggling, tame procession, perhaps,
A butt for burgess scorn;
Its flags are ragged sentiments,
And its music's still unborn.

Though none respectable are here,
And trim officials ban,
Our duty, Jack, is not with them,
But here with Hope and Man.

Nor have we cause for shame, who see,
In the glory-lighted street,
The Old Brigade of Liberty
The partial ranks complete.

There's Shelley, Byron, arm in arm,
With Schiller, Uhland, near:
While cheek by jowl with anarch "crank"
See young Camille appear.

Marat keeps line with Spartacus,
Lone Dantes grimly stalk;
The meagre Knights of Labour "push"
With the Twelve Apostles walk.

Bakunin, Marx, Lassalle are there,
Grey Whitman's with the Greeks,
Dutch "Beggar" chums with Ironside,
Or to Bastille hero speaks.

Valliant and Brutus, Vane, Kossuth,
Find here a fitting tryst;
That Yarra-banker far ahead
Is keeping step with Christ.

Before, behind, around, surge on
Those unknown Great, whose yeast,
Impermeant, ensures result,
Tho' Hope's own song had ceased.

With flowers today the sky's festooned;
To yearning hosts a-sigh
On winds perfumed with memories
May's fair-winged forecasts fly.

No longer prostitute to Wealth,
amoung the aery show
The Lyric Muse accompanies
The Marseillaise below.

And how the gales of Freedom move,
Like wildfire's leap and fall,
Or north wind's through autumnal grass,
The red flags over all.

Yes! Ther's our place, whatever flames
Those nearing clouds display,
Tho' much they mean to footpath sneaks
And the wise who stop away.

O'Dowd a child prodigy that read Milton's, "Paradise Lost", at age 8, was born in Beaufort Victoria. He was employed as a head teacher at a Catholic School in Ballarat, but was dismissed for heresy. He opened up his own school in Beaufort. In 1886, at age 20, he moved to Melbourne where he found employment in 1887 as an Assistant - Librarian in the Supreme Court Library, working for the Victorian colonial and State government until 1935, retiring as Chief Parliamentary Draughtsman.

He joined the Melbourne Lyceum, the educational and social arm of the Australian Secular Society in 1886. In 1888, a number of anarchists associated with the A.S.A, who were members of the Melbourne Anarchist club (Australia's first anarchist group formed in 1886) were expelled from the A.S.A. O'Dowd joined the progressive Lyceum, which was made up of the anarchists Monty Miller, Upham, Brookhouse and Nicholls, as well as other radical members who had been expelled from the Melbourne Lyceum. He had become the editor of the Tetor in 1888 just before the split.

His poem "Hoist the Flag" Lyceum published in the Lyceum Tutor in 1888, outlined ideas that were very similar to anarchism. O'Dowd had become a friend of the Melbourne anarcho-communist Jack Andrews, and in 1897, O'Dowd and two others set up the radical paper Tocsin. In 1898, he was co-editor of Tocsin with Jack Andrews. He continued to be an editor, contributor and financial supporter of Tocsin until Andrews died of tuberculosis in 1903. During these six years, he published numerous radical poems, and used the pages of the Tocsin to express his opposition to Federation and The Boer War. In 1902, he issued a pamphlet "Conscience and Democracy" which opposed the Boer War.

Like Chummy Fleming who protested the opening of the first parliament in 1901, O'Dowd saw grave problems in Federation and wrote a clause by clause critique of the draft Federal Bill. He saw State/Federal rivalry as a future danger to working people. He warned of the unspecified powers given to the Governor General, which were ultimately used by Sir John Kerr, the CIA's 'Our Man in Australia', in dismissing the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975.

Between 1903 to 1921, O'Dowd turned his attention to poetry and published six poetry books. Dawnward (1903), The Silent Land (1906), Dominion of the Boundary (1907), The Seven Deadly Sins (1909), The Bush (1912) and Alma Venus (1921). His most well known pamphlet "a plea for purpose in poetry", Poetry Militant, was published in 1909. In it he asks, "Why should poetry be militant nowadays? I hear some ask Because This is an Age of Revolt and Reconstruction, because the Poet is the father and mother of wise rebellion and because he, being in touch with the Infinite, the Permanent is most potent and far-reaching stimulator of Reconstruction".

O'Dowd was married and had five sons. In 1920, he left his wife and moved in with Marie Pitt, the editor of the Victorian Socialist and also a poet. He lived with her until her death in 1948. He and Pitt became members of the Unitarian church, denied the trinity and saw the historical Jesus Christ as an anarchist.

Although O'Dowd grappled constantly with the conflict between his work for the government and his radical politics, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) "His optimism about human destiny never failed", and a few months before his death at 87, "he affirmed his almost religious belief in anarchist communism".

Notes on the poem, May Day

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Available writings by Bernard O'Dowd

From 'Anarchism in Australia: An Anthology 1886-1986' ....edited by Bob James

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