This is the great modern day classic of Australian settlement that I just had to read. The true story is set in the last half of the nineteenth century and spans the lifetime of Irishman Patrick "Patsy" Durack. Patsy arrived in Australia as an 18 year old with his poor immigrant parents, five sisters and two brothers in 1853. The strictly catholic family was looking to escape the "troubles" in Ireland, the poverty, the famine, the hardship, the bigotry and the lack of opportunity. This young man would found a pioneering dynasty establishing enormous cattle stations from New South Wales, through Queensland and into Western Australia.
If he thought life in Ireland was hard he was yet to encounter the extremes of flood and drought, the one following the other as night follows day. There was the isolation of the bush, malaria, beri-beri, dysentery, the sun and the heat to overcome. Poison bush, cattle tick, and crocodiles were a real threat to the livestock, while white ants ate away at the timber homesteads, and man-made hurdles such as the depression, land rents, industrial strikes and petty jealousies added to the challenges. Possibly the most difficult challenge was that from the "blacks" as they are called throughout this book, drawn from the diaries of Patsy's father, Patsy himself and his own son. From his immediate family he lost a brother who was shot and a cousin who was speared by Aboriginals. The cattle too were frequent victims of spearing. Yet some Aboriginals were almost part of the family as they were cared for by the Duracks, leaning English with an Irish brogue and having given names such as Pumpkin, Kangaroo and Melon Head. On the last day of his life Patsy declares Pumpkin to have been the best fiend he ever had.
It is difficult to conceive how anyone could even contemplate, let alone achieve covering thousands of miles overland, settling the land, building homes, bringing up families, establishing stock routes and then driving thousands of head of cattle to markets a third of a continent away. At the height of his success, and defending his ownership of enormous land tracts, some bigger than small European countries, Patsy responds to a newspaper critic "Cattle Kings you call us, If so, then we are Kings in Grass Castles that may be blown away upon a puff of wind". How prophetic.
This book was written by Patsy's granddaughter Mary, and first published in 1959. Apart from drawing heavily on 19th century diaries, her style of writing is very old fashioned and takes some getting used to as the chapters pass by. It is not very easy reading but the rewards for perseverance are great. The details have been carefully researched and the story unwinds with perhaps too many characters coming into the story for but a page or two, only to vanish as quickly as they appeared. That's not much of a complaint about such a historical saga which should be compulsory reading not only for all Australian school children but also all new immigrants to this young and dynamic country.