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Book Review: The Liberator’s Birthday, by Jill Blee

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 1, 2013


The Liberator's BirthdayThis is another book review that I had neglected to cross-post here.  I found it in my annual housekeeping spree at my ANZ LitLovers blog and am belatedly cross-posting now.

The Liberator’s Birthday is one of a series by Jill Blee, all historical fiction suitable for secondary students of history.    It’s an imaginative recreation of the sectarian conflict that characterised life on the Ballarat Goldfields in the 1870s…

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Tommy Farrell’s parents run the pub, but he’s been left to run it single-handed because everyone else has gone to Mass to celebrate the ‘Liberator’s’ birthday. The Liberator was Daniel O’Connell, who campaigned for the right of Irishmen to take their place in the British parliament, and he’s still a hero in Ireland. We’ve got an imposing statue of him too, here in Melbourne outside St Patrick’s Cathedral , and that’s because the Irish were a significant presence here in Australia, right from the start.

Jill Blee has specialised in the history of the Irish in Australia, but the story wears her scholarship lightly. Perhaps in homage to James Joyce, the tale is structured like Bloomsday, covering the events of the day from first thing in the morning until late at night. Tommy gets the pub to rights, the early drinkers come in, and the blarney starts. Amongst themselves, this Catholic contingent manage to argue about all manner of things without too much angst, but when the Protestants arrive things become more heated and there is a punch up between the Orange and the Green, just like those saloon fights you’ve seen in American westerns, with heads getting knocked together and glassware flying everywhere.There are many threads to the tale. There’s an appalling priest whose curses have dreadful effects on the surviving family; and his superstitious flock fear his ire as much as they fear the flames of hell from the catechism. Unemployment has led to discrimination that wasn’t there before when jobs were plentiful, and there are terrible mining accidents now that the easy pickings have run out. There’s an over-ambitious social-climbing mother, whose son Gerald is spoiled rotten because he’s destined for the priesthood, and Tommy’s in love with a girl thought not to be good enough for him.

While the story is reasonably engaging, (once you get used to the thick Irish accent of the narrator) it was the little details that I especially enjoyed. It was fascinating, for example, to hear poor Tommy trying to work out the best way to travel to Bendigo on foot (it’s about 95k) in the days when the route was dirt tracks and virgin bush and Daylesford the tourist mecca was just a hamlet. I hope teachers of Australian history know about this audio book, because playing a few extracts would be a valuable teaching tool.

Most enjoyable. I have bought Blee’s other books, The Pines Hold their Secrets (about Norfolk Island) and Brigid (about the Irish potato famine) to read at a later date.

Author: Jill Blee
Title: The Liberator’s Birthday
Narrator: Stanley McGeagh
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio
ISBN 0732026962
7 CDs , 8 hours approx running time.

Source: Kingston Library

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