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Irishman who became the ‘Bard’ of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Songs of the Snowy Mountains
The Settlers
Editor: Shannon O’Boyle

Reviewer: J.A. O’Brien

An important new contribution to the history of Australian folk music and to Australian folklore generally, “Songs of the Snowy Mountains: The Settlers”, tells the story of Ulick O’Boyle a prolific writer of songs poems and ballads. Compiled and edited by his daughter Shannon O’Boyle the handsome book tells the history of the man and his times and includes pages of the words and music of 24 songs together with a superb collage of photographs.

The huge Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme was started in 1949 and completed in 1974. Covering more than 5000 square kilometres it has been described as ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’ –there is only two per cent of the massive project above ground. It was an enormous undertaking that would change not only the landscape of the Snowy Mountains but the very culture of Australia forever.

During its construction, more than 100,000 people from 30 different countries including Australians, worked on its 90 miles of tunnels; drilled and blasted through granite rock. Towns were moved or submerged beneath sixteen large dams and seven power stations; two of which were underground; together with a pumping station were all part of the infrastructure. The project diverted the waters of the Murrumbidgee, the Snowy and the Tumut rivers, to provide irrigation water west of the Great Dividing Range, and to generate hydro-electric power for use in New South Wales, Victoria and the national capital Canberra.

Into this feverish activity in 1962, came a young Irishman, Ulick O’Boyle, from County Roscommon, to work as a concrete worker. During the five years he worked on the scheme, O’Boyle observed the interaction of people from many nationalities that lived in the construction camps and nearby small towns. Working and living together in the freezing cold or stifling heat of the capricious mountain climate these ‘New Australians’ forged a vibrant multiculturalism.

O’Boyle was a very talented man with the heart and mind of a poet. In poetry, ballad and song he wrote his impressions of the places, the people and the work that was being done. His fellow Settler, Paul Davey, says, “Ulick captured the atmosphere of the life of Snowy workers, the diverse nationalities, the loves and heartaches, the dangers and terrors, the comedies and tragedies.”

To perform the songs he had written, together with his wife, Anne Rutherford, and a fellow worker, Peter Barry, they formed a group, The Immigrants, that later became The Settlers. They released their first album on the RCA label in 1966, followed by five more over the next thirty years.

The songs tell the stories of The Big Construction Game, the fate of The Dozer Driver Man, Olaf, and the tragedy of The Ballad of Big Pedro. Interspersed with these gripping tales of the lives of workers are songs of young love, Old Talbingo and the pain of parting/renewing Winter Back in My Heart. Then a change of mood to the ‘colour life and laughter’ of the times with The Cooma Cavaliers, The Thredbo Slop and Friday Night – Long Weekend.

But O’Boyle also reminds us of the price of progress with touching songs and poems like Jindabyne Farewell (one of the old towns submerged) and Jack Bridle’s Farewell to a way of life on the land. A well-informed man he comments on life and social issues with wry humour in Long Gone Pom and Dear Hoffman and poignantly in Paddy Went Home in the Rain, Young Jack Frost-Texan and Hard Rock Drilling-I’ve Done It. There are 24 songs on a CD that comes with the book, or it can be purchased separately.

Ably accompanied by Anne Rutherford, Peter Barry and later Paul Davey, O’Boyle’s instrumental skills match his lyrics to perfection. Behind it all is the admiration he felt for those who came together from so many countries to build the wondrous Snowy Mountains Scheme. The last lines from the song 1949 say it all:

There is something of value left behind
When you come from the breed of the building kind
That built and worked and made the Snowy Scheme

His daughter, Shannon, has made a fitting tribute to her father and has ensured due recognition of a man who in the words of Paul Davey, “will stand in history as one of Australia’s foremost song writers and balladeers.” Ulick O’Boyle’s songs and ballads have become part of the Snowy legend and as such are a significant contribution to the story of Australia. Click on http://www.songsofthesnowy.com.au for the full story.

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