From The Harp in the South (1948)

Ruth Park based the Darcy family of Surry Hills on that of her husband D’Arcy Niland:

In this narrow-gutted, dirty, old house, squeezed with its elbows flat against its sides between two others, there lived seven people. There was Mr Diamond, the Orangeman, and Hughie Darcy and his wife. Also there was Dolour Darcy, who was sixteen, and her elder sister Roie, who lived in one of the attic rooms with her husband, Charlie Rothe, and their little girl, Moira, who called herself Motty. There had been two others – Thady, who had been born between Roie and Dolour, and who was stolen off the street when he was six and never seen again; and Grandma, dead a long time now, and yet curiously a part of their daily life, a shuffling little ghost, pungent as a whiff of pipe smoke, and Irish as the words that were all she had to leave them.

The Irish in these people was like an old song, remembered only by the blood that ran deep and melancholy in veins for two generations Australian. The great tree, kernelled in the rich dust of Patrick and Columbanus, Finn and Brian, and Sheena of the unforgotten hair – the tree whose boughs had torn aside the mist of Ultima Thule bore in this sun-drowned southern land leaves in which the sap welled sharp, sweet, as any on Galway quay, or the market at Moneymore. The great music that had clanged across the world, of lion voice of missionary, of sword and stylus; the music that spoke aloud in the insurrections, in the holds where the emigrants sweltered in vermin and hunger – this music was heard in Plymouth Street, Surry Hills, and was unrecognized…

St. Peter's Church, 237 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills. c. 1990. (City of Sydney Archives)

St. Peter’s Church, 237 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills. c. 1990. (City of Sydney Archives)

Only in the little girl, Dolour, lying on her stomach and picking her face before a yellow corner of looking-glass, was the fierce positivity of the Celt, a surging energy that made her long for the world she did not know, for thoughts she could not yet comprehend, for experience she could not yet encompass. In her was the infinite delicacy of feeling of the Irish, the very halt of the raindrop before it rolls down the stem, the spin of light on the knife-blade, the tremble of the wind harp’s string as the blown air touches. She was on the threshold of articulateness, and did not know it.

All the discomforts, the vulgarities, the harsh jovialities of her little world broke against her as repeatedly and unavailingly as a wave breaks against a rock; her real life was in school, and in the church.

The church in Surry Hills was no fountain of stone, no breaking wave of granite like some of the great cathedrals. It was foursquare, red brick, with a stubby steeple as strictly functional as the finger of a traffic cop; it humped its sturdy shoulder into the schoolyard, and the children rewarded it by bouncing balls off it.

It was as much a part of Surry Hills life as the picture-show or the police station, the ham-and-beef or the sly-grog shop. Its warm brick wall was there in winter for the old men to sun themselves against, or for the feeble-footed drunk, staggering home in the dim, to lie beside. Its steps were seats for the old ladies who’d walked too far with their marketing and them with their feet brittle as biscuits with the rheumatism. The church in Surry Hills had achieved the innermost meaning of Christianity; it was the commonplace of life, like a well-loved old coat, worn, ordinary, sometimes a little drab but essential to living.

On Sunday Father Cooley mounted the pulpit, rather slowly, for he had lumbago. He stared full into the eye of the microphone they had installed while he’d been sick, and contemptuously clouted the thing aside. He’d always been able to blast the ears off the backbenches, and he had no intention of giving way to new-fangled inventions at his time of life.

‘We’re going to have a mission,’ he said.

–Ruth Park, New Zealand-Australian, b. 1917-2010

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