In colonial New South Wales – where the convicts outnumber the jailers, the natives outnumber the convicts, and the sheep outnumber the lot – a whispered ballad, a “banded tale”, thrives to the status of legend. The Ballad of Desmond Kale is thus: “A famous convict escapes, an officer of rangers is outlawed, a woman decides on love, a boy is given trust by the one with wool around his wrist, a black boy is treated like shite by the same old devil, and the days roll into each other under the throbbing ball of the sun.”
As channelled by Roger McDonald, with his superior skill in extracting the best juice out of Australian history, the ballad charges through the raggedy settlement, into the “dangerous paradise past Toongabbie”, and eventually crosses oceans. As for Desmond Kale, the escaped Irish convict with a gift for sheep and infamy, he disappears into the interior – “the vast impoverished terra incognita” – with his convict lass and ram of choice. Of Kale we know little more, and perhaps less than we started with, and for an Irish ballad that’s as it should be.
The Ballad of Desmond Kale is really about his assorted progeny, liberators, supporters and enemies, most notably Pastor Matthew Stanton – “a dusty frog of a man ... with a vital energy so extreme it almost squeaked with gristle every time he twitched”. McDonald evokes those early days in the “colony of forced improvers” with a visceral and poetic sense of language, land and character. Botany Bay, with its shady surrounds and occupants, is at last rewarded with a storyteller born to the task.
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