Martin John O’Brien
June 16, 1943 – December 24, 2013
Martin was killed in a tractor accident on his family farm on Christmas Eve. This is part of the eulogy delivered by his elder brother, Jim, at his funeral Mass concelebrated by eight priests on Wednesday, January 8, at the Sacred Heart Church, Murwillumbah.
MARTIN was the second eldest of six sons born to Martin and Maysie O’Brien, of Mt Burrell.
Our mother was an O’Neill from the Kyogle district. Martin started school at Mt Burrell.
Two years there, two more at the Uki Convent, three more at the convent at Nimbin and then off to boarding school at St John’s College, Woodlawn, outside Lismore.
It was a rather startling challenge to innocent little schoolboys out of the hills of Mt Burrell – new learning experience, new challenges, but it was here that Martin first honed his sense of justice and compassion.
In 1959 he was back to the farm and worked for Dad, dairying.
After about a year, he was off to Sydney, with the hope of joining the police cadets and, of course, eventually the police force.
Unfortunately, milkshakes and bananas weren’t enough to enable him to make the weight.
So in the early 1960s Martin went on to seasonal work.
Among other things he picked grapes in Mildura and Robinvale, cherries at Orange, dug irrigation drains at Leeton, and cut cane for 10 seasons – one season near Tully and the rest on the Tweed.
In 1969, Martin took a break from cane, went to Berry and trained as an artificial insemination officer for the Dairy Board carrying out work for dairy farmers on the Tweed.
It was at that time and on the basis of Martin’s interest, he and I purchased Charolais semen in the United Kingdom.
However, it wasn’t until 1973 that we had the first Charolais-cross cattle born on our place at Mt Burrell – the beginning of a big change through the beef industry here in Australia, the introduction of various European breeds.
1974 saw the collapse of the beef industry.
So, with negligible income coming from the farm, Martin, as many struggling farmers had to, eventually sought off-farm work, mostly in local sawmills.
Under the guidance of Morrie Milsom, Martin learned the art and the science of sawmilling – an industry in which he remained for over 20 years.
In 1991 when a reunion of mates from the cane-cutting days was planned Martin went looking for literature about the cane industry.
Plenty of poems and stories about shearers, not much about cane cutters.
This, I think, stimulated Martin to write, in verse, some of the things that had happened during those glorious, but energy-demanding days.
And so we were able, at that reunion to actually read some of Martin’s poetry.
As a result of this, Martin finally produced and self-published a small book of verse, From the Hills of Mount Burrell, containing both humorous and serious topics, in 1996.
It was back in 1971, when Martin, then 28, first met Christine.
In 1975 they took up their lifetime partnership and moved onto the farm at home where they have lived ever since.
Their three daughters, Mary, Elizabeth and Lucy, were born and raised there, and in recent years they were able to welcome and enjoy their grandchildren, Zara, Zane and Zoe and little Brett at the farm as well.
Martin and Christine had a strong parish commitment and he was involved with the pastoral council, the finance committee and local liturgy.
Also, they were together, in Marriage Encounter, the Cursillo Movement and more recently, since 2005, Kairos – a Christian Ministry of outreach to prisoners.
This was a program of support/encouragement followed by support visits – involving regular trips to Grafton jail.
Through all this I want to now come to Martin, the man. Events are just history, bare history.
Beneath the history there is a character, there is a personality.
After Martin’s passing, one of the men who’d been a cane ganger over Martin commented that Martin was the fairest cutter he’d ever come across.
He said he was the one who’d hop across and help the guy struggling to catch up, prepared to carry a bloke until they could harden up and handle the pace.
Yes, Martin always had his hand out – in friendship, in support, in encouragement.
Whether it was the 13-year-old runaway from a home life that was a torture, a battler tramping the roads, someone needing shelter or a bed, the family stranded by an unreliable vehicle, the young mill worker learning the ropes, those dealing with a family crisis or personal crisis, his neighbours and so on.
But always you met Martin on equal terms.
He didn’t readily tolerate fools or idiots, no matter what their station in life.
Martin’s later years saw the blossoming of a public confidence which, in his early years, he did not have.
And we saw the enjoyment that he had in terms of presenting his poetry, in his singing and in his work with his Church and liturgy.
But through all of this, I see Martin most easily described as an ordinary, decent bloke.
He loved his family, his Church, his cattle, his farm, confident in his skills and willing to share them.
Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006, he accepted what he saw as inevitable, had the operation, bore the treatments, carried on busy to the extent his health allowed.
Whatever was coming he faced unworried, fortified in the strong faith both he and Christine shared.
Though he planned for, and knew it would happen, he didn’t want to leave the farm.
Now he doesn’t have to.