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Things My Father Taught Me: Father Bob Maguire

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In many people’s eyes, his father James was a violent, wife-beating drunk – a hopeless case. But Father Bob Maguire, the Roman Catholic priest, community worker and media personality, happens to have a soft spot for hopeless cases. His own research into his family history is a search for answers to help him understand who James Maguire really was – and why.

“Back in Scotland, Jimmy was thrown out from his family home by his mother. He was a drunk. The myth is that Jimmy Maguire broke into the liquor cabinet when his mother and father were out and he was meant to be babysitting. But is it a myth? Or did it happen? I think he was around 20 when his mother kicked him out. He went into the Merchant Navy and travelled the world.

I was in Thornbury, Black Rock, Prahran, and probably somewhere else and somewhere else again with my family. We had to flee when we couldn’t pay the rent. We were poor.

The girls – my sisters – remember going down to the corner of the street and picking Jimmy up out of the gutter. He was so drunk. I don’t remember that.

I can still hear him singing – drunk. The usual Scottish songs. “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Scotland before ye.”

What’s the truth about my father? That’s what I want to know.

My mother and her sisters all came to Australia looking for work. Was my mother pregnant when she came here? There are lots of questions I don’t know the answer to.

As I’m older now, my quest has been: was my father, Jimmy Maguire, demonised? The Jimmy Maguire who was the drunk here in Melbourne surely was created back in Glasgow. So, why was he like that?

His mother – my grandmother – seemed to be the creator, or the creatrix, of the Maguire dynasty in Glasgow. She had a business – tobacco and stuff – she changed her spelling of her name from the Mc to the Ma in Maguire so they could not be identified as Irish Catholics. So she was changing things and creating a new future and I think my father was already showing signs that he was not going to comply and conform.

My older sister, Kathleen, died when I was 11 – in 1945. Tuberculosis. No sooner was she diagnosed than she was dead. Then the old man died in 1948, I believe it was. I remember rolling cigarettes for him in the hospital room. You used to be able to smoke in the cancer ward in those days. A strange thing. But before that – before my father being so sick – I don’t remember him ever being there, really. Naughty Jim.

My mother died in 1951. She was 61. Then I had nobody. I was a clean slate. I had to survive. I’d already been an altar boy and the path to the Catholic Church seemed to make sense. It was definitely a protection.

During WWII, it felt like I was fending for myself. Women were working like dogs in the munition factories and, unlike now, I don’t think that era were very strong on analysis and self-reflection, so it’s hard to look back now and think about what the motivations of everyone in my family were.

Men were invisible in a lot of people’s families during WWII. They were away fighting, or they didn’t come home. There were a lot of fatherless boys.

I don’t think I was happy. But I can be unhappy anywhere. The Legacy Club paid the bills for my family because the old man was a sailor. I fell on my feet a few times like that.

There was disaster after disaster in our family for a while but the ones who were left coped. I coped. I can’t see any value in collapsing.

I never really suffered at the hands of the father. Except that there was no money. But that’s been a good lesson because I’ve got no money as we speak – but we haven’t gone broke. The ability for the squirrel to find nuts when there are no nuts is a blessing. Tedious and tiring but a blessing. If we had an outburst of affluence now it would be nice but I might drop dead to tell you the truth – shock! Then I wouldn’t have to scrounge around looking to pay the rent and all the bills.

Apparently, he was 23 when he came to Australia. Were all his problems associated with the grog or with the wanderings around the world in the merchant navy? I’ll probably never know now. My father didn’t come to Australia voluntarily. He was in exile.

And that’s like many of the people I have worked with in Port Melbourne. They might not be homeless but they’re placeless. I have a soft spot for placeless people.

The Maguires used to go from Scotland to Lourdes. It’s in the genes – looking for meaning and healing. I guess I’ve been looking for that. I’m running out of time to find all the answers.

I trust my own judgement, in light of all the stories. And that stretches to Jim. That’s what I’ve got. Trust. Unfortunately for Jim, people didn’t have that faith in him when he was around. And when nobody has faith in you, it’s easy to give up on yourself too.

This is an excerpt from Things My Father Taught Me, by Claire Halliday, that features interviews with a collection of Australian identities talking about the impact their relationship with their dad had on their lives. Buy it here