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Van Diemen's Land by U2

Album: Rattle And HumReleased: 1988
  • This song is about John Boyle O'Reilly, the leader of a 1848 Irish uprising after the Great Famine. He was banished to Australia for rebelling against the government.
  • Van Dieman's Land is the former name for the Australian state of Tasmania. British convicts were sent there for committing crimes and forced to live in the dirty jail cells there. Now in Tasmania at the sites of the jail cells, they are used for ghost stories during the night. (thanks, James - New York, NY)
  • The Edge sings lead on this song and wrote the lyric. He got the idea after a trip to County Meath in Ireland where the came across a monument to John Boyle O'Reilly.
  • There is a completely different traditional Irish folk song of the same name.
  • U2 recorded this at The Point Theater in Dublin and used it in their movie Rattle And Hum.
  • This is based on an old Irish folk song called "The River is Wide."
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Comments: 17

ME and U2
A recollection by John Bender.

"Would you like to meet The Edge?" It was 1987 and I was backstage at the U2 Love Comes to Town Tour. And here I was just about to meet The Edge.
It all started about the same time as I had the crazy idea to put a group together to apply for the first commercial FM radio station in Hobart and indeed Tasmania. I had no experience in radio but that didn't seem to deter me at the time. What was I thinking? Somehow I managed to get Austereo, the number one FM network in Australia involved and I believe that combined with the application was the only reason I almost got U2 to include Tasmania on their national tour of Australia. The fact that I failed and have given away the ending of this story is inconsequential to the real story I uncovered.
I had become obsessed with U2 sometime during the mid 1980s and it was the Rattle and Hum album which was the catalyst for my dream of U2 including Tasmania on their tour schedule. And the reason for this was that The Edge had written a song called Van Diemen's Land on the album. For those of you who don't know, Van Diemen's Land was the original name for Tasmania. Printed on the album sleeve under the title Van Diemen's Land were the words, "dedicated to the Fenian, John Boyle O'Reilly".
I decided to do some research into The Edges inspiration for this song. Off to the state library I went with the idea of researching John Boyle O'Reilly and the reasons he would have been transported to Van Diemans Land as a convict. Now this was 1987, and the internet wasn't a big thing back then. The assistant at the library pointed me towards the microfiche….remember that stuff? For hours I perused all the microfiche in the library relating to convicts transported to Tasmania, but no sign of John Boyle O'Reilly.
Frustrated I decided to give up thinking The Edge must have made all of this up. On the way out I had a thought. I decided to see if there were any books about Fenians in Australia. Sure enough, there was a book entitled 'The Fenians in Australia, and there was a whole chapter on John Boyle O'Reilly.
Just to give some background, a Fenian was another name for a member of The Irish Republican Brotherhood. They were a secret society of rebels dedicated to an armed uprising against British rule. In 1865 O'Reilly joined the Fenians and started recruiting members. This put the wind up the English and during a number of raids a large number of Fenians, including O'Reilly were arrested. For his trouble the English eventually (before serving two years in an English prison), decided to transport him to Australia. This is where the story gets interesting as O'Reilly was not transported to Van Diemans Land but to Fremantle in Western Australia!
After arriving in January 1868, O'Reilly was locked up in Fremantle Prison but within a month was sent to Bunbury and assigned with other convicts to help build the Bunbury-Vasse road. During this time O'Reilly managed to save a giant Mahogany tree. O'Reilly had noted that the road surveyors had marked the tree to come down. He pleaded with the warden to postpone the destruction of the tree until he could make his case to the chief warden at Bunbury. The official was so amused at O'Reilly's request that he told his wife who eventually intervened. The road was thus built around the tree which eventually became known as "O'Reilly's tree". Amazingly it stood till 1953 when it was cut down leaving a stump 5 feet in diameter.
O'Reilly quickly built up a relationship with the warden and was appointed a probationary convict constable. He became the main contact between the warden and his family as he was often sent as a messenger between the work camp and the prison and was a regular visitor to the warden's family home. In fact at some stage he began a romantic liaison with the warden's daughter. O'Reilly was an amateur poet and the liaison was discovered when one of his poems turned up. This nearly ended in O'Reillys death as he attempted suicide only to be saved by a fellow convict.
O'Reilly eventually escaped with the help of an Irish priest who organised for an American whaling ship to pick him up off the Western Australian coast. He was to row out to the ship but in the first instance the captain of the ship reneged and O'Reilly had to wait until the priest could organise another ship. Two weeks later O'Reilly along with another convict who had blackmailed the conspirators rowed three miles out to sea where they were picked up by another whaler. The ship had to be diverted and ended up at Mauritius which was a British Colony. The police came aboard as they had been tipped off that there was an escaped convict on board. The ship's captain gave up the blackmailer and denied O'Reilly was on board. Two more ship transfers and O'Reilly arrived in Philadelphia in November 1869 and was welcomed by the Irish compatriots in that City.
O'Reilly eventually gave up his extremist views and instead believed Ireland could achieve independence through raising their self esteem and view of themselves in the world. O'Reilly went on to become the editor of The Pilot a Boston newspaper. He also became a prolific poet and novelist. In fact he was said to be John F Kennedy's favourite poet. He even organised a successful escape for six Fenians who were still imprisoned in Fremantle by way of purchasing a whaling vessel to aid in the escape. O'Reilly eventually took his own life in 1890 by taking an overdose of his wife's sleeping tablets.
Having now done all this research and having discovered the potentially embarrassing fact that O'Reilly hadn't been transported to Van Diemans Land; I decided to purchase a copy of the book and sent it to Principal Management in Windmill Lane Dublin, the home of U2s management. I also sent a long fax outlining my request and what a good idea it would be if U2 came to Tasmania. I even suggested if they couldn't make a full scale gig at our local entertainment centre maybe they could do a scaled down unplugged gig at Port Arthur, where the remains of Tasmania's penal colony still stand.
Much to my surprise a few days later I received a fax back saying that they has acknowledged my fax. Not much of a response but a response none the less. Encouraged by this I purchased a book on Tasmania and sent it off. I composed another fax and explained that there was a top class recording facility at the ABC and I'm sure they could use it if inspiration took over and they wanted to record.

Knowing they had an environmental bent I even recruited the Wilderness Society to see if they could send a request as well. This was somewhat ironical as my family had had a previous run in with the Wilderness Society and were basically diametrically opposed to everything they stood for. But hell, this was U2!
Recollection also records me actually ringing up U2's tour manager, Dennis Sheehan late one night and having a long conversation with him on why the boys should come to Tassie. Dennis had been their tour manager since 1982 and had previously worked for Led Zeppelin. I recently looked him up on the net and discovered he has now been in the industry for 40 years.
After a few more faxes back and forth, the promoter informed me that no, the band would not be coming to Tassie but if you would like to come to Melbourne for one of their gigs they will organise a back stage pass.
I duly attended two of their concerts in Melbourne, (they had an extended run as this was before the big stadium extravaganzas) and went backstage after the first one. This is where the story comes full circle and after some time waiting to greet the Edge I was informed he was too tired from the performance to see me. Perhaps he was too embarrassed after his "mistake" about Van Diemans Land.
As a consolation I got to meet and have a nice conversation with the 5th member of the band, their manager since they were in school, Paul McGuiness. Apparently the band split all profits five ways to include Paul. His first comment to me was "so you're the guy who nearly wore out our fax machine!" And yes they did discuss coming to Tassie after my requests but unfortunately couldn't fit it in to the schedule.
So there you have it, so near but so far. But I did have the satisfaction of being acknowledged by Paul McGuiness and discovering a fantastic tale of a Fenian and his amazing life.
John - Hobart, Australia
Please don't pretend that the British justice system was fair or just in the 1800s. Some true criminals went to Australia but one could easily get convicted for any umber of innocent things -- like; falling in love with an aristocrat when you are of the wrong class, trapping a rabbit to feed your starving family in the forest behind your house that is claimed by the king. Doing anything that an aristocrat or royal didn't like -- espousing and idea of citizens' rights and etc. One could be knocked over the head, thrown on a boat and after the boat sails there is absolutely no recourse. It was easy to pay a couple of thugs to knock someone over the head and pay the captain to throw them on the boat just before sailing -- and on and on. you must at least be able to imagine the English justice towards Irish or any of the uppity lands.Al - San Francisco, Ca
I think Bono is a tremendous singer but he could not have pulled this song off like the Edge did. His voice has a really sad quality to it that makes this an incredible songPatrick - Overland Park, Ks
Aside from the first two lines bearing passing resemblance, the last "fact" here that this tune is from "The Water is Wide" is absolutely false. Any passing familiarity with the irish folk song - or a youtubing - will show the differences. The tune in Van Diemen's Land is original to my knowledge.Steve - New York, Ny
John Boyle O'Reilly was not the leader of any "uprising" in 1848. He was born in 1844 and stood trial in 1866 for work he did for a Fenian newspaper. He arrived in Fremantle, as James mentioned, in 1868. In 1869, he escaped on a whaling ship to America (definitely an inside job). www.jbo-club.comJame - Vacaville, Ca
While practicing for their North America Leg of the Zoo TV Tour they offered up a 10 dollar a person concert at hershey Park Stadium in Hershey PA...It was the Edge's Birthday...They let him sing this, then the entire stadium sang him "happy Birthday"Anthony - Avoca, Pa
Tasmania got called Van Diemen's Land by Able Tasman, becuase that's what his friend, and shipmate's name was, but it was changed to Tasmania in 1856, in honour of Able TasmanJacinta - Miena, Australia
Van Diemens Land now known as Tasmania was the most feared penal colony in the entire British Empire. The worst criminals and repeat offenders of the empire were sent to Port Arthur Tasmania. The prison at Port Arthur used a combination of both physical and pschological punishment to reform the convicts. It was beleived (through much evidence at the prison) that corporal physicial punishment only made the convicts at Port Arthur harder. It was described as an inescapeable prison, much like the later Alcatraz Island.Nick - Tasmania, Australia
British convicts who were 'transported' to Van Diemen's Land did more than sit in jail cells. As quoted in the fine book "The Fatal Shore," they were harnessed together and used like mules "to plow Van Diemen's Land." The early history of Australia is thoroughly terrifying.Mark - Lancaster, Oh
The lyrics printed in the liner notes contain an extra verse not included in the song as it appears on the Rattle And Hum CD. Furthermore, the "Now kings will rule..." verse, which is on the CD version of the song, was edited out of the version that appears in the film (as its main title theme).Joshua - Twin Cities, Mn
This song is about the Australian state of Tasmania(Van Dieman's Land was it's original song) and John O'Reilly having to go there, even though he was deported to Fremantle in Western Australia?James - New York, Ny
there's a fairly amusing comment in the liner notes of that song i think should be posted here: "Dedicated to John Boyle O'Reilly, a Fenian poet deported from Ireland to Australia because of his poetry. (It wasn't very good...!)"Angela - Hagerstown, Md
O'Reilly was the leader of the "Rising," not the "uprising."
Edge sang the only vocal on the record.
I agree, Amy, the Edge has a distinctive voice. It can be heard as the lead vocal on the song "Numb" from the Zooropa album, with Bono providing backup.
Ryan, with an Irish name like that...it's no "lighter" song!!!
Brian - Meriden, Ct
Actually Van Diemen's Land was the original name used by the Dutch for Tasmania. The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to explore Tasmania, he named the island Anthoonij van Diemenslandt in honor of Anthony van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies who had sent Tasman on his voyage of discovery in 1642.Chris - Christchurch, New Zealand
Another testament by U2 that the sacrifices of those like John Boyle O'Reilly and Padraig Henry Pearse are still relevant today. Beautiful.
It'd be nice if we got to hear more of The Edge's voice- I love Bono, but The Edge has a really unique quality to his voice.
Amy Friel - Barrie, Canada
i love this song so much,just makes me wanna grab a lighter everytime i hear itRyan - Albion, Ny
Van Diemen's Land was actually the name first used by the British for Tasmania, until 1856 when it was changed.Adam - Hobart, Australia