Jack Riley 1841 – 1914
“Me name is Jack Riley to be sure, born in County Mayo, Ireland in 1841. The family had a small tailoring business as well as some horses. ‘Tis said I could ride before I could walk. I loved the geegees. Ah me land was a magical place back then. Leprechauns and fairies everywhere appearin’ from nowhere, tall stories and fables to put me to sleepy, heroes and legends to build me dreams, and a bit of gig to dance with me sis. Ah those days are gone. Things were pretty grim in Ireland in ’46; flat out getting enough to eat. Potatoes got the blight. We all left in fright.
We’d heard about this great land Australia where the streets were paved with gold. Bendigo and Ballarat, Yackandanda, Beechworth and Omeo were full of ‘em digging for it. So me da sent me sis, Maryanne, out to Omeo goldfields to start up a tailoring business. Maryanne met Joseph Jones, an Englishman, en route. They married in Berrima, New South Wales, the year they arrived, 1850. They settled in Omeo, ’round Cassilis and Swifts Creek. That’s right Irish lads and lasses were everywhere farming the Monaro High Plains from Cooma to Omeo back then.
My sis wrote saying all was well in Australia, so soon as I was old enough I was off. I came on the Rodney in ’54, to Sydney Cove. Thirteen I was and I came alone. Yer I could read and write. But no use reading and writing when you can’t eat. Well onto the ship I went, dressed up in me best. Me who had never seen the big ships and the rough seas. As soon as the clipper came ’round the Cape, the wind caught us good. It was tossing us ‘ere. It was tossing us there. I thought we was done. To be sure it was rough and it made me tough. I spent me time on deck leaning over the rail, feeding the fish.
After months at sea it was great to set foot on land, but what an odd land! Not like me Ireland at all. The hot sun burnt me skin, so I kept it all covered up. But the native people wore next to nothing, what? I’d be wondering what the nuns and the priests back home would say about that. Me ma and da would protest if I did that. So I always wore my best. Three piece with collar on me shirt.
At last I made it to Omeo. My sis had lots of kids. I was the uncle to their kids, yes I was. I met up with lots of Irish folk hoping to get rich. And there were horses. Big sprawling fields – paddocks they called them – with horses and riders to bring up the cattle. High country blokes would come to the pub, the Golden Age Hotel. Hard men with lines in their faces, where the wind could hide, would come to town looking as brown and dirty as the hide on their ride. They scared you at first but I got to know ‘em good. They bought me a beer (don’t tell sis!) and I’d take their horses to the livery for shoeing and repairs to their saddles. They caught me mind and moved it to another place. Me sis said I caught the mountain cattlemen’s bug. A wild spirit of adventure took possession of my soul and I couldn’t resist. I’d grab me horse and be off for days. Prendergast and Freebody boys, they gave me a job. Before I knew it I was riding with the best of ‘em. They told me about the Snowy Mountains and Mt Koszciusko and boy did that whet me desire.
The Snowy River would roar in Spring. The first warm days and melting snow from the tors would make a wall of water rush down; down to the place where I used to be. I knew up here was better than down there because here I am happy, not troubled no more. Not troubled by seeing hungry people on the side of the road. Death and dying in my childhood was everywhere. Still in my mind and in my dreams they are. But up here I can see it different, a different view. One where the kookaburra laughs with me too. The magic is with me again as the sun rises up to warm me back and the road ahead takes me back to the home I once knew. When I ride I am free as a bird. I see nothin’ ahead just joy to be alive. Sun sets gently, no need to fear the darkness of night. I wish I were here when I was growing up. I wish I was here back then.
To be sure the Murray River was a mighty river, winding and meandering through hills and valleys and green fields. There was a Store and a Pub at Tintaldra, at its head, a great place to camp under the brilliant stars. Tintaldra Store was built to provide all that the farmers needed. There I bought a pair of boots, a coat and a hat for the journey ahead.
Would you believe finally I made it to Tom Groggin Station at the foot of Mt Kossie as the locals called it. Me old nag had just made it so I picked out a new one from the brumbies the stockmen had brought in. I trained him and he was one fine pony to be sure; he never let me down. One day J.J. Pierce sent us stockmen out to fetch back his prize colt what had escaped and taken off. We trailed that prize colt to a brumby herd it had joined up with and Harrison said “no further”. But me and the pony took off down the slope, rounded them all up and brought them back. A true Irishman never is a quitter.
Years later, when I had well and truly decided that me old bones couldn’t ride any more, I had some visitors to me little mountain hut. To one I was a guide to another a muse. One was a bloke called Banjo Patterson, who wrote a bush poem about me ride and called me “the Man from Snowy River”! A little Irish bloke like me, to be sure! I told him a yarn over a bottle or two ’round the campfire. The tall stories and heroes came rushing back with a leprechaun to help me along. The little green man was leaning on me, true. His arm on my left shoulder, he was wearing his green top hat, leather boots and baggy pants, crossing his legs and lookin’ into the fire with a smile as though he knew something good was happenin’. ‘Banjo’ came a waltzing with the power of it all. I knew he would too. He remembered me good and now you can too.
Jack Riley lived in his bush hut on Hermit Mountain until 1914. Father Patrick Hartigan was called in at Khancoban when Jack took ill in 1910 to give the last rites. Father Hartigan was also a bush poet. He wrote about the meeting as John O’Brien in Round the Boree Log. In 1914, knowing Jack was very near the end, stockman mates from stations all round the Upper Murray carried Jack down the mountain track to Surveyor’s Hut, where he departed for that great ride in the sky. Corryong is his resting place because as the locals would say for years later he would always come this side of the mountains. The Mitchells from Towong Station, the Pierces from Tom Groggin Station and Greg Greg Station and Dan Cronin from Corryong saw to it that he stayed this side where you are now, the beautiful Upper Murray.
Written by Betty Walton and John Bacash
Copyright: John Bacash 2014