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John Anthony Ryan (1922–2021)

by Chris Cunneen

John Ryan, n.d.

John Ryan, n.d.

photo provided by family

Born at Portland, NSW, 7 September 1922, John Ryan was the eldest of three children of Michael Thomas Ryan (1891-1966), a billiard marker born at Tuena, NSW, and his wife Mary Margaret, née Kelly (1886-1968), a nurse born in New Zealand. Both parents were of Irish Catholic ancestry and members of the Australian Labor Party. 

Michael Ryan was a tall, strapping, athletic man who had lost his leg in a mining accident when he was 19 and met Mary Kelly while recuperating in Portland hospital. Handicapped by his wooden leg, he took work in a billiard saloon opposite the Coronation Hotel. Later he managed the saloon and took over as SP [Starting Price] bookmaker. Rather than revealing his true occupation, he adopted the appellation “billiard marker” for official purposes. Later he became a storekeeper in Penshurst. John later wrote, “My dad was a country bookie and he owned a succession of slow thoroughbreds … In our house we lived and breathed racing ... we never missed a big meeting”.[1]

Educated at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary school, Portland, John included among his childhood friends Jack Mackey VC the son of the local baker. Later John was a boarder at St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, in 1936-39. His five straight A’s in the Leaving Certificate led to a scholarship in 1940 to Armidale Teachers College.

On 30 October 1941 in Armidale he enlisted for full time duty for World War II, was assigned to the Australian Artillery and posted to Darwin in June 1943 where he became a gunnery sergeant. Sent from Darwin to POW camp at Hay in January 1945, he was discharged from army on 29 January 1946, resuming his studies at Armidale Teachers College.

He taught at schools in Sydney and Newcastle from 1947 and studied part-time, graduating BA (Hons) from University of Sydney in 1952.

At St Vincent’s Catholic Church, Ashfield, in 1955 John married Patricia Mary Maher, a librarian at Sydney City Library.

Awarded a Fulbright Scholarship exchange to Western Reserve Academy, Hudson, Ohio, USA in 1955-56, in 1957 he resumed teaching in Sydney until appointed lecturer in history at Sydney Teachers College in 1960. In the 1960s he bought a house on a bush-adjacent block at West Pymble, retained till the end of his life.

In 1966 John graduated MA (Hons 1st class) from University of Sydney, with an outstanding thesis, ‘B. R. Wise: An Oxford Liberal in the Freetrade Party of New South Wales’. It has not been published, but an article in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1995[2] included material from the thesis. His other scholarly publications included ‘Faction Politics: a Problem in Historical Interpretation’ in the Australian Economic History Review in 1968,[3] and ‘Racing in Two Cities: a Sydney View’ in Richard Cashman and Michael McKernan (eds), Sport, Money, Morality and the Media.[4] Cashman remembers him as “a good raconteur and a whimsical person”.

A close friend of Bede Nairn’s, John was a foundation member from 1965 to 1988 of the New South Wales Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography and remained a helpful adviser thereafter. He wrote eight articles for the ADB, the first on Edward Wise in 1976, the last on the Wootton family of trainers and jockeys in 2005.

Appointed foundation lecturer in Australian History in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Political Studies at Macquarie University in 1967 and promoted to senior lecturer at Macquarie University in 1969, he was a committed and inspirational teacher. Andrew Moore, a former student of John’s remembers him as a very thoughtful and kind tutor. John’s weekly study guides were always intelligent and perceptive such that Andrew continued to reference them in his own university teaching of Australian colonial history between 1984 and 2012. 

John Ryan set up one of the earliest university courses in Aboriginal History given by Aboriginal lecturers. In 1973 he took study leave to Oxford University, UK, and retired from Macquarie University in 1985, in which year he was visiting lecturer at Rollins College, Florida, USA.

In a long and happy retirement, John enjoyed being paterfamilias of a loving family. He was a devoted husband, father, brother, uncle and grandfather. Favourite pastimes included watching cricket, enjoying classical music and getting into the garden.

As he wrote to me in 2015, he also spent his later years writing about the world of “the theatre of the racecourse”. Like his father, he loved thoroughbred racing, liked a bet and always enjoyed a day out at the track. From 1994 to 2009 John was historian and archivist at the Australian Jockey Club, Randwick. He catalogued and organised the archives, wrote many historical articles for the New South Wales Racing Calendar and in 2003-2004 was consulting historian for the ABC-TV series “The Track”.

He and both his parents were long-time members of the Australian Labor Party. John joined in his teenage years but let his membership lapse, somewhat disillusioned by the corruption allegations facing NSW Labor, which emerged in the 2000's.

John Ryan died in Wollongong Hospital on 11 April 2021, aged 98, survived by his wife and their two daughters and two sons, and ten grandchildren. He was buried after a Requiem Mass, co-celebrated by his brother Father Paul Ryan, at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church, West Pymble.  

* by Chris Cunneen, with many thanks to Michael and Chris Ryan and the Ryan family

[1] Profile of John Ryan in Racing NSW Calendar, undated, but sent to me by John in 2015.

[2] Vol 81, no 1, June 1995, pp 71-84.

[3] Vol 8, issue 1, January 1968, pp 37-71.

[4] New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1981 (papers delivered at the second national conference on sports history held at the University of New South Wales in June 1979).

Original publication

View the list of ADB articles written by John Anthony Ryan

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Ryan, John Anthony (1922–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

John Ryan, n.d.

John Ryan, n.d.

photo provided by family

Life Summary [details]


7 September, 1922
Portland, New South Wales, Australia


11 April, 2021 (aged 98)
Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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