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Niland, D'Arcy Francis (1917–1967)

by Bruce Moore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

D'Arcy Francis Niland (1917-1967), by unknown photographer, 1967

D'Arcy Francis Niland (1917-1967), by unknown photographer, 1967

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L59471

D'Arcy Francis Niland (1917-1967), author, was born on 20 October 1917 at Glen Innes, New South Wales, eldest of six children of native-born parents Francis Augustus Niland, a cooper who became a woolclasser, and his wife Barbara Lucy, née Egan. The family was of Irish-Catholic ancestry, a background which was to feed into much of Niland's writing. He was named after the boxer Les Darcy, but later spelt his Christian name 'D'Arcy'.

Educated at the convent of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Glen Innes, Niland left school at the age of 14, hoping to become a writer. For two years he accompanied his father around the local shearing sheds and had first-hand experience of the effects of the Depression in rural areas. At 16 he gained the position of copy-boy at the Sydney Sun newspaper, a potential stepping-stone to a career as a journalist, but he was retrenched after a year. He returned to the country, taking up whatever work was available. By the late 1930s he was back in Sydney, earning his living as a railway porter. He was rejected for military service in World War II because of a cardiac condition. Under the orders of the Directorate of Manpower, he worked in the shearing sheds of north-west New South Wales.

At St Peter's Catholic Church, Surry Hills, on 11 May 1942 Niland married Rosina Ruth Park, a 23-year-old journalist from New Zealand; they were to have five children, including twin daughters. D'Arcy and Ruth determined that they would pursue careers as professional writers, a decision which meant they had to produce material such as short stories, radio scripts and even jingles that would bring immediate financial returns. An account of their efforts is found in their autobiography, The Drums Go Bang (1956). D'Arcy established himself as a prolific short story writer. His knowledge of the practicalities of professional writing is evident in his book, Make Your Stories Sell (1955).

A significant shift in his career occurred in 1947 when Ruth Park's novel, The Harp in the South (1948), won first prize of £2000 in the Sydney Morning Herald literary competition. Niland then turned to writing novels. In the 1948-49 S.M.H. literary competition he won second prize of £50 in the short story section, and third prize of £500 in the novel section for Gold in the Streets (London, 1959). In the 1951 Commonwealth Jubilee literary competition he won second prize of £100 in the short story section (and a special prize of £50) and second prize of £500 in the novel section for The Big Smoke (London, 1959). As a result of these prizes, he was awarded £600 in 1952 by the Commonwealth Literary Fund to write a novel.

Niland again took to the road for research. The resulting novel, The Shiralee (1955), told the story of a swagman and his 4-year-old daughter. The book proved an international success, and in 1957 was made into a motion picture with Peter Finch as the swagman. Niland subsequently published the novels, Call Me When the Cross Turns Over (1957) and The Apprentices (1965), and four collections of short stories, The Ballad of the Fat Bushranger (1961), Logan's Girl (1961), Dadda Jumped Over Two Elephants (London, 1961) and Pairs and Loners (1966). The novel, Dead Men Running (1969), was completed two days before he died of myocardial infarction on 29 March 1967 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst. Survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, he was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. His extensive research for a biography of Les Darcy was used by Ruth Park and Rafe Champion in Home Before Dark (Melbourne, 1995).

Although gregarious by nature, Niland was also absorbed in the art and craft of writing. He is best remembered for The Shiralee which uses as its title an obscure Australian word of unknown origin for a 'swag'. As metaphor in the novel the shiralee is paradoxical: like the swag, the child is both a burden and a source of living. Niland's writing reveals a man who was profoundly aware of the paradoxical burdens and vitality of the shiralees which all human beings must carry, whether those burdens be (as in The Shiralee) the responsibility of fatherhood, or (as in Dead Men Running) the responsibility of Irish political history, Australian nationhood and mateship, or (as in his career as a whole) the responsibility of writing.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Hetherington, Forty-Two Faces (Melb, 1962)
  • R. Park, A Fence Around the Cuckoo (Melb, 1992)
  • R. Park, Fishing in the Styx (Melb, 1993)
  • Armidale and District Historical Society, Journal and Proceedings, 16, 1973, p 48
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Oct 1949, 24 Dec 1951, 26 Feb, 11 Nov 1952, 17 Apr 1955, 31 Mar 1967.

Citation details

Bruce Moore, 'Niland, D'Arcy Francis (1917–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/niland-darcy-francis-11242/text20049, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

D'Arcy Francis Niland (1917-1967), by unknown photographer, 1967

D'Arcy Francis Niland (1917-1967), by unknown photographer, 1967

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L59471