Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

O'Reilly, Alfonso Bernard (1903–1975)

by R. W. Carter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Alfonso Bernard O'Reilly (1903-1975), bushman and author, was born on 3 September 1903 at Hartley, New South Wales, son of Peter Luke O'Reilly, grazier, and his wife Jane, née McAviney. Second youngest of a large family on a mixed farm in the Kanimbla valley, Bernard went to school at Cullenbenbong, then boarded at St Canice's School, Katoomba, when his family moved to Megalong in 1910. The oldest boys left to try dairying in the rugged McPherson Ranges, Queensland. In 1916 the family moved to Sandgate, Brisbane.

Finishing school in 1917 at St Joseph's College, Bernard went to the family selections. For the next nine years he worked the fledgling dairy and as a ranger explored the surrounding rainforest ridges and gorges of Lamington National Park. By 1926 the steadily growing number of visitors to the park encouraged the family to establish formal guest-house accommodation. Bernard continued with the failing dairy and increasing guest-house duties, carting supplies and guests from the foot of the range. He married Viola Gwendoline King at St Agatha's Catholic Church, Clayfield, Brisbane, on 20 August 1931.

On 19 February 1937 the Stinson airliner VH-UHH disappeared mysteriously between Brisbane and Sydney. With the aircraft unaccounted for after eight days, O'Reilly searched the McPherson Ranges on foot, following a private clue. On the second day he found wreckage and two emaciated, badly injured survivors, later the body of a third who had fallen while going for help. Four on board had died immediately when a cyclone dashed the aircraft into tall trees.

That evening O'Reilly hiked ten miles (16 km) through sodden rainforest, returning next day with a rescue party. He assisted in carrying out the survivors by stretcher relay. His name became a household word overnight and he a proficient public speaker through relating his story. O'Reilly was awarded the Albert medal, second class, for civilian bravery.

In 1942-45 he served with the 9th Division, Australian Imperial Force, in the Middle East, New Guinea and Borneo, as acting corporal from November 1944, utilizing his uncanny sense of direction, map-reading skills and ability to navigate by the stars. After the war he worked at various times at the family guest house, which became a Mecca for bird-watchers and for the Department of Forestry. In 1955 he established his own small guest house in the park at Lost World and from 1957 to 1963 also worked for the New South Wales railways. He sold his unsuccessful Lost World establishment in 1963 and returned to the mountains to live out his life, dying in Beaudesert Hospital on 20 January 1975 from heart failure following pneumonia. He was buried in Kerry cemetery. His wife and daughter survived him.

Easy-going, quiet and modest, O'Reilly wrote Green Mountains (Brisbane, 1940), largely through public demand; Charles Chauvel's film, Sons of Matthew (1949), was based on it. Successful as a writer, and encouraged by his family, he published tourist pamphlets and three other narrative works on country life—Cullenbenbong (1944), Wild Rriver (1949) and Over the Hills (1963)—as well as a book of verse, Songs from the Hills (1971).

Select Bibliography

  • People (Sydney), 28 Feb 1951
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 20 Feb–10 Mar 1937, 21 Jan 1975
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11, 16 Mar 1937, 1 Apr 1937, 5 Feb 1946, 21 Jan 1975, 2 Sept 1977
  • Herald (Melbourne), 23 May 1956, 22 Jan 1975.

Citation details

R. W. Carter, 'O'Reilly, Alfonso Bernard (1903–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oreilly-alfonso-bernard-7916/text13771, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 30 May 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016