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Ronan, Thomas Matthew (Tom) (1907–1976)

by Donald Grant

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Thomas Matthew (Tom) Ronan (1907-1976), author, was born on 11 November 1907 in Perth, second child of Victorian-born parents Denis James (Jim) Ronan, station-manager, and his wife Julia, née Richardson (d.1919). Tom's early childhood was spent at Roebuck Plains station, near Broome. His father told the children yarns and anecdotes; his mother, an amateur actress, entertained them with monologues from Shakespeare. He attended Christian Brothers' College, Perth, for five and a half interrupted years and recalled that 'I never fitted in at school, any more than I subsequently did in the Army or in the Government Service'. Fascinated by words, however, he developed a love of reading.

Ronan left school at 14 and went droving with his father in the North-West. Then came four years (1923-26) as a ship's clerk and shell-opener in Broome-based pearling boats. In 1927-34 he helped his father and Mat Wilson to manage the Victoria River depot on Koonbook station where he met many of the 'hard cases' who were to bring life to his books. As one of them said: 'Those of us . . . who aren't dodging the police are dodging wives, and we'd nearly all get put in the asylum if we went back to any civilised part of the country'. By 1934 Mat Wilson had committed suicide, Jim Ronan was a pensioner in Darwin hospital and Tom Ronan was 'broke'. He spent six years as a drover and stockman in the Kimberley and the Northern Territory.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 2 July 1940, Ronan was allotted to the 2nd/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and fought at El Alamein, Egypt. In February 1943 he returned to Australia with his regiment. He was discharged from the army on 29 May 1944 to be re-employed in the meat industry, an essential war occupation. Found to have a duodenal ulcer, he spent time in hospital and began writing his first novel, Strangers on the Ophir (Sydney, 1945). He went back to the cattle country and became manager of Newry station, near the source of the Keep River, Northern Territory.

At the Star of the Sea Church, Kirribilli, Sydney, on 29 December 1947 Ronan married with Catholic rites Mary Elizabeth ('Moya') Kearins, a 30-year-old writer for radio; they were to have ten children. In 1949 they bought Springvale homestead at Katherine, Northern Territory. While living there, Ronan worked (1950-57) as a technical assistant at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's research station. Elected to the Legislative Assembly for Batchelor in May 1954, he resigned his seat in April 1955. He chaired (1963-65) the Northern Territory Tourist Board and later ran a herd of one hundred milking goats.

Ronan had won a Commonwealth Jubilee Literary Competition in 1951 with the manuscript of a novel, Vision Splendid (London, 1954). In 1954 and 1963 he was awarded Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowships. He wrote four of his five novels at Springvale, a biography of his father, Deep of the Sky (London, 1962), and two volumes of autobiography, Packhorse and Pearling Boat (Melbourne, 1964) and Once There was a Bagman (Melbourne, 1966). Moya, who was described as 'beautiful, gracious, steadfast [and] talented', helped to edit her husband's books. They provide the most authentic and probably the liveliest writing about life in the North-West 'big river country', where he 'was at home'. Elizabeth Durack, a friend, described Ronan as thin, balding, tall and rangy, with penetrating brown eyes, and regarded him as 'a good raconteur'. In 1969 he moved to Adelaide. He died of bronchopneumonia on 15 July 1976 in Royal Adelaide Hospital and was cremated; his wife, six of his seven sons and two of his three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Forrest, Springvale's Story (Darwin, 1985)
  • People (Sydney), 22 Oct 1952
  • Walkabout, 32, no 9, Sept 1966, 34, no 6, June 1968
  • West Australian, 7 Jan 1967, 20 Aug 1968
  • Weekend News, 24 Aug, 25 Sept 1968
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 July 1976
  • H. de Berg, interview with Tom Ronan (transcript, 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Donald Grant, 'Ronan, Thomas Matthew (Tom) (1907–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ronan-thomas-matthew-tom-11558/text20627, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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