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John (Patrick) O'Grady (1907–1981)

by Richard White

This article was published:

John (Patrick) O’Grady (1907-1981), pharmacist and author, was born on 9 October 1907 at Waverley, Sydney, eldest of eight surviving children of Victorian-born parents John Edward O’Grady, clerk in the Department of Lands who edited the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, and his wife Margaret, née Gleeson, whom O’Grady described as ‘five feet two inches (158 cm) of Irish-Australian pugnacity’. He grew up in suburban Waverley, until the family took up an isolated mixed farm on the Peel River near Tamworth. There he received nightly lessons—including Latin—accompanied by corporal punishment from his disciplinarian father. He also imbibed Anglophobia, Catholic morality and Irish sentimentalism. First attending school aged 12, from 1923 he boarded at St Stanislaus’ College, Bathurst.

After studying at the University of Sydney, O’Grady became a registered pharmacist in 1929, but was retrenched from his position with Washington H. Soul Pattinson & Co. Ltd. On 9 October 1930 at the Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, Waverley, he married Lorna Maria Schreiber. The next year he bought into a pharmacy at Ballina but the heavy debt and cost of raising three young sons took their toll. He sold out, left his family with his wife’s parents at Muswellbrook, and became a rolling stone, as a medical officer in coastal passenger steamers and a travelling salesman for a pharmaceutical importer, including a regular round crossing the Nullarbor to Perth.

Divorced in June 1941, on 26 December at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, O’Grady married Margaret (Meg) Elizabeth Lockey. He enlisted on 22 January 1942 in the (Royal) Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. Promoted to staff sergeant in November, he served in Victoria and New South Wales, and aboard the hospital ship Manunda. On 22 February 1946 he was commissioned as a lieutenant and appointed a pharmacist. He was promoted to temporary captain, Interim Army, in December 1947 and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 6 April 1950. That year he and his wife divorced.

Although O’Grady was writing poetry, short stories and plays, spasmodic publication and literary contests provided no more ‘than a few beers’. He hovered on the fringe of minor bohemian and theatrical circles, enjoying his role as a garrulous ‘mad Irishman’, and seeing himself as a virile ‘real man’ among ‘arty looking dames & long haired male ineffectuals’, but feeling an outsider and disapproving of promiscuity. He met Mary (Molly) Winefriede Carroll, an amateur player with Sydney Repertory Theatre, which O’Grady managed. They married on 3 October 1952 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney.

Conventional pharmacy bored O’Grady. Physically fit, he had stints bricklaying and fishing and in 1956-58 was the New Zealand government pharmacist in Western Samoa, where he enjoyed wearing Islander dress. While in New Zealand waiting for the appointment to be organised, he completed They’re a Weird Mob (1957). Supposedly the work of an Italian immigrant, ‘Nino Culotta’, the book was an instant hit, with sales of 930 000 in his lifetime. O’Grady enjoyed claiming that the meaning of Culotta — ’big arse’ — was not picked up. As he saw it, giving a voice to the migrant was a contribution to assimilation.

The novel’s success provided more security: O’Grady travelled to Italy to write a sequel and built a home at Oatley, Sydney. Fifteen more books followed, using the same formula of humour, an ear for colloquialism and experience-based research — such as gouging at Lightning Ridge or boat-building on the Barrier Reef. His books sold well but by the 1970s his brand of humour was widely regarded as old-fashioned and unsophisticated. He was ambivalent about the 1966 film of They’re a Weird Mob. In 1977 he published There Was a Kid, the first volume of his autobiography. Delighting in his own outspokenness and eccentricity as ‘an elderly delinquent’, he expressed the pharmacist’s contempt for the medical profession, an anti-communist’s admiration for Khrushchev and unexpected views on domestic work — he claimed he did much of the cooking and housework. Survived by his wife and the three sons of his first marriage and the daughter of his second, he died on 14 January 1981 in his home at Oatley and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Walkabout, Mar 1965, p 24
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Jan 1981, p 2
  • B883, item VX73000 (National Archives of Australia)
  • O’Grady papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard White, 'O'Grady, John (Patrick) (1907–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 October, 1907
Waverley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


14 January, 1981 (aged 73)
Oatley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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