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John Lawrence Tierney (1892–1972)

by Mary McPherson

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John Lawrence Tierney (1892-1972), schoolteacher and author, was born on 17 June 1892 on the family farm at Eurunderee, near Mudgee, New South Wales, youngest of ten children of John Tierney (d.1891), a schoolteacher from Ireland, and his German-born wife Elizabeth, née Rheinberger. Young John attended Eurunderee Public School (where his father had taught Henry Lawson) and Mudgee District School. He entered Teachers' College, Sydney, in 1911 and began to teach in 1913. As an evening student, he studied English at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1914; M.A., 1922) and wrote his thesis on Australian literature. He spent 1923 in Britain, teaching at St George's College, Weybridge, and studying for a diploma of education (awarded in 1925) at the University of Oxford. Between various short postings, he taught at Sydney Technical High School (1918-24) and Fort Street (1924-39). He was at Homebush High School from 1944 until he retired in 1951.

On 6 September 1932, at Wollstonecraft, Tierney had married with Catholic rites Effie Isabelle Brodie, a clerk and an Anglican. They lived at Pennant Hills before moving in 1939 to Beecroft where they remained for most of their lives. Tierney's bush-lore approach to his garden and orchard led him to dig a deep trench (through sandstone in some places) around his Beecroft garden to prevent the roots of bush trees from feeding on his soil. His children long remembered the joys and dangers of 'Dad's trench'.

Effie and her friend Marjorie Barnard (with whom she had worked at Sydney Technical College library) encouraged Tierney to write down some of the stories that he told them about his largely unrewarded efforts to become a commercially successful orchardist at Glenorie. Barnard advised him to send them to the Bulletin. He met Douglas Stewart, editor of the 'Red Page', and Norman Lindsay who became a close friend. Both were enthusiastic about his writing. Stewart described Tierney as 'long and stooping, with a sharp inquisitive nose and small bright darting blue eyes. He had a genial, sympathetic manner and, with his reddish, weather-tanned face, looked like a farmer or the priest of a country parish'. Lindsay commended his love of the earth and its produce, and his characteristic modesty.

Tierney's first of many short stories, 'Uncle's Career', appeared in the Bulletin on 17 June 1942 under his pen-name, 'Brian James'. He published four collections of short stories, First Furrow (1944), Cookabundy Bridge (1946, awarded the S. H. Prior memorial prize), The Bunyip of Barney's Elbow (1956) and The Big Burn (1965). As Brian James, he also edited Selected Australian Stories (Melbourne, 1959) and Australian Short Stories (London, 1963). His two novels, The Advancement of Spencer Button (1950) and Hopeton High (1963), drew on his experiences and observations as a schoolteacher.

In all his work, Tierney conveyed the comic aspects of character and situation by means of dry understatement; gifted with a sense of place, he also portrayed the physical surroundings of his characters. He wrote rapidly in exercise books, and rewrote little. His unpublished pieces include reminiscences of his childhood at Eurunderee. Survived by his wife, their daughter and two of their three sons, he died on 11 February 1972 at Burwood and was buried in North Rocks cemetery. Brian James belonged to the same Bulletin tradition as Arthur Hoey Davis ('Steele Rudd'), Frank Dalby Davison and Eric Schlunke. He shared with them a sardonic sense of humour and a capacity for satire, realism and stylistic economy.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Lindsay, 'Introduction', in B. James, The Big Burn (Syd, 1965)
  • D. Stewart, Norman Lindsay (Melb, 1975)
  • H. de Berg, interview with John Tierney (transcript, 1967, National Library of Australia)
  • Tierney papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Norman Lindsay papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Angus and Robertson correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • teachers' records (New South Wales Department of Education, Sydney)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mary McPherson, 'Tierney, John Lawrence (1892–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • James, Brian

17 June, 1892
Eurundee, New South Wales, Australia


11 February, 1972 (aged 79)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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