IT is a long held belief that legendary bushman Jack Riley was the stockman that provided the inspiration for Banjo Patterson to write his iconic poem ‘The Man From Snowy River’, writes Tom Gillespie.
Riley was born in Castlebar, in 1841, to Daniel and Anne (nee Murray) Reily. At the age of 13 he migrated to Australia, arriving in Sydney on the ship ‘The Rodney’ on March 15, 1854, and went to live in Omeo.
He opened a tailoring business and then worked as a stockman at Monaro where he acquired a reputation for his horse handling. In 1884 he became manager of ‘Tom Groggin’ where he ran 20,000 acres.
In 1890 Banjo Paterson, the poet, stayed a night at Jack Riley's hut. Riley told the tale of one of his exploits about chasing a herd of wild horses, and from this Banjo Paterson wrote his poem ‘The Man From Snowy River’.
The reclusive horseman confided to friends later in his life he was indeed the ‘stripling’ portrayed in the wild roundup.
Riley 'let his pony have his head’, in that near suicidal charge down the mountainside in pursuit of the colt from Old Regret.
There has long been conjecture about Paterson's hero, since the author himself never revealed the identity of his champion during his own lifetime.
Jack lived in isolation in a hut high up in the hills at Tom Groggin. He loved the Snowy Mountain Country, a good yarn and enjoyed a social drink or two. Jack was also a good mate of the late Walter Mitchell of Towong Station, who introduced Jack Riley to Banjo Paterson when the pair were on a camping trip. They trekked the Kosciusko Ranges and the Snowys, and shared many campfires and yarns too.
Banjo Paterson also wrote a poem about Jack Riley's cow. This is further testimony to a meeting with Jack and the friendship they shared.
Corryong was the closest township to Riley and the locals remember he would visit three or four times a year for supplies.
Sydney businessman Duncan McDonald has owned Tom Groggin Station on the Victorian-NSW border for 20 years where Riley lived as a hermit in a bush hut.
“Paterson never said who it was but I have done a fair bit of research and there seems no doubt it was Riley,” Mr. McDonald said.
“I sort of think it is good that Paterson never said who it was. It keeps the mystery alive a bit.”
Researchers and fans continue to trawl over the clues left about the origins of the heroic horseman.
A member of the Victorian High Country Huts Association, Richard Hubbard, has been accumulating information about Riley most of his life.
“I am about three-quarters of the way through a book. There has been a lot of errors made in the past - dates and places, that sort of thing,” Mr Hubbard said. “I want to correct them, that's why I am writing the book.”
Mr. Hubbard said Riley himself believed ‘quite strongly’ he was the man in the poem. “He told friends as much.”
Mr. Hubbard said all the available evidence also supported Riley's claim.
“He was the only one to meet Paterson before he wrote the poem.”
According to legend, the late Walter Mitchell of Towong Station introduced Riley to Banjo Paterson when the pair were camping through the Snowy Mountains.
When friends found him very sick on July 15, 1914, and attempted to get him to a doctor, it was Corryong Hospital they brought him to, although he died along the way. He was buried the next day at Corryong Cemetery.
Castlebar historians Brian Hoban and Ernie Sweeney have done research into the life of Jack Riley.
Here are a few verses of The Man from Snowy River:
There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses — he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far
Had mustered at the homestead overnight,
For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are,
And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight.
There was Harrison, who made his pile when Pardon won the cup,
The old man with his hair as white as snow;
But few could ride beside him when his blood was fairly up —
He would go wherever horse and man could go.
And Clancy of the Overflow came down to lend a hand,
No better horseman ever held the reins;
For never horse could throw him while the saddle-girths would stand,
He learnt to ride while droving on the plains.
And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony — three parts thoroughbred at least —
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
He was hard and tough and wiry — just the sort that won’t say die —
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.
But still so slight and weedy, one would doubt his power to stay,
And the old man said, ‘That horse will never do
For a long and tiring gallop — lad, you’d better stop away,
Those hills are far too rough for such as you.’
So he waited sad and wistful — only Clancy stood his friend —
‘I think we ought to let him come,’ he said;
‘I warrant he’ll be with us when he’s wanted at the end,
For both his horse and he are mountain bred.
‘He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.
And the Snowy River riders on the mountains make their home,
Where the river runs those giant hills between;
I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,
But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen.’
So he went — they found the horses by the big mimosa clump —
They raced away towards the mountain’s brow,
And the old man gave his orders, ‘Boys, go at them from the jump,
No use to try for fancy riding now.
And, Clancy, you must wheel them, try and wheel them to the right.
Ride boldly, lad, and never fear the spills,
For never yet was rider that could keep the mob in sight,
If once they gain the shelter of those hills.’