Remembering Ronald Ryan

THE SUNDAY AGE

Saturday September 3, 1994

John Larkin

Barry Dickins was challenged to tell Ryan's story way back in the Seventies. Two decades later, the play is opening in Melbourne.

THE morning that Ronald Ryan was hanged, on 3 February 1967, Barry Dickins was riding the red rattler to work from Reservoir. It was very hot, as it was on 19 December 1965, when Ryan and Peter Walker made their break from Pentridge, resulting in the fatal shooting of warder George Hodson, that led to Ryan's sentence of death. He was the last person to be executed in Australia.

Just before eight o'clock, the train stopped, at Merri Creek. As they waited, cursing the prospect of being late, the sweltering passengers opened the doors, gasping for air. Over at the jail, at about that moment, Ryan was having all of the air throttled out of him by a rope.

The passengers looked at their watches, and knew when Ryan was gone.

Dickins says that, just as when John F.Kennedy was shot in November 1963, everybody remembers what he or she was doing the moment that Ryan went.

I recall that there was a terrible stillness over Melbourne that morning, a great sense of dread, and after it was over an awful feeling of shame, which the city still carries today deep in its blood and bones. This is about to be exhumed by what Barry Dickins is now doing, and may be to some degree exorcised.

Back then, young Barry was 18, working in a printing factory, and mad about reading (books rather than newspapers). He hardly ever watched TV, either. He wanted to be able to write like Albert Camus. So, he was not really up with the Ryan case, thinking it was local politics.

Yet with his artist's eye he still remembers seeing through the open carriage door that there were thistles growing on the waste ground near the train that morning, with purple flowers standing up in the heat. Then he saw graffiti on a big pipe across the creek. In big black letters, painted upside down were the words: ``HANG BOLTE".

THIS shocked Barry, and he said to his brother, John, who was travelling with him: ``But that's our Premier!" Today he says: ``That's how naive I was then, how protected. I was living in Fairyland."

Dickins still occupies a rarefied place, these days as a man of letters, as one of Australia's most original, prolific, diverse, perverse, and clever rogue writers, of plays, books, film scripts, newspaper articles and poems, often illustrated as well by him, for he also sketches and paints. Sometimes he is an actor, too. And he supports the Fitzroy Football Club.

His rich and complex characters, who confront their audiences and readers and always demand a response, are created in great swoopings of passionate and compassionate outpourings, often as mad, saintly and damaged souls, eccentrics, battlers, struggling to keep not only their bodies but their dignity alive. His favorite Camus book is `The Outsider'.

So, it is hardly any wonder that he has taken up the curious, blood- curdling, but also at times comic, soul-searching case of Ronald Ryan, who had the darkest Irish luck, and died at the hands of a government determined to have its way, against so much public opinion, led by a liberal press. Throwing the myth of ``Mad Dog" Ryan back on the society that authorised such a dreadful event to happen in so-called civilised times, Dickins says: ``I had to write about him, to give him justice".

`Remember Ronald Ryan', which has its world premiere this month at Playbox, is a big play, even by Dickins's standards. Directed by Malcolm Robertson, it has nine actors playing 90 characters in 77 scenes, the first third of which cover the escape from Pentridge, a crazy scramble over the wall, and then the pursuit, with people shouting and running, and bullets flying all over Sydney Road, one of them felling Hodson.

It has taken Dickins three years to research and write. He interviewed hundreds of people involved in the case, persuading many to talk for the first time, revealing so many facts and feelings. Several of them have become his friends.

Dickins himself has paid a high price for his devotion to the story. I remember seeing him in town sometimes after he had been out on the job, coming back full of pain, his face as white as Ryan's ghost.

The other day he related that when he once went to Pentridge he asked prison people there: ```Do you think it was regrettable that Ronald Ryan was hanged?' They said: `What do you mean?' Then they told me: `It was no different to hanging a dog'. That's how they talked. Those people aren't open to any scrutiny."

We were in the pub across Sydney Road from Pentridge, on an afternoon as bleak and cold as that February morning 27 years ago had been so hot, yet in another sense it had been cold, from what was about to transpire. The front face of the clock in the tower stopped, in a way time never did for Ryan.

Earlier, we walked around the edge of the prison while Dickins pointed out various places that had featured in the escape and pursuit, a muddle of disorganisation, in much the way that Ryan's life had always been, as a bungler, a mug punter, a pub dudder.

But Dickins does not regard Ryan as having been a violent man, despite the shooting of Hodson, and Ryan and Walker's hold-up at a bank in Ormond before their 17 days of freedom ended with their entrapment by police in a Sydney flat.

Dickins said it had seemed inevitable for him to tell Ryan's story, which he was first challenged to do back in 1978 by a couple of writers and ex-cons he was with in Stewart's Hotel, Carlton, in the days when he wrote and acted with the Pram Factory. At that time, he said, he did not have what he called the wherewithal.

How did he find the strength to persevere through what must have often been sheer horror? ``It's extreme excitement, a feeling that everything else has been leading to this. It's loving Ryan that's kept me going, loving what courage is.

``I got into the condemned cell three times. It's still there, in D division. You could hear the claws of the pigeons on the roof. I asked myself : `How in the world did Ryan achieve peace in the extreme in here?' He must have reviewed his life remorselessly in solitary, in H division, and examined his soul. I think he decided to do it - to hang - well. That was one thing they couldn't take off him.

``Ryan confessed to the then governor, Ian Grindlay, that he shot George Hodson, (but) to wing him ... Fellow crims in H division heard him blubbering after this confession, crying like a baby. Also, he'd confessed to Father Brosnan, the prison chaplain."

DICKINS interviewed seven of the 14 journalists who had been there, summoned by embossed invitation, like to a debutantes' ball. They were made to stand at attention. For his part, Ryan had to hop to the gallows because his knees were tied. There was more than a whiff of whisky on many breaths that morning, Ryan's included.

Ryan's exploits included stealing men's clothing - 1000 suits, but without the pants - again the mug punter - motor mowers, 2000 worth of bacon, flake, cigarettes, boxes of ballpoint pens, billiard balls. He was in for nine years when he broke out with Walker. He was doing hard labor, breaking rocks, and announced that he ``could do no more".

Dickins says: ``That was his shorthand way of painting the elusive portrait of liberty."

Among the many people Dickins interviewed was Ryan's former wife, Dorothy, in a caravan park on the northern New South Wales coast, and a daughter, Janet, who lives nearby. Dorothy told him: ``I want to get everything out." Even though they divorced one another, Dickins says: ``She loves him still, thinks of him, prays to him, needs him.

It's a terrible dependency, to need a ghost like Ryan's.

``He is seen by some members of the church as an exemplary Catholic.

He had special qualities that they admired. The Ryan story is a Catholic story. They thought he'd crack, but he died a hero. He kept his sense of humor." Ryan, who had changed to Church of England to marry Dorothy, converted back at the end.

From Dickins' account, Ryan showed extraordinary concern towards people in Pentridge who were going through the ordeal with him.

Clearly, Dickins has also picked up on the poet he found in Ryan, who expressed himself so eloquently at the end and showed no hatred despite a life of constant hardship.

Dickins describes in great detail the scene of the execution, with the hangman wearing welder's goggles so Ryan couldn't see his face, oversized gauntlets, a tweed jacket like an overcoat, and enormous boots.

``It took 25 seconds to murder him. I think that's the only appropriate word, because if Ryan slew Hodson then that deed was carried out in the heat of flight. When you look at the lead-up to the hanging, I say that Ryan was actually murdered over 14 months, because that was how long he had to endure the prospect.

``No one had a worse go than Ron Ryan."

`Remember Ronald Ryan' opens at Playbox in the C.U.B. Malthouse, South Melbourne, on 21 September, and runs until 8 October.

© 1994 THE SUNDAY AGE

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