Stolen Life – Frank McNally on the extraordinary story of an Australian Kerryman

John Kundereri Moriarty is a man of many talents

Among John Kundereri Moriarty’s many talents is playing the didgeridoo and, where necessary, improvising the technique on related instruments.

So it was that in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel on Thursday, one of his Irish friends inquired of staff if we could borrow a vacuum cleaner.

The surprise request was relayed up the line and politely refused. It wasn’t a health and safety issue, as you might expect. It was the hotel’s “no music” rule.

Despite the lung power he could have demonstrated on the tube of a Hoover, if allowed, Moriarty is a quiet-spoken man. He defers to his wife Ros as “a better story-teller”. But however quietly told, his own story is an extraordinary one.


It began about 85 years ago in Borroloola, the town in Australia’s Northern Territory where he was born. The “Moriarty” came from his father, a Kerryman. The rest of his identity, informed by 20,000 years of oral tradition, was inherited via his mother, a member of the Aboriginal Yanyuwa people.

But this was 1938 and marriages between whites and aborigines were illegal. The prevailing belief in official circles was that Australia’s indigenous population was doomed to extinction.

In the meantime, “half-caste” children needed to be educated out of their native languages and culture. So one day, when he was four, John was packed onto the back of a truck along with others and driven away to a new life. His mother was not consulted. He would not see her again for 10 years.

From then on, like other members of the “stolen generation”, he grew up in homes for aboriginal children, first in Sydney, then Adelaide.

Among the things he discovered in Adelaide was a talent for soccer. As a barefoot youngster, he was promising enough that a local club tried to sign him up. His initial reluctance gave way when they pointed out that football boots would be part of the deal.

A flying winger, he went on to play in the South Australian first division. He was picked for the state too, and eventually for Australia – the first Aborigine so honoured. Alas, the national team was banned by Fifa at the time. He never got to wear the shirt.

Visiting Alice Springs once, aged 15, he had noticed a woman across the street looking at him intensely. She approached, asked his name and where he was from, and said: “I’m your mother.”

For various reasons, they were separated again soon afterwards, until John was 30. But having been educated in English, raised an Anglican, and randomly allocated a birthday of April 1st, he was now increasingly aware of the identity taken from him.

In 1964 he became a founding member of the Aborigines Progress Association, the fruits of which included a magazine called Identity. He went to serve in various capacities for Australia’s new Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

He was also reclaiming lost heritage through yet another of his talents: art. By then married, he and Ros set up the Balarinji design agency in 1983, to bring indigenous art into the mainstream.

Late one night, Ros had the brainwave of covering an aeroplane with their designs. John jokes that he told her to “go back to sleep”. But it was an inspired idea.

After 18 months’ persuasion, Qantas agreed to provide one of their Boeing 747s as a canvas, for which Moriarty drew on his community’s origin story, or “Dreaming”, with spectacular effect. It was an Aboriginal Sistine Chapel, but one that flew around the world. Five Quantas planes were eventually repainted, a couple still in service.

The next generation of Moriartys are flying high these days too. Son Tim, another “didge” player, joined U2 on stage in Australia. Daughter Julia has represented Ireland at tennis.

John and Ros were in Dublin this week to meet Brendan Kilty, who as well as trying to borrow the Shelbourne’s vacuum cleaner, had commissioned another paint job. The indefatigable Joycean was last mentioned in this column in December, when he led a solstice watch on Killiney Hill, with a telescope trained on the distant Newgrange.

Now he plans to bring a piece of Killiney to Newgrange in tribute, carried up the Boyne in a currach, the Naomh Breandán. But first he was having the currach repainted, Balarinji-style. In a ceremony on Friday, he also formally lengthened the name of the vessel to include “John Kundereri Moriarty”.

The Moriartys arrived from Tralee, where John had been retracing his Irish origin story. He has no memory of ever meeting his father, but knew he was from somewhere around Blennerville.

Out for a stroll there this week, they met Moss O’Donnell (92) and, on the off-chance, asked if he might have any idea where the house was. That’s it there, O’Donnell said, pointing to a roofless cottage. Ireland being Ireland, he went on to provide a full run-down on the family, including John’s father, who had left Kerry many decades ago, aged 28.