Australia’s Unknown: One man, One story, Two lives

Sinead Dalton

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guns and moneySince 2007 Ireland has not only felt the tight grip on our wallets but also the loss of youth from our country. As history repeats itself with the thousands upon thousands of young Irish  who have left our shores for a better chance in life we look and explore some of the countries that they have ventured to.

One particular place where the Irish have flooded to is the small suburb of St. Kilda, located in Melbourne. Renowned for its quirky cafes and sun kissed beach, there is a hidden side to this Melbourne suburb that is unknown to many. It may not have created the world’s biggest rock band or be home to many famous actors but it has produced one of Australia’s greatest writers, a Mr James McNeil; whose life was somewhat of a roller coaster ride.

Born on the 23rd of January, 1935, in St Kilda, the McNeil household was not what one would call a regular home. From a young age James’ life centred on violence and abuse; two elements that would heavily shape and influence the rest of his life. While his mother, Josephine dotted on him dearly, by the age of five his alcoholic father, Douglas McNeil had fled, leaving their mother to raise four young children alone.

As time progressed the darker side of James began to grow. At just age 12 he was caught by police for hitting a woman on Carlisle Street, St Kilda and stealing her handbag. Furthermore his first wife, Valerie became victim to a number of assaults over a period of time. Ross Honeywill, author of the book Wasted describes how “his marriage to Valerie was an emotional vacuum punctuated by fits of rage and violent jealousy.” James’ violence and paranoia streak grew deeper. After discovering that Valerie was having an affair, while he was in Mcleod prison, he cruelly branded the letter ‘J’ into both breasts with a hot iron; this, he felt would remind her of who she was married to.

A friend of Valerie’s also became a target for McNeil as he believed that she had influenced Valerie to have the affair. Her punishment was both terrifying and sadistic as McNeil left her for hours balancing, naked on a fruit box with a rope around her neck that was tied to a tree. One unsteady movement would have cost her her life.

Constantly in and out of jail, McNeil committed a series of robberies such as a general store in Elsternwick and the Royal Hotel in Springwood, New South Wales. 1967 would prove to be an end to his reign, and it was the robbery of the Olympic Hotel in Preston and shooting of a Constable Schute that would be the final nail in McNeil’s coffin.

At the age of just 32 he was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to 17 years in prison. It was as if McNeil portrayed no emotion, no remorse to the actions and pain that he inflicted on others. His sadistic actions painted him as a man without a soul, but it is within his writings that we see the true nature of this man.

picture by kconnor
picture by kconnor

Once inside the prison it was as if a new being was formed. McNeil joined the Resurgent’s Debating Society and it was not long before he debated with outsiders such as law students David Marr and Michael Eyers. No one knows how the artistic side of McNeil emerged. Whether it was the dark grey walls of Parramatta prison or the monotonous routine of everyday life, there was something that triggered a side to McNeil that released an uncanny but powerful work of art.

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Photos by Sunchikje

His play The Old Familiar Juice (1969) features 3 characters that are contained in their cell for sixteen hours a day. Throughout the play McNeil, through the actions of his characters, demonstrates the effects on the individual when deprived of human contact. Furthermore his play The Chocolate Frog grabbed the attention of Australian theatre critic, Katherine Brisbane, and by the mid seventies McNeil produced two more plays: How does your Garden Grow and Jack; all exploring and highlighting the reality that is life.

With the help of Katherine Brisbane, McNeil was released on the 14th of October 1974 but was placed on parole for ten years. He was at the height of his success. In 1975 he won the Australian Writer’s Guild award for the most outstanding script for his play How Does Your Garden Grow but as a leopard can never change his spots nor could McNeil change his old ways. He quickly fell back into a life of drink and slowly began to deteriorate.

On the 16th of May 1982 he passed away at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

So what is it that makes McNeil not only a complex character but one that can also intrigue us? Yes, we can admit that his actions in life were not only psychotic and disturbing but we can also ask ourselves: who was the man behind what Melbourne’s media called the “Laughing Bandit?” The answer is: truth. McNeil was not only an incredible story teller but he was able to see to the core of the individual, to get behind the skin, unveil the true fears and needs of the human being. His plays were written in dialogue form in which those who surrounded him and the conversations they had inspired him. They conveyed what an individual needs when all the necessities and worldly goods are taken away from them.   Jack clearly identifies the emotional side to the male psyche, the need for companionship but also the mix of jealousy and anger that it can create. As Marr later stated “Jim’s deal was that he would bring you real life; he was home delivered real life, and in addition Jim’s stories bewitched us”.

McNeil brings reality; he brings truth about the human being through the minds of his characters. On the outside a twisted and somewhat scary individual on the inside a true insight to the core of what reality is.

Sinead Dalton

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Sinead Dalton