Book review by Frank O’Shea
LARRIMAH. By Kylie Stevenson and Caroline Graham. Allen&Unwin 2021. 381 pp. $32.99
Ireland has some beautiful small villages, places that you may rarely have heard of: Clonaslee in Co Laois or Cheekpoint in Waterford or Garrykennedy in Tipperary, to name only three. In an Australian context, these would be regarded as big, certainly when you compare them with a place like Larrimah, 500 km south of Darwin, population 11.
The population should be 12, but one of their regulars went mysteriously missing the week before Christmas in 2017. His name was Paddy Moriarty, and if both names suggested Irish background, it was because he came originally from Abbeyfeale in Co Limerick. In February this year, the NT police offered a reward of $250,000 for information that might help them understand what had happened to him. As this is written, we do not know whether he is alive or dead, though the most common belief is that he is dead. Most likely, murdered.
This book by two Darwin-based journalists, is a comprehensive account of the Moriarty mystery. The story received national airing on the ABC and on A Current Affair, the former producing a 53-minute video (‘A Dog Act’) now available on You Tube. What Stevenson and Graham’s book does is to revisit all elements in the mystery, interviewing almost all of the 11 residents of Larrimah and examining every possibility, including the opinion of one of Paddy’s former friends that he is still alive. The writers also give full coverage to the inquest into his disappearance, an inquest that is still open.
There is a chapter on his Irish background, with contact with likely family relatives in the UK and Ireland. His birth certificate does not give a father’s name, so it is possible that he was adopted or in care. At one stage, the two writers even get in touch with former soccer player and artist John Moriarty, whose father was from Kerry, but was no relation with Paddy. It is not clear whether Paddy was ever married or had children, though there is mention of seven daughters with an Aboriginal woman.
Paddy said that he came to Australia on the Fairstar in 1966, but his name does not appear on their list of passengers or on similar other ship lists examined by the authors, covering a number of years. This raises the possibility of one solution involving a Dutchman who claimed that Paddy took his place and left him in some distress; the theory is that half a century later, that man’s son chased Paddy and was the driver of a mysterious vehicle which was seen in Larrimah at the time of the disappearance. And almost inevitably, the IRA are mentioned as possible suspects.
There is much to puzzle over in this wonderful book, but in some ways, Paddy Moriarty is almost an accidental subject. Most of us on the southern or eastern fringes of this country have little appreciation of either the vastness of the continent, particularly the far north, the struggles of the inhabitants or the background stories of the way that the Aboriginal people were abused in the not-so-distant past. This is a place where a stranger may be lost in a sinkhole or be attacked by wild pigs who won’t leave as much as a bone of evidence.
These elements and more are covered, almost in passing, but they are what will stay in the reader’s mind. Even if we were tempted to visit some of the places the two brave women authors reach – Tennant Creek, Borroloola, Mataranka, Katherine, Daly Waters – we would be advised to keep to main roads and respectable accommodation. ‘Small-town living is hard,’ the writers tell us, ‘and when you throw in isolation and unrelenting heat, it’s even harder.’
Larrimah is a place of ‘open space and open ears’, but also of long-lasting feuds. Depending on who they speak to, they are told that Paddy was a good mate, a helper, a great storyteller and a bit of a larrikin or a vindictive interfering neighbour, especially to an older woman who lived across the road from him. Written in clear, polished prose, where the transition from one writer to the other is seamless, this is a book for the ages.
Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective