Image: Professor John Ryan, Celia Munro and Professor Jennie Shaw. 

The School of HASS lost one of its great scholars over the weekend with the passing of Emeritus Professor John Ryan. Professor Ryan joined UNE’s English department in 1959 and continued teaching until as recently as 2010. He maintained a relationship with UNE for over 60 years, extending far beyond his retirement. He was named Emeritus Professor in 2015, however, the extent of his contributions to UNE are difficult to measure, and in many respects astonishing.

Professor John Ryan as he appeared in The Armidale Express some years ago. Image courtesy of the Armidale and District Historical Society.

Outside of work, Professor Ryan was a life member of the Armidale and District Historical Society since 1978. He remained an active member until 2017 and authored or co-authored over 65 articles to the local publication Armidale and District Historical Society Inc Journal and Proceedings. Professor Ryan was also an editor of the publication from approximately 1968 to 1978.

To celebrate Professor Ryan’s long and extraordinary life a memorial service will be held for him at 11am, Friday 15th July, at the  Arts Building in Lecture room A3. Attendees at the service are asked to please wear a mask.

Some of Professor Ryan’s colleagues and acquaintances provided the reflections below:

John worked at UNE for around 60 years, and I remember him as being almost as much of an institution as the university itself.  

He was a tireless advocate for his scholarly areas of folklore, the history of the English language, and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.  He came from New Zealand (Dunedin, where I am also from), and studied at Otago Boys High School, before going on to the Otago campus of the University of New Zealand (as it was called until 1961).  He was then an MA and PhD student at Oxford, studying under J. R. R. Tolkien himself.  At UNE, he taught a wide array of subjects, including mediaeval English and Anglo-Saxon, large first-year survey courses, and later his History of the English Language unit. 

David has summarised John’s research below, and I second his observations about John’s dedication to the New England area and his passion for folklore.  To quote from the Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore, which has an entry on him:

Ryan, John Sprott, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, and was educated at the universities of Otago (MA), Oxford (MA), Cambridge (PhD) and New England (PhD., Dip. Cont. Educ).  He was originally trained as a classicist and mediaevalist, but has spent most of his academic life teaching (English) language and mediaeval culture.  . . . John Ryan has a strong commitment to folk/oral culture, especially in western Europe and the South Pacific.  He edited the Armidale and District Historical Society Journal (1966-78) and is presently editor of Australian Folklore and of the Yearbook of the Centre for Australian Language and Literature (Armidale).  Relevant books by him include Papers on Australian Place Names (1963), Charles Dickens and New Zealand: A Colonial Image (1965), Australian Fantasy and Folklore and the Land of Ulitarra: Early Records of the Aboriginies of the Mid-North coast of New South Wales (1964. revised edition 1988). Beed Davey, Gwenda and Graham Seal, The Oxford Companion to Australian Folklore.  Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 146.

I’d like to add that I remember John for his kindness towards his students.  He had an old-school approach to his marking, which involved close reading of students’ work and a tendency to judge them as if they were fine wines (one student whispered to me… ‘I’ve never had my writing called ‘suave’ before!), and he had a loyal following among students who appreciated his quirky mind.  He was a passionate advocate of Australian Folklore, and many colleagues and students published their work in this journal.  He was endlessly supportive of his postgraduate students.  

John was unforgettable in many ways: he was an exemplar of a particular kind of scholarly zeal and curiosity-driven research (to use current phrasing) and those of us who worked with him will have many stories to share.

Dr Elizabeth Hale


John Ryan was (famously) a MA and PhD student at Oxford under J.R.R. Tolkien, and established himself as one of the world’s leading Tolkien scholars, his output including a 1992 collection of essays under the title The Shaping of Middle-Earth’s Maker. He wrote his second PhD at the UNE (awarded 1989), entitled “A History of Adult Education at and through the New England University College and the University of New England, 1948 to 1980”), on the methods and significance of Adult Education. 

John’s research was extensive, to say the least, and breathtakingly diverse. He wrote on Australian and New Zealand English, on etymology, place-name studies and onomastics, and of course on Australian Folklore – the journal of that name published annually out of UNE since at least the early 1990s. 

Personally, I’ll always associate John with his research on the customs, legends and folk materials of the New England, a field into which all we newcomers to Armidale were corralled at some point or another, and which culminated in the edited collected, High Lean Country: Land, People and Memory in New England (2004), for the Heritage Futures Research Centre – it was the most significant regional publication of its kind at the time, and to this very day there has never been a comparable regional history of that calibre.

Others I have spoken to this morning recall John’s extraordinary institutional knowledge – his ability to recite the names, dates of appointment, and the educational and intellectual background of every staff member appointed into the Arts and Humanities @ UNE in the last half of the twentieth century. It’s unclear how much of that knowledge is now lost.

J.S. Ryan was, in Howard’s words, “a classic supporter of the idea of intellectual extension and of the importance of education as an aspect of social justice”.

Our thoughts are with Susan and the family. Hopefully someone will do a better job than I of commemorating his achievements and contributions to UNE and academia.

A CV of publications would be near impossible compile. Thanks to Howard for the following list of John’s Honours, Awards and memberships

  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of London
  • Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (England), 
  • Fellow of the Commonwealth Academy of Biography, 
  • Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 
  • Member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 
  • Visiting Professor, University of Sheffield (Department of English Language and Linguistics), 1995.
  • Editorial Board member of Seven: An Anglo-American Review
  • Life member of the Armidale and District Historical Society
  • Life member of the American Names Society
  • Editorial Board Member of Folk Life: An Ethnological Journal (2000-) (one based in Western Europe, but concerned with British culture/diasporas worldwise)
  • Editorial Board member (2003-2006) for The Greenway World Encyclopedia of Folk Lore and Folk Life  (4 vols.).

Associate Professor David Roberts


Colleagues, You may have heard the sad news of the passing of John Sprott Ryan at the weekend. … Having at one time been in the same School – and Arts corridor – as John, I’m adding a couple of thoughts, while hoping like David that UNE will circulate a fuller commemoration of John’s amazing contribution to the university over an exceptional period.

Having begun as an academic at UNE shortly after it became an autonomous university, John played an active role in the history that appropriately is now being recalled as a visionary development in regional, distance and accessible higher education. He was extremely committed to UNE and sustained vast cross-disciplinary contributions through successive organisational changes until his retirement, and then beyond as Emeritus Professor of Folklore and Heritage. John walked that walk along Elm Drive, to and from his legendary office on campus, come Armidale dark or dawn.

For many who knew him, John was informally the institution’s oral historian. He delighted in recounting its stories. For instance, it was probably from John that some of us first heard how UNE’s distance education program provided the model for the British Open University. And then there were the extensive publications… and myriad other contributions such as John’s support for – and, fittingly, his own memorable lecture in – the Madgwick Lecture series that the Faculty used to host and that helped build a sense of tradition.

You may be aware that the citation for John’s Emeritus appointment is on record. It speaks volumes. Read the citation.

Professor Dugald Williamson


I would like to add one note to the tributes by Elizabeth and David. John always told me of his inclusion by Isabel McBryde in her excavations at Seelands, near Copmanhurst. I understood that he had worked with Collingwood in his archaeological research on Hadrian’s Wall, but I did not follow that up. Just as well, because Collingwood died in 1943 according to Wikipedia. Probably just me reading too much into a conversation and being ignorant about Collingwood. In the history of the Department that we published in 1998 (under John’s editorship) Isabel included him among the list of people who had contributed “insights” to her research. He was of the view that that group of people, whom she acknowledged in that part of our paper that she wrote. was instrumental in the success of the growth of Archaeology at UNE.

Emeritus Professor Iain Davidson