My Story: Julia Dąbrowska on Jack Donahoe

Julia Dąbrowska is a long time follower of A Guide to Australian Bushranging, and an enthusiast for all things related to Jack Donahoe (also variously spelt Donohoe, Donahue et al). After many discussions about the topics of bushranging and Donahoe, I invited Julia to write about her experience of being so invested in the topic from so far away. Julia lives in Poland, not a place where one expects bushrangers to be known about, let alone one that doesn’t usually make the top five list of most infamous bushrangers. Hearing her perspective highlights the universal appeal of these figures and their stories, and sometimes it takes an “outsider” to draw our attention to something that has been under our noses the whole time.

Julia’s boundless enthusiasm for the story of the “Wild Colonial Boy” truly demonstrates that at their core these bushranger stories are very human, and there’s something deeply relatable about the themes that emerge as we explore the history of these rebels and bandits. I’m sure that you will enjoy reading Julia’s own account of discovering this slice of Australian history in a place so far away, and I am very appreciative that she took the time to write for the website.


There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name. He was born and raised in Ireland, in a place called Castlemaine.

Fortunately, I can recall what exactly caused me to develop interest in bushrangers. My earliest memory involved with bushrangers is listening to the song “Wild Colonial Boy” and learning its lyrics back in 2015, when I was just 14 years old. I imagined main character of the song – Jack Duggan (or Jack Doolan) like this : 

Jack Duggan by Julia Dąbrowska

I learned the lyrics of the song, I sang it at a campfire, but I did not know who the real person who inspired the song was. Jack Donahue – the Irish name speaks itself, who the person was. A tough, brave young man, who would always fight for what he believes in and who would choose death over surrendering. After discovering the story behind the song, I immediately started to read every article about Jack Donahue I could  find. Although real-life Wild Colonial Boy was completely different to what I imagined in terms of appearance, his personality was exactly how I thought about him.

As O’Donahue made his escape to the woods he did repair
Where the tyrants dared not show their face by night and day
And every week in the newspapers there was published something new
Concerning that bold hero boy called brave Jack Donahue
Resign to you, you cowardly dogs its a thing I ne’er will do
For I’ll range these woods and valleys like a wolf or kangaroo
Before I’ll work for Government said bold Jack Donahue

When I’m thinking of Jack Donahue now, always the same image comes to my mind. A brave, determined young man, dressed in elegant clothes, shouting to policemen who ambushed him that he can defeat them all.  A man who would never surrender, despite the fact that not surrendering means death. 

I must say that I find Jack Donahue’s elegant style of clothing, typical for upper-class gentleman of the 1820s, as much astonishing as his daring and self-confidence. When one thinks about a bushranger – an escaped convict who hides in the bush, and therefore lives in very harsh conditions – the elegant clothes are the last thing that comes to mind. Jack Donahue was described as wearing a black top hat, blue coat lined with silk and white pleated shirt – a far cry from how I imagined a bushranger to have looked for the first time.

Donahoe by Aidan Phelan

When hearing the word “bushranger”, most people would recall Ned Kelly, Ben Hall, Dan Morgan and Captain Thunderbolt – definitely the best-known bushrangers. Their stories are really thrilling, but the story of Jack Donahue is equally interesting.  The story of Ned Kelly is more or less known even outside of Australia. That cannot be said about the story of Jack Donahue – it would be exceedingly difficult to find any non-Australian who knows his story.

Although story of Jack Donahue and his daring robberies is undoubtedly very thrilling, I must say that I feel somewhat sorry for him. For a young man, who was orphaned as a boy and spent all his childhood and teenage years living in poverty, without any perspectives for his future life, turning to a life of crime was the easiest way to survive.

Jack Donahue by Julia Dąbrowska

I want the memory of Jack Donahue never to fade away. I learned the lyrics of “Bold Jack Donahue” and “Wild Colonial Boy”. I sing them on every Saint Patrick’s Day (as a homage to Jack Donahue being Irish) and on every campfire I go to. I wonder whether I am the first person in my country who sang them.

Jack Donahue – definitely extraordinary and complex character. Brave, tough, determined, clever – no wonder that he managed to gain a status of a folk hero and his story still appeals to imagination of many people (to my imagination too).

This is what do I find interesting about Jack Donahue.

Spotlight: Mugshot of Jack Doolan

(Credit: Public Records Office, Melbourne)

The folk song The Wild Colonial Boy is known around the world and has been sung by artists as wide ranging as the Clancy brothers and Mick Jagger. Despite the popularity, very few know of the inspiration for the song: seventeen year old John Doolan. 

This mugshot is the first prison portrait of Doolan, a teenage tearaway who went on a spree of highway robbery with another teen, Ned Donnelly, in the early 1870s. Operating in the north of Victoria with the occasional jaunt into southern New South Wales, Doolan and Donnelly stuck up travellers on the highways for fun. Coming from a poor background, some could perhaps see that the poverty was a contributing factor in Doolan’s lawlessness, though Doolan demonstrated poor respect for authority and very little in the way of impulse control. 

Doolan stabbed a fellow apprentice during an altercation in 1869 and was imprisoned for one year. Doolan met Ned Donnelly on the prison hulk Sir Harry Smith and the two became instant friends. When Doolan completed his sentence, Donnelly absconded three months later to join him. 

Taking to the bush, the boys became a nuisance on the roads and stations around Huntley, stealing clothes and supplies. Their lawless days ended outside the Robin Hood Inn after stealing a spring cart. Chased down by troopers, the boys surrendered. 

When the boys were put on trial, their judge, Sir Edward Eyre Williams, decided to impose what he considered to be “deterrent” sentences. John Doolan received fourteen years while Ned Donnelly got seventeen. According to reports at the time, Doolan’s mother became hysterical at the sentencing given to her son. The harsh sentences were publicly denounced but Doolan stayed in prison until 1882 before vanishing from history. 

While the song was ostensibly about Doolan, the narrative includes parts of the careers of Harry Power and Jack Donohoe including Donohoe’s death during a gun battle. Despite the artistic license, the song has meant that Doolan remains a familiar name in the Australian “rogues gallery”.  

Wild Colonial Boys exhibition: Review

This past weekend I went to the Old Treasury Building on Spring Street, Melbourne, and took a gander at the free exhibition: Wild Colonial Boys: Bushrangers in Victoria.

The Old Treasury Building, Melbourne

The exhibition is admittedly small when compared to, say, NED the exhibition from 2002, however it is apparent that a lot of thought went into assembling the exhibits in the context of the already quite packed Treasury Building. Most items are on loan from the Public Records Office and State Library of Victoria who have some very interesting items in their catalogues. The small size benefits the narrow scope of the exhibition that focuses mainly on Victorian bushrangers with, naturally, an emphasis on Ned Kelly. The information supplied is very interesting and if you stop to properly examine the items on display they offer up all sorts of things.

Dan Morgan’s death mask

Items on display include Dan Kelly’s armour, Dan Morgan’s death mask, a Cobb & Co. bullion box and the prison record of Jack Doolan. One of my favourite items was a log book that details the costs for building the gallows in Melbourne as it gives a rather unique insight into the way things were run back in the day. I also enjoyed the display detailing the events depicted in Bushrangers on the St. Kilda Road by William Strutt. Naturally most visitors go straight to the Ned Kelly stuff where you can drop a coin into a tube and cast your vote on whether you agree with the death penalty or where your opinion sits on the spectrum. Dan Kelly’s armour is kept in a rather awkwardly placed, super reflective glass case. This has the annoying qualities of being both inconvenient when more than one person is in that part of the exhibition and making it difficult to see the armour inside the case due to the reflections of the white walls on the glass. Despite the minor bother presented by this I definitely recommend checking it out.

Dan Kelly’s armour

While you are at the Old Treasury Building be sure to check out the other exhibitions on Aboriginal history in Victoria, the development of Melbourne as a city and the displays downstairs in the old vaults. It provides many informative and fascinating perspectives on various aspects of Victoria’s history.

Jack Doolan’s prison record

The Old Treasury Building is at 20 Spring Street, Melbourne, and is open from 10am until 4.00pm, Sunday to Friday. Entrance is free however gold coin donations are a great way to give a little something back to help keep things going.

Wild Colonial Boys: Bushrangers in Victoria is on display at the Old Treasury Building until August 13, 2017.

Find out more: