Larrikin journalist stood by his beliefs

NATHAN DYER

James O’Kenny

November 28, 1936 - August 15, 2011

James O’Kenny was a man who built his reputation in an era when the Kimberley was full of people who used only first names.

A love of dynamite earned the larger-than-life Kimberley larrikin the nickname Gelignite Jim, and outrageous headlines in his newspaper, The Kimberley Echo, attracted the ire of anyone with a politically correct bone in their body.

Over the years, O’Kenny added “powder monkey,” stock and station agent, auctioneer, newspaper man, and aspiring politician to his curriculum vitae. He ran for Federal and State Parliament variously for the Liberals, Nationals and as an independent.

The folklore surrounding O’Kenny was legendary. He was the youngest of seven children and the story of how the national service veteran made the move to the Kimberley is a case in point.

After a practical joke gone wrong, O’Kenny hightailed it from New South Wales to the North West. Tales of his ignominious departure from NSW are varied but the common storyline involves a stick of dynamite, a toilet block at a bachelors’ and spinsters’ ball, and a local police officer’s wife seated on the throne.

Apparently the prank, which was meant to blow up the male toilet backfired when the blast forced water through the plumbing system and into the ladies’ block where the local cop’s better half was seated on the loo. The force of what O’Kenny described as a “high-powered bidet” blew the woman off the seat.

Apparently O’Kenny was ordered to get out of the State and go to Afghanistan. He decided Kununurra was probably halfway to Kabul, so that would do.

Gelignite Jim was the prime suspect when an explosion rocked the centre of Kununurra in 1972, an event which would have attracted far less attention had former Prime Minister William McMahon not been in town with an entourage of Federal Police to officially open the Ord Dam.

In a bid to draw attention to the Ord River Irrigation System, which was at risk of being labelled a white elephant after a number of crop failures, O’Kenny and business partner Brian Cole established The Kimberley Echo in 1980.

With headlines that berated communists, environmentalists, “peace freaks” and “white dogooders”, the fortnightly Kimberley rag was soon gaining headlines of its own in the nation’s media. But wife Marion says behind the litigious headlines and loud bangs was a man who cared about others and knew what he believed in.

“Not everybody loved him, he ruffled feathers, but that’s how he was…a hard man for a hard country,” Mrs O’Kenny said.

James O’Kenny is survived by wife Marion, sons Patrick, 24, and Michael, 20, and daughter Frances, 18.