Albert James Ryan was born at Waitahuna, South Otago, New Zealand, on 16 November 1884, the youngest son and ninth child of Michael Ryan and his wife, Margaret O'Donnell. His father came from Tipperary, Ireland, and his mother was born in Victoria, Australia, to Tipperary immigrants. The couple had met and married in Victoria in 1868 and seemingly left soon after for Otago, settling in the Waitahuna district as small farmers. Later Michael established himself as a coal and timber merchant and cartage contractor.
The Ryans were pillars of the local Catholic community, but Michael's family had been dispossessed in Ireland and he retained a distaste for authority. Waitahuna, with its high proportion of Irish settlers, was part of the Catholic parish of Lawrence, ministered to throughout Bert Ryan's youth by Father Patrick O'Leary. He was a staunch Irishman, fervently nationalist in politics, an expert in Irish history and language. Under his leadership Lawrence's Irish community enthusiastically supported Irish political causes.
Of Bert Ryan's first 30 years little is known. When the First World War began in August 1914 he was living in Dunedin and working as a commercial traveller. War gave Catholic New Zealand an opportunity to show its enthusiasm for King and empire. Agitation for Irish self-government seemed to be satisfied by the Home Rule Bill, suspended until the end of hostilities. The Irish nationalist rebellion in Easter week 1916 derailed these policies, as loyalty to empire came into conflict with loyalty to Ireland. It came as a deep shock to New Zealand Catholics, whose leaders publicly condemned the rebels. Over succeeding months, however, the harsh reaction of the British authorities in Ireland produced a growing sympathy for the martyred rebel leaders. This sympathy was not shared by non-Catholics and a rift opened between the two sections of the community.
Ryan was one of a small group of advanced Irish nationalists in Dunedin who in September 1916 formed the Maoriland Irish Society to promote the cause of the rebels. In December the first edition of their monthly journal, the Green Ray, was published. Ryan, or O'Ryan as he had begun calling himself, was manager of the paper and organiser for the society – positions of some risk in the heightened sensitivities of wartime. In March 1917 he came to police attention after speaking too freely of the 'underground railway' smuggling Irish conscientious objectors out of New Zealand. Lack of evidence prevented any prosecution, but his role in the journal was noted.
The Green Ray was defiantly seditious from the outset and was monitored by the Dunedin police from mid 1917. Only its limited availability seems to have saved it from official censure. Much of its vitriol was directed at the 'shoneen' spirit of the majority of Irish in New Zealand, who still preferred the constitutional approach over the militancy of Sinn Féin. Both the Green Ray and the Maoriland Irish Society, which had established branches around the country by mid 1917, were avowedly non-sectarian and had few clerical sponsors. Some of their chief supporters were either not Catholic or not active Catholics, and most were also socialists.
In February 1917 Father James Kelly arrived in Dunedin to take over as editor of the national Catholic weekly, the New Zealand Tablet. Kelly set about educating New Zealand Catholic opinion in favour of Sinn Féin and the Easter week martyrs. His outspokenness quickly intensified a growing atmosphere of sectarian ill-feeling. The new Tablet policy courted official reaction, but the government was loath to target Kelly with Catholic opinion stiffening over the possible conscription of clergy. The Green Ray provided a useful scapegoat and in June 1918 it was suppressed and its editor and publisher tried for sedition. Ryan was sentenced to 11 months' imprisonment along with the paper's editor, the dashing Irish journalist Thomas Padraic Cummins.
Ryan emerged from gaol in 1919 with his Irish sympathies intact. He was active in the new Irish Literary, Musical and Social Society established in June 1920, whose ranks included prominent lay Catholics and clerical supporters who had never joined the Maoriland Irish Society. However, the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 meant that Irish issues soon ceased to be of importance in New Zealand politics. On 28 February 1928 at Christchurch Ryan married Jessie Main Sylvester Sprott, an Oamaru Anglican of English and Scottish stock. She insisted that Irish affairs never be mentioned in her presence and brought up their only child in isolation from his Irish Catholic relations. After a career as a land agent in Dunedin Bert Ryan died on 29 August 1955. He was survived by his wife and son.