Director’s Blog – Shamrock Aborigines, NAIDOC, and beyond

On 10th November, I had the pleasure of attending a NAIDOC event hosted at the Irish Embassy in Canberra by the Ambassador of Ireland, HE Breandán Ó Caollaí and Ms Carmel Callan. This has become an annual event, with an invited gathering of leading representatives from the Canberra Aboriginal Community and a special recognition of the Ngunnawal people and key ACT Aboriginal representative organisations, including Indigenous educational bodies and businesses. John Paul Janke, the Co-Chair of the NAIDOC Committee 2020, spoke about NAIDOC. Beforehand, John Paul and I had the chance to discuss the importance of songlines and deep history stories, which he noted was a fundamental theme to this year’s NAIDOC week, ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’. He explained that this had been selected as particularly pertinent given that 2020 is the anniversary of James Cook’s Landing. We agreed that deep Indigenous histories, once more widely understood, will transform the dominant discovery narratives of Australia.

The event centred around a screening of the award-winning film – An Dubh ina Gheal-Assimilation to which I’d had the honour to contribute. I was invited to provide a short talk in response.

The film was a beautiful, albeit harrowing experience, as it told the truth about Aboriginal history in Australia. Echoing some of the themes explored in my article “Shamrock Aborigines”, it explored Aboriginal-Irish relationships, the myths and realities. But it went far beyond that, with quality research and interviews conducted in Melbourne, western Victoria and the Northern Territory. Throughout the film, which featured excellent archival footage, historians and activists including Gary Foley, Kev Carmody, and Henry Reynolds shared their views.

One of the most moving aspects of the film was hearing about the intimate relationships between the Byrnes family of Tipperary station; tragically, under Commonwealth of Australia policy, children of mixed descent (renamed as Brock after child removal) were torn away from their mothers and placed in institutions run by Catholics, including many Irish Catholic nuns. The children suffered, being brought up without their mother’s love, and enduring punishments for speaking in their own languages. It brought back memories of my research for my Doctoral thesis, which in fact featured several discussions about the Byrnes’ recognition of Indigenous ownership of the land that they occupied.

An Dubh ina Gheal- Assimilation also celebrated Indigenous rights struggles. As you’ve no doubt gathered, it did not romanticise the relationship between the Irish and the Aborigines in any way – quite the opposite – the Irish were colonists too, and the film-makers embraced their own responsibility as colonizers, and how they benefited as such. At the same time, there was a sense of a profound connection between the Irish and the Aboriginal people, both having been oppressed and dispossessed at the hands of the English, and still suffering historical legacies, including the destruction of their languages.

The film is enhanced by the poetry of Louis de Paor, who is also the film’s presenter. In searing lines, in a poem entitled Didjeridu, he explores how the Irish, as white Australians, were also brutal colonizers. It was read by Carmel Callan in both Irish and English.

Responding to the Film at Irish Embassy NAIDOC week event, 10 November 2020.

Last week I also attended the Annual Symposium of the CABAH group, with whom I’m an Associate Investigator. Updates about the latest scientific research and findings of their regional Flagships were most informative.

Finally, I participated in a video for a Conference being held in Brazil, convened by Juliana S. Machado and her graduate students and professors Gonzalez Marcelo and Roseline Mezacasa. It was the second Global History Symposium: Voices from the South. We have so much in common with these history scholars who are undertaking important collaborative work with a number of Indigenous peoples across Brazil. At Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina I learnt that the Indigenous cohort is quite significant, and like us, they are working to expand the idea of what history might be beyond the text, and in their case, the larger story of Indigenous people’s histories including those that took place prior to the fifteenth century.