The stolen generation (Part 1)

 

Seventeen-year-old Phyllis Bin Barka was cleaning a hospital floor in Derby, Western Australia, when she was told she had a visitor. Confused and not a little scared, she went outside. An Aboriginal woman sitting in a battered pickup inspected her briefly. "That's not my daughter," she said. That was about 40 years ago. Phyllis never saw her mother again. Phyllis Bin Barka was one of an estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families and brought up in institutions because they were, in the terminology of the day, half-caste.

The idea was simple. If caught early enough, they could become sufficiently Westernised to function within white society, where they would provide cheap domestic and manual labour. Over generations, their blackness would gradually be bred out. As for the pure-bloods, by 1937, government functionaries were confidently predicting that they would wipe themselves out within a 100 years due to their "low breeding rates" and "inferior" genes.

In 1997, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission held an inquiry into what has become known as the Stolen Generations. Their comprehensive report, Bringing Them Home, contains testimony from the "stolen" children themselves, from welfare and police officers who oversaw their removal, and from missionaries and other authorities who raised them.

Even in such an official framework, the stories of families torn apart, of mothers daubing their children with charcoal in a attempt to disguise their light skin, of children's lives trampled by uncaring and sometimes abusive institutions, are heartbreaking.

The report estimates that "between one-in-three and one-in-10 indigenous children were removed from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970 . . . in that time not one indigenous family has escaped the effects of forcible removal". It concludes that "the policy . . . of raising them separately from and ignorant of their culture and people could properly be labelled `genocidal' in breach of binding international law from at least 11 December 1946 . . . and a crime against humanity."

Although copious files document the relentless efficiency with which the policy was implemented, most non-indigenous Australians appear to have been genuinely unaware of what was going on. Aborigines were so remote, physically and socially, from white society, that the average Australian had no contact with them.

Tragic it undoubtedly is, but the story of the Stolen Children is not a simple picture of Aboriginal victims and heartless bigots. There are many shades of grey between the black and the white, and the Irish are involved across the spectrum - sometimes as the missionaries who reared them, and sometimes as the fathers who provided the mixed blood that occasioned their removal.

It mattered not to the authorities whether the children were the result of sexual exploitation or a long-term, loving relationship - until 1967, it was illegal for a white man to cohabit with an indigenous woman, and Irish fathers were as powerless as Aboriginal mothers to prevent their children being taken.

Keith Byrne, now in his 60s and living in Glen Innes, New South Wales, was one of 10 children taken away because of an Irish father. "All our life we run," he recalls. " `Get under the bed, run to the river you kids.' My sister used to put me on her back and run . . . I could never understand why. I think I was about seven or eight when they got us. At the police station they told us we were going away on a holiday. Ten years I think it was - bloody long holiday. They committed my mother, reckoned she was insane.

"My father used to come and see us when we first went into the orphanage, but we all nearly pulled the clothes off him when he was leaving, cryin' and hangin' onto him. He was told not to come back, he was upsetting the kids."

Keith never saw his father again, though he heard that as an old man, he came looking for them. After years of searching, his sister rescued their mother from an institution, just two years before she died. Ten children lost their parents and a carefree childhood, two parents lost their children and each other. For although some Irishmen, like other Europeans, raped and abused Aboriginal women, the Irish also - perhaps more than other white men - formed deep relationships with them. As Keith says, with characteristic Aboriginal bluntness, "if he didn't think much of my mother, he would have got out of it a bloody long time before he had 10 kids."

Some believe, perhaps romantically, that the Irish and Aborigines have a special affinity because of their spiritual and cultural ways, not to mention their mutual history of oppression by the British. Irish names are certainly prominent among Aboriginal leaders today: Foley, O'Shane, O'Donoghue and brothers Pat Dodson - known as the Father of Reconciliation - and Mick Dodson, who co-authored the Bringing Them Home Report; Mick won a standing ovation for his searing speech on the occasion of Corroboree 2000 at the Sydney Opera House in May this year.

The event, at which Prime Minister John Howard was loudly booed, marked the troubled end of a decade's work by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. In a moving salute to Aboriginal spirituality, Irish fiddler Martin Hayes played a soulful version of Port na bPucai, The Reel of the Fairies.

Irish names also predominate among the white advocates of reconciliation: the Jesuit Father Frank Brennan and his father, Justice Gerard Brennan, who presided over the critical Mabo judgment of 1992, in which the indigenous claim to ownership of the lands they occupied was formally recognised for the first time. Another distinctly Irish Catholic voice has been that of Sir William Deane, who, as Governor-General, has more standing than even the Prime Minister. But while it's all very well for Catholics now to try to right past wrongs, Catholic missions were among the religious institutions which, wittingly or unwittingly, assisted the government in perpetrating the injustice.

Among the first religious groups to acknowledge the shame and regret they felt for having, however unknowingly, participated in the tragedy was a small community of Irish St John of God nuns in the remote Kimberley area of North-West Australia. In 1907, seven nuns arrived in Beagle Bay. Despite the heat, they wore the full-length habit, under which they had strapped on cake tins as makeshift chamber pots to preserve their decorum among the male crew.

Vera Dann's father, from the local Ngul Ngul tribe, saw the nuns arrive. He told Vera, now aged 76, how he and the other children ran out into the water to help these strange creatures ashore. Vera would always be a favourite of the nun her father assisted - Mother Antonio O'Brien, from Ennistymon, Co Clare, the redoubtable leader of the group.

The nuns planted vegetables and acquired a few pigs from the German Pallotine priests who had an adjacent mission. But far from providing solidarity, relations between the nuns and priests were strained from the start. The Germans derisively labelled nuns' pigs "the Paddies". Mother Antonio responded by calling the Germans' pigs "Bismarcks". Caught between the two sides, the Aborigines tactfully referred to "Paddy-Bismarcks."

Diplomacy was not Mother Antonio's strong point. Besides the ongoing hostility with the Pallotines, she had also fallen out with the St John of God Mother House in Wexford, which wanted the group to work at Perth hospital. But the seven women who headed for Beagle Bay, thousands of kilometres further north and still an isolated community today, had no desire to hover around clean corridors playing second fiddle to the doctors and mediating the parochial politics of Irish Catholics.

Nor did they seem obsessed with saving souls. The frontier settlements around Broome had produced numerous children of mixed race and scant means, some born to Aboriginal women press-ganged onto the boats for their diving prowess, used for sex, then discarded when too pregnant to keep diving. The children needed education, minding, shelter and love. With little support from either the Church or the State, Mother Antonio and her group set sail to provide them.