Aboriginal connection in Portadown
On Saturday, 8 July, Simon Adams, president of the West Australian branch of Australian Aid for Ireland (AAI), a republican solidarity group, presented a didgeredoo to children and teachers from the Garvaghy Road residents' cultural group. The traditional Aboriginal instrument was a gift from AAI and the Nyoongar people of Western Australia to the people of the Garvaghy Road. Simon Adams, who is the first Australian to act as an International Observer for the loyalist marching season, spoke of the historic connection between Australian Aborigines and Irish people in their respective struggles for equality and human dignity.
``This isn't just about hands across the water. It's about rejecting artificial divisions of race and religion,'' said Adams. ``It's about overcoming the tyranny of distance and uniting in opposition to injustice, whether it be in Portadown or Pinjarra.''
The powerful always seek to divide the powerless from one another. It doesn't matter if it was Australia in the 1870s or the Garvaghy Road now. We are only strong when we stand together
Aboriginal people in Western Australia have a long tradition of resistance to British colonialism. Following the arrival of white settlers in theearly 19th century, one Nyoongar leader, named Yagan, led armed aboriginal defence against the British invasion. Yagan's resistance was only halted when he was betrayed by a white farm boy and murdered. As a warning to other aborigines, Yagan's head was chopped off and sent to England. Numerous massacres of the Nyoongar people, such as at Pinjarra south of Perth, were to follow. Yagan's head was only recently returned to his people in Western Australia.
Like the Irish, Aboriginal people in Western Australia never reconciled themselves to colonial rule and the theft of their traditional lands. In the outback region of Kimberly, for instance, another aborigine named Jandamarra led a fierce and bloody campaign of resistance every bit as ingenious and determined as Michael Collins' leadership of the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War. Nor is this ancient history. The last known military confrontation between white colonisers and Aborigines took place at Forrest River on the West Australian frontier in 1926!
Just like the worst days of the Penal Laws in Ireland, following colonisation Aborigines were denied the rights of full citizenship, were not entitled to vote until the 1960s and were corralled into ``missions'' where it was hoped they would die out. To help them on their way, the Australian government systematically removed aboriginal children from their parents and attempted to ``breed them out''. According to the United Nations, what happened to this ``Stolen Generation'' of Aboriginal children constituted nothing less than attempted genocide.
Simon Adams also spoke of the strong Irish history in Western Australia. ``AAI remembers only too well the transported Irish Fenians, such as J.B O'Reilly, the racism directed against Irish people in the colonial days, and the sacrifices of Irish convicts who broke their backs to make Australia what it is today.''
John Boyle O'Reilly, from the Boyne Valley, was one of a batch of Fenian prisoners transported to Western Australia in 1867. After escaping from Bunbury to Boston on an American ship, O'Reilly helped organise one of the most dramatic prison escapes in all of Irish history. In 1876, six Fenian prisoners were rescued by a whaling ship, the Catalpa, purchased by Irish republicans in America. Although they were pursued up the West Australian coastline by a British warship, they successfully escaped to the USA. In West Australia each year, Irish-Australians still celebrate the Catalpa rescue and two well-known Irish pubs in Perth are named after J.B O'Reilly and the Fenians.
While there have been numerous dark chapters in the history of Aboriginal/Irish relations in Australia, Simon Adams chose to emphasise the positives.
``There's no doubt that our people spilt aboriginal blood and stole aboriginal land, but I think that Irish people have much to be proud of in terms of race relations in Australia. We have a common history of resistance to British rule. And even in the darkest days of colonialism, at a time when Aborigines were considered vermin, one of the Irish Fenians, John Casey, described Aborigines as superior to the `thick skulled' colonials who he considered to be agents of injustice. Casey saw then, as many more Irish-Australians have seen since, that the powerful always seek to divide the powerless from one another. It doesn't matter if it was Australia in the 1870s or the Garvaghy Road now. We are only strong when we stand together.''
Simon Adams explained the ``dreamtime'' significance of the aboriginal markings on the didgeredo as it was accepted by Breandán Mac Cionnaith on behalf of the Garvaghy Road community.