St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney
“Mum Shirl" was born Colleen Shirley Perry on 22nd November 1924 at Cowra. She was born into what many whites accepted as pre-ordained penury. It is significant that even the two surnames she ever bore were borrowed from an alien culture – Perry from Perry’s Circus, and her husband Darcy Smith was assigned his name as a boxing pseudonym. That branch of her grandfather’s proud traditional name, Boney, was destined to be consigned to oblivion. Like the shabby ill-fitting 2nd-hand clothing that aboriginal people are required to settle for, her family was supposed to accept a false and borrowed name. Such is the way of the inexorable effects of ongoing colonisation. The devastating spoliation extends even to nomenclature. Even the colloquial name for her birthplace Erambie, West Cowra, was "Bagtown".
It seemed to accent the precarious makeshift existence she was born into. Her birth-date and birth-place silently mark the centenary of the awful tragedy for her tribe the Wiradjuri. One hundred years before, Governor Thomas Brisbane proclaimed Martial Law which virtually amounted to open season of gunfire on the Wiradjuri tribe. The Governor’s edict extended from 14th August 1824 until 11th December 1824. In excess of 100 blacks most of them women and children lay dead. William Cox, Sen, a pastoralist with impeccable family connections and impeccable British manners called on the 49th Regiment to "shoot all the Blacks and manure the ground with their carcasses".
So the army did. No charges were ever laid; no official account ever given. More than 100 of tile Wiradjuri were massacred; the whole Wiradjuri tribe was cast into mourning. Such is the oral living memory of aboriginal people that – 100 years is but a day when it comes to freshness of memory.
Shirley Perry was born into the unrelenting sorrow and grieving of her tribe. In addition; to be born at Erambie Mission in 1924 was to experience the full brunt of the suffocating power and control of the dreaded Aboriginal Protection Board. As Shirley would later stress in an interview with Kevin Gilbert in 1977
It is of the essence of Mum Shirl that she carried in her inner spirit the unfadeable, undilutable memories of her race. In the face of that on-going, ever-present pain she stood as one for whom memory was a sacred trust. That is why it is sickening to hear some whites speak as if time of itself should erase the past, particularly when they have done nothing to case it. The impatient desire that some people express to get things over with is in itself a sign of deep insecurity, and of being out of touch with human nature. We are governed today as if reality itself were subject to a sunset clause. In repudiating a so called "black arm band" view of history this government stands, in uneducated ignorance of what has been established in cross-cultural science, that shameful mechanisms of denial perpetuate grieving and cause ongoing pain. While they might mount sonic sort of case that they arc not now physically bashing blacks, it remains quite clear that while they govern; in shameful dishonour and in incredible insensitivity, the same pathology o William Cox Sen the pastoralist lives on. We have indeed a government without a soul.
We have witnessed in our own time in South Africa, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the largeness of heart which bears out the prayer of Francis of Assisi that the forgiving heart is the necessary prelude to a heart forgiven. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. The South African Trust and Reconciliation Commission has gone such a long way towards setting a whole nation on a path of healing, whereas the forlorn figure of P W Botha recently protesting a clear conscience seems to be expecting pardon at dirt cheap rates without going through the anguish of asking for it, or indeed, of giving the slightest indication of sorrow.
There are analogies we must draw from South Africa for our own country. Guilt, as Pat Dodson rightly says, is a wasted emotion. But shame is another matter. We must accept the shame that all the good things which white Australians now enjoy – good things that are the envy of the world which scent to sparkle the more in the Australian sunlight, we must in all honesty and shame admit that none of the benefits that we now enjoy were acquired except at the horrific expense of massacre and unbelievable grief and starvation, including the snatching of children of Aboriginal people in the past, of selfish grabbing of entitlements from Aboriginal people today. So that whether our ancestors arrived on the first fleet, or we are new migrants who came on the last plane, we must accept the shame, and indeed scream out our shame that clearly identifiable pathologies of the colonizer are re-emerging today. In the end, of course, our continuing neo-colonizers will lose; the price they seemingly must pay for the attempts to extinguish native title would seem to be a self dealing deathful extinguishment of any possible whispering of sacred honour in their own hearts.
As I stand here today looking back over more years than I like to count, I think of the times beyond all counting when I have by my own insensitivity hurt or insulted so many Aborigines. I can say with enormous gratitude to them that in all my days I have never known one to refuse my apologies. Koories are themselves great forgivers. That is why there is a profound poignancy in the contrast that our present Government cannot find the heart to offer them an official word of apology.
All Aborigines today stand in bewildered disbelief when yet the call from Aboriginal people across this land, for an apology for the “stolen generations” and for all the other crimes committed against Aboriginal people, has not been heeded. In the words of Mr Gatjil Djerrkura Chairperson of ATSIC:
Shirley was always capable of uncovering this dirty secret of compromise, in uncompromising scarifying language. She stayed unremittingly and derisively on the hard edge of political awareness. In a deceptively unlettered way she mustered a literacy and a direct eloquence that was hard to beat. She stood out from the crowd in that she was incredibly like every single individual in the crowd. She was different only because she was open to all. I think I have never met anyone like her to put people at their ease, a capacity to free peoples’ anxiety, which allowed them to confide in her totally. It was a capacity to comfort the afflicted but never suggesting that she would not afflict the comfortable. She chose to stay in the street world of Aboriginal life in such a way that she was like the flagship of the fleet that had to accommodate its speed to the slowest ship in the fleet.
There was a memorable event late in 1980 when the first ever National Conference of Catholic Social Workers was held at St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill. Mum Shirl was not invited. In fact no Aboriginals were invited. So she gathered a group of friends and gate-crashed the Conference. As the invited guests returned from dinner to the auditorium where there were a dozen tables with white tablecloths and empty and half empty beer bottles Shirley went to the microphone, and tried to address them, but the guests went on talking. Shirley then proceeded one by one, to tear tablecloths from the tables. The bottles crashed and rolled and splashed, the scene was remarkably reminiscent of the Titanic collision. In the scurry of legs, by the way, the Bishops were the first group to make themselves scarce. Someone staggered downstairs to call for help from Paul Collins who was the official coordinator of the Convention saying that an Aboriginal woman upstairs had gone berserk. That’s when Paul Collins made his famous remark, "But there are 300 social workers up there. That should be enough".
We whites are slow learners. Often it is only when the inner life of Aborigines reaches epidemic proportions of pain that we acknowledge puzzlingly that something must be wrong. So with the reality of Black Deaths in Custody. We remain guarded and grudging in the ways that we acknowledge, we keep protecting ourselves so that nothing seems to change in our lives. We continue on the escalator, using receding time as an anaesthetic, and we show impatience if people continue to hold the memory which means holding up the mirror of truth that draws our anger. We mutter half-heartedly the need for political answers.
But it was that stark social phenomenon of blacks dying in custody and the continuing pain of the “Stolen Generations” which Mum Shirl always knew in her bones that caused her to confront the harsh reality at a personal level and that was at the deepest political level of all. And she recognised early the promise of the youth and would burst with pride in those taking on the struggle, among them her beloved Paul, Isabel and Jenny Coe, Gary Foley and Charlie Perkins who will soon speak.
From the time she was sixteen, when white institutions would have been enough to stifle the confidence of any timid aboriginal girl, she set herself against the whole draconian system and so responded to the excruciating solitude of prisoners and by her incessant visiting, she gave them solace. She was untiring in giving herself to them and in crashing through the loneliness. For hundreds of prisoners black and white her visits were the only ones to look forward to. The blacks only because often their loved ones could not afford the cost of travel, and the whites, so often because their family could not afford the embarrassment.
A life-size seated image of Mum Shirl done by the sculptor Bill Clements, a personal friend of Mum Shirl, is in existence. It has to be cast in bronze, and placed in relation to excerpts from her autobiography. Funds for this will be needed and a suitable place in the city will need to be found, but it ought to be a permanent reminder to this city of over-dogs of what she meant to the under-dogs. The lesson that Shirley tried to teach us by example was to get to know and love the poor. And because the poor still go to prison in droves your pre-existing friendship will naturally force you to follow them there.
Her very presence set her as one nobly distinguished. Yet her distinction lay in that she made no distinction among people. Her deepest heart was for the "goomies", those addicted to White Lady, or Methylated Spirits. She took in and lived with their terror described by the aboriginal poet Jack Davis.
We are tired of the benches, our beds in the park
We welcome the sundown that heralds the dark.
White Lady Methylate, keep us warns and from crying
Hold back the hate, and hasten the dying
She intuitively recognised the same sort of desperate terror in the hordes of Aboriginal people incarcerated in Australian jails. She knew exactly what Robert Walker was writing about in his poem "Solitary Confinement"
Have you ever been ordered to strip
before half a dozen barking eyes,
Forcing you against a wall.
Ordering you to part your legs and bend over?
Have you ever had a door slammed
Locking you out of the world, Propelling you Into timeless space –
To the emptiness of silence?
Have you ever laid on a wooden bed –
In regulation pyjamas,
And tried to get a bucket to talk –
In all seriousness?
Have you ever begged for blankets
From an eye staring through a hole in the door,
Rubbing at the cold air digging into your flesh
Biting down on your bottom lip, while mouthing "Please Sir"?
She grieved with an inconsolable grief, as she did with all the others, when Robert Walker finally found death more attractive, took a sock, and hanged himself.
The number of children who once called her "Mummy" is beyond counting, the only mothering one they were ever allowed to know.
"My son, your troubled eyes search mine
Puzzled and hurt by colour line,
Your black skin soft as velvet shine:
What can I tell you, son of mine?
I could tell you of heart break, hatred blind.
I could tell you of crimes that shame mankind,
Of brutal wrong and deeds malign,
Of rape and murder, son of mine.
For the sake of all these countless little ones whose eyes met hers, she maintained a playfulness and a light heartedness, and she begged and borrowed that they might be spared the insecurity and the penury she once knew. It was all important to her that she would give them hope.
But I’ll tell instead of brave and fine
When lives of black and white entwine,
And men in brotherhood combine
This would I tell you, son of mine
Therein lay the real miracle of Mum Shirl, that while never trying to block out the pain she held on to hope, and thereby held out hope, especially to the young ones.
Look up my people,
The dawn is breaking
The World is waking
To a new bright day,
When none defame us
No restrictions harm us
Nor colour shame us
Nor sneer dismay
That is why she could always recognise a white ally when she saw one whether it be Germaine Greer or Fred Hollows or Nugget Coombs. She could hold out the hope that these could contribute to a bright new day for her people.
There is hardly a street in the whole of South Sydney where Shirley did not once rent a house, where a dozen little black faces looked out on an alien sometimes hostile world where Shirley offered a safe and secure shelter.
She welcomed the Gospel like a little child. She thirstingly swallowed the Gospel whole, never prepared to spit out the bits that we whites find unsavoury or uncomfortable. In this she remained quintessentially aboriginal. She would, I think, happily take as an epitaph Jack Davis” reminder to white Christians.
This is the pattern your ordered mind
Has forgotten, this way of perceiving
That survival, through sharing and sharing, my friend
Was the Carpenter’s way of believing
Shirley was able to give a new meaning – a new depth and breadth to Australian Feminism. Many a female activist has been inspired by her to uncover the male-directed dominance and control that underpinned every aspect of colonization. I have sometimes counted myself privileged to stand within earshot of Shirley’s own hushed reverence for some poor powerless woman, for Shirley a sacred moment of recognition, for the woman a moment of grace. Such were the millions of moments in Shirley’s life, in the after-hours from 5 pin to 9 am when she responded indefatigably to incessant emergency calls in the night. The film "once were warriors" gives just some intimation of what Shirley knew by heart. I recall there were nights when I would call her five times to meet some emergency: unfailingly she gave this unpaid service.
And there was always the aftermath to the incidents of the night, and Shirley would be there without fail to defend the powerless against overwhelming power whether that power was that of the police, the legal system, the bureaucracy of hospitals, or capitalism in all its forms, all designed to cripple blacks. Here was this extraordinary defiant woman giving warning that if they tried to crush the little ones they’d. have her and her handbag to contend with.
Sometimes I think that it was at that point when her heart might break that the kindness of nature took over and gently lifted her into a kind of sleep that shielded her from further grieving. Laurie Perry, her beloved brother, was acquitted of a trumped up charge, but not before he had suffered a stroke and a heart attack and had lost his speech. Now he was dead. And her beloved Dianne too, the pride and joy of her life was dead. A heart can hold only so much grief.
In the ghetto streets of Redfern
prowls the battler on the dole
the Blacks still free come morning
who survived the nightpatrol
and paddy waggon coffins
who only ply their trade
where politicians don’t count votes
police training grounds are made
Christian Hope for her transcended both pessimism and optimism. It called her to expect God to intervene in the face of despair. She woke up each morning expectantly-expecting God to do that. She never had to wait around, because always, always some rejected person would come around the corner who of course was Christ himself. She had had enough of the phoney Christians who try to peddle a poor-free Christ who is in fact a phoney Christ, not Christ at all. Mum Shirl was, I think, the greatest theologian I have ever known. As a mystical or spiritual theologian, she could beat the socks off Hildegarde of Bingen or Julian of Norwich. She once said "If you can’t find anyone to hang on the Cross between two thieves, I will."
I’ll end now with a poem by Kevin Gilbert the Wiradgeri poet called "Epitaph":
Weep not for me for Death is
but the vehicle that unites my soul
with the Creative Essence, God.
My spiritual Being, my love is
still with you, where ever you are
You will find me in the quiet moments
in the trees, amidst the rocks,
the cloud and beams of sunshine
indeed, everywhere for I, too, am
a part of the total essence of
creation that radiates everywhere
about you, eternally.
Life, after all, is just a
May black angels lead her into paradise. May Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and St Martin de Porres, the Black Saint be there to welcome her on her way. And may she with Lazarus who was once poor have everlasting rest.