Ted Kennedy of Redfern and Burrawang

Irish and Aboriginal links

When Ted Kennedy, 74, former parish priest of St Vincent de Paul’s, Redfern, famous for his solidarity with Aboriginal people and for his challenge to Cardinal George Pell’s moral condemnation of homosexuals, died at Concord Hospital in Croydon, NSW, in the early hours of Tuesday 17 May, the news came to us in Fitzroy through two phone calls from Ireland before our Sydney friends had got started on their day. He would have liked that.

Those calls came from Ted Casey of Ring, County Waterford, and Seán O’Connor of Beamore, County Meath, two members of an extended family in Ireland to which my wife and children and I were admitted through introductions given by Ted Kennedy.

Ted Casey, originally from Cahermakala outside Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, is a cousin of Ted’s on his mother’s side. Through that connection Ted Kennedy’s hideaway and base at Burrawang, NSW, got the name Lisdoonvarna.

Around 1980, Ted and Seán had come to Australia on a working holiday as young men who had just completed their training as health inspectors. They and Ted clicked: they enjoyed his jokes, they learned from him a bit about Aboriginal Australia, he learned from them about the new Ireland, and so on. Mind you, he had a bit to teach about Ireland too with his love of poet Patrick Kavanagh and his learning in church and Irish history.

At the Requiem Mass attended by 1500 people on the vacant block in the heart of Aboriginal Redfern on Tuesday 24 May, Ted’s Irish connections came up again. The preacher, Father Pat Kinna, spoke of Ted’s Houlihan convict ancestor, the Kennedys from Thurles who settled at Araluen near Braidwood, and the O’Brien Clare connection (of which Ted Casey is part).

More than that, MC Danny Gilbert honoured Ted by starting his introduction with a dramatic quotation from 1916 leader Patrick Pearse’s speech at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, “Splendid and holy causes are served by splendid and holy men”. I remember Ted playing for a group of us a vinyl recording of Micheál MacLiammóir reciting that address by Pearse.

In this way, Gilbert linked the Aboriginal struggle for survival and freedom, to which Ted gave so much, with the Irish struggle for those same goals. Indeed, Irish-born Bishop David Cremin, the celebrant of the Mass, endorsed that. Among other things, Cremin read a strong message from Pat Dodson of Broome, a national leader on reconciliation and Australia’s first Aboriginal priest. Kinna said that Ted saw great similarities between the Aboriginal people and the Travellers in Ireland today.

The funeral day was more than a Requiem Mass: it was a five-hour celebration of a life fully lived and a rally to tell the world, including Cardinal Pell and Prime Minister John Howard, that Australians for reconciliation and justice have not been cowed into submission but are going ahead organising and campaigning.

At 8.30 am a few hundred gathered at the still rundown St Vincent’s parish church for a smoking ceremony which was followed by a powerful twenty minutes of silent prayer. The congregation, as was usual in Ted’s days there, ranged from some of the poorest people in town to professionals and professors.

Bulls were the undertakers and they did their work with simplicity and style. I had the pleasure of meeting their director of grief counselling who turned out to be Richard White, a neighbour from my boyhood days in Bentleigh, and an ex-Jesuit.

Ted’s sister Marnie, a sister of the Sacred Heart nuns, was the chief mourner. Aboriginal people, this time with a helpful police escort, led a procession down through Redfern to the community centre.

The Requiem, a combination of Aboriginal and Catholic ceremonies, lasted three hours. The music included Fill My House written by Ted’s dear friend Peter Kearney and a chilling rendition of Just a Closer Walk with Thee by Shireen Malamoo. Chris Geraghty, judge and former priest colleague of Ted, wrote and led long, strongly worded prayers of the faithful.

Pat Kinna recalled how much Ted loved the poets, especially John Shaw Neilson and Judith Wright. He quoted Neilson:

My wealth it was the glow that lives forever in the young,
‘Twas on the brown water, in the green leaves it hung.
The blue cranes fed their young all day &endash; how far in a tall tree!
And the poor, poor country made no pauper of me.

Sol Bellear spoke of how his late son Bob (who became the first Aboriginal judge) and wife Kay Williams involved Ted in various campaigns for housing and welfare in Redfern. Everyone spoke about the influence of legendary activist Mum Shirl on Ted. With John Butcher and Fergus Breslan they offered food and shelter at the parish house.

Who could forget Ted’s entirely relevant comments about the high number of young Aboriginal men whose funerals he celebrated.

Ted’s niece Margie Kennedy Gould said he was a terrific uncle who played with and later dialogued with his nephews and nieces. She recalled also that he boasted of never cleaning his teeth. Others who spoke at the service included Rhonda Ansiewicz, John Hill, Tom Hammerton, Peter Manning and Aunty Ali Golding. Betty Little’s tribute was in song. The lament was played on didgeridoo.

Meeting up with old friends was, as with most funerals, a highlight of the day. To mention but a few of those who came long distances, I caught up with John Harte, Terry Quinn and Tom Stephens who flew in from Perth, Dick Buchhorn, Dick Pascoe and Peter Dorfield down from Brisbane, Peter Willis in from Adelaide, Simone Barthelemy, Barbara Zimmerman and Joan Hamilton from Melbourne. People were mourning but also organising, as Ted would want.

In a half page report on page two of the Sydney Morning Herald the next day, Tony Stephens mentioned some of the public figures present: “Sirs Gerard Brennan and William Deane, former High Court judges and governor-general, tried to sit up the back but were ushered forward. Old sculptor Tom Bass sat near old politician Tom Uren. Gabi Hollows, Jack Mundey, Bob Gould, Bill Crews, Martin Sharpe, Senator Aden Ridgeway, rugby coach Dick Laffan and Keysar Trad, representing the Australian mufti, Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly, reflecting the ecumenical nature of the gathering”.

In his last years, Ted suffered from the effects of a series of strokes and was well cared for by the Filipino sisters and their staff at the St Ezekiel nursing home. By all reports he was restless there and, in that sense, his passing was a release. Among his friends, Pat Kinna praised especially Pat Durnan, an MSC sister who had done housekeeping and other helping duties for Ted in recent years.

Several speakers have referred to Ted as a saint. The Sydney Morning Herald had a long stirring obituary by Edmund Campion under the heading ‘A father to the poor and dispossessed’. The same paper reported the funeral as ‘The saint who spilt his guts for others’. Given the way that others have been quick to call Pope John Paul II a saint, it is probably a good idea to put up someone like Ted because he offers a better alternative. The same line of thinking applies to countering Cardinal Pell’s description of the late Bob Santamaria as “a saintly Catholic”.

Don’t dismiss as a saint

When reporters put it to Dorothy Day, co-founder of the American Catholic Worker movement, that she was a saint, she said, “You can’t dismiss me that easily”. And she was right. The label “saint” can be used to put that person into a separate category of high moral achievers and thereby let ourselves off from facing similar challenges. Engineer and environmental activist Geoff Lacey, who has known Ted for over 40 years, said, “To me Ted was not a saint but a good bloke who did his best.”

Ted was, like all of us, a mixture of qualities. His mental ability, networking and public moral leadership were outstanding: his sense of humour and love of friends memorable. The same Ted could be irritable and thin-skinned. One former close associate who had come from the country for the funeral remarked that she never knew anyone who brought her so many blessings but gave her so many verbal backhanders.

Nonetheless, Ted’s contribution to the transmitting and re-thinking of the wellsprings of Christian belief and culture to contemporary Australia has been outstanding and I hope to write further about this elsewhere.

It is worth mentioning some items in back issues of Táin. In nos 5 and 9 we published articles in praise of Who is Worthy?, his book which argued openly against Cardinal Pell’s rejection of the Vatican II view of the rights of conscience. That year we also published Ted’s speech on the Australian Irish Christian heritage which he delivered at the Melbourne launch of the book. At the end of 2001, Táin no 16 carried his sermon welcoming the Mufti of Australia to Mass at Redfern. Languishing in a box are pieces of his that were too long. OK Ted, it might not be too late to run them.

On my own behalf, I owe him thanks for the friendship and solidarity he showed Garry McLoughlin and me when, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we worked with Ted and others on building a radical Catholic network; for pushing us all to do more for Aboriginal rights; for introducing us to his Aboriginal friends such as Bob Bellear and Mum Shirl; and for introducing me to his family and friends in Ireland who have become for us a second family.

Ted, my friend, saint or not, your funeral was a triumph. So, you are a bit of a legend: slán abhaile, have a safe journey home.

Val Noone
Source: Táin Edition 37
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