The Irish and Indigenous Australians: Ground-breaking film

Kev Carmody & Louis de Paor

Val Noone

Due to financial difficulties and other unclear reasons, the Australian viewing public is currently doomed to miss out on a fascinating film about the social history of Irish and Indigenous Australians which was shown at Sydney’s revived Irish Film Festival last month. This innovative one-hour documentary is known by its Gaelic title, Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation). Melbourne-born Paula Kehoe directed the film for Irish television while the presenter is poet Louis de Paor who lived in Australia for a decade around 1990.

Dubh ina Gheal combines astute use of rare archival footage with probing interviews and evocative landscapes. One of the most memorable if contrived scenes features a campfire at Framlingham in western Victoria during which Len Clarke, a traditional owner, recalls the 21-year guerrilla war of his ancestors against the European invaders and sings a song in the local language.

Among those interviewed are well known Aboriginal leaders with Irish ancestry such as Kevin Carmody, Garry Foley and Pat O’Shane. “Is Foley an Aboriginal name then, Garry?” asks de Paor. Yes, Foley replies. And later he explains that the Foley was away back in his line but that his mother was a Doyle. O’Shane says that her Irish father’s people were dispossessed in the same way as her Indigenous mother’s people. She says she has a fight on her hands on both sides “but I choose to fight here”.

Anthropologist Ray Madden and historians Ann McGrath and Henry Reynolds explore stories of Irish sympathy with Aboriginal people but insist on the dark side, rejecting an overall rosy picture. The Irish settlers might have come in the wake of the Famine, says Madden, ‘but they were immediate benefactors of the land being cleared of Aboriginal people.’ The narrator reminds us that two of the seven hanged for the Myall Creek massacre were Irish.

Footage of nuns with school children on missions such as Melville Island is mingled with clips of land rights protests. Redmond Barry, the Duracks, Michael Davitt and other famous figures are included. Pat McTaggart, an elder of Daly River, and Shane Howard, musician of Killarney, add variety and depth to the narrative. In passing I am not convinced of the film’s suggestion that Killarney, Victoria, is “home to Australia’s largest rural Irish community”.

Director Kehoe bounces off de Paor poems

Kehoe hangs the film’s themes around de Paor’s reading of two poems, one about the didgeridoo and the other about the stolen generation with Kev Carmody playing a powerful didgeridoo accompaniment. Editor Conall de Cléir springs a surprise by showing urban streetscapes while the poet is telling of ‘green blue red parrots’ who will ‘perch on your scalded shoulders’ as ‘a sarcastic kookaburra makes fun of your scorched white feet’.

The scoop of the show is the searing interview with Bill Brock Byrne, an inspiring elder from Tipperary Station in the Northern Territory. Bill’s father was a station owner named Byrne and his mother was Indigenous. Bill was taken away, as so many were, and renamed Bill Brock. The threefold twist in the story is that his great grandfather was a convict, his father was related to Joe Byrne of the Kelly gang, and, would you believe, AFL legend Michael Long is his nephew. The climax of the film is a Brock Byrne family reunion enlivened, among other things, by de Paor’s executive summary of Irish history.

Working with a low budget, Kehoe and crew spent only a couple of weeks filming in Australia. I for one judged that a mistake and predicted a scrappy outcome. Not so. The research is good and the editing crisp and intelligent. Covering a wide canvas Dubh ina Gheal manages to evoke the big issues and supply useful large-scale summaries but, in general, avoids saying more than it knows. Ronan Browne’s music track adds emotion plus moments of thoughtful meditation.

A Sydney showing and a seminar

Congratulations are due to Enda Murray, a teacher of film at the University of New South Wales, who, with help from the Irish government, arranged for Dubh ina Gheal to be included in this year’s Irish Film Festival at the Chauvel cinema, Paddington. Along with Wayne Atkinson, Cath Guinness and Ellen Kehoe (Paula’s mother) I was one of four Victorians who went up to Sydney for this noteworthy and most enjoyable occasion.

In conjunction with the festival, Murray organised a successful public seminar about the film at the university. Drogheda-born Murray, himself an award-winning filmmaker, began the wide-ranging discussions by asking Kehoe about how she came to make the film. Kehoe explained that Aboriginal participants in the film had responded enthusiastically when told that it was being made “in language”.

Louis de Paor & Bill Brock Byrne walking

Wayne Atkinson, Yorta Yorta elder and political scientist, congratulated Kehoe and recalled the enthusiastic reception the film had received at the 2013 Galway Film Festival. He had been a guest speaker on that occasion. Atkinson outlined parallels between British colonial practices such as reserves, segregation and control in Ireland, Virginia and Australia.

The Paddington showing looks like being the only public one in Australia. Irish Television has no plans to release it on DVD and to date SBS has rejected it. Yet, Dubh ina Gheal is precisely the sort of film SBS was founded to show: it uses a minority Australian language, Irish, and it tackles a crucial theme of settler-Indigenous relations. Kehoe says that in addition to lack of interest at SBS, current regulations about copyright have raised the sceptre of up to $100,000 in fees to be paid.

That ABC television is not interested is fair enough. As Kehoe says, the film would need to be re-versioned for an English-speaking audience. Perhaps one day an Australian group will tackle the same topic for an ABC or commercial television audience.

Dubh ina Gheal/ Assimilation is an outstanding film which will be of interest to all Irish Australians who care about our heritage and about our relations to the traditional owners of this land. It deserves to seen by a wide audience and subjected to careful discussion.

Preview clips can be seen at: and