Mum Shirl
The story of Shirley Smith

Shirley Smith
"Black Saint" of Redfern
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White Inhumanity - 22/11/2000

Tribute to Mum Shirl - Ted Kennedy
In late November 2000 the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Sydney's inner city Annandale staged the exhibition, "Mum Shirl: The Sacred Trust of Memory", which subsequently moved to the Powerhouse Museum. It was opened on 22 November by the Governor-General, Fr Ted Kennedy and family members. The packed crowd of Aboriginal and other Australians overflowed and blocked one lane of busy Parramatta Road, one of Sydney's main thoroughfares.

The text of Fr Ted Kennedy's speech is reproduced below.


Alexander Harris was an Englishman who came to Australia in the early period of colonisation. He returned to England in the 1840s and published there his Australian recollections in 1847. They had been almost forgotten when they were republished in 1953 with the probing mind of Manning Clark, in a preface, remaining puzzled as to Harris' identity. More information has since emerged, helping to explain his fitful inconsistencies and attempts at anonymity…

I found two of his observations quite fascinating in regard to Aboriginal-white relations, and I quote from [p232 of the Melbourne University Press edition of] his book, Settlers and Convicts:

Missionary efforts [among the Aborigines] I for one feel inclined to put aside, as quite useless at present. Indeed there seems something so intrinsically absurd in the nation that is robbing another of its land and its means of subsistence, soliciting that other to adopt its religion, that the yet more revolting concomitant of the horrible scourgings which are inflicted on our prisoners is scarcely needed to make the Aborigines despise and revolt from us, and to put such a case out of court.

That observation of Harris about the cruelty of white men against each other has hardly ever been taken up seriously since. It is one of the ingredients of colonisation which whites find convenient to suppress.

But it has never escaped the notice of Aborigines. They themselves would never subject other human beings to such cruelty - it is not in their nature to do so. They speak a language which the strangers - the British colonisers - do not know. And they remain appalled still at the way the white man continues to manage his own jails.

Cruelty is what the Aborigine first feels and sees, and institutional cruelty is felt and seen as licensed torture.

A second observation of Alexander Harris one hundred and sixty years ago, was that whites had learned "that blacks were too afraid to move away from their camp-fire at night". Belonging to the community had deep cultural significance. Separation into the outer darkness would mean exposure to evil spirits.

But that was a piece of intelligence which whites took to their own tactical advantage to avoid retaliation for their own land-plundering, and for their cutting off of food supply. Whites used, and continue to use, the terror imposed on Aborigines, who are forced to endure the darkness of incarceration in white man's jails, and the separation from their own community, and they continue to denigrate and destroy Aborigines.

We continue to hear of black deaths in custody. For blacks, custody itself is the root problem, the depths of which were certainly not addressed by the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.

We are here this evening to honour the memory of Shirley Smith. When I think of her now and of what might best symbolise her, my mind returns to the courtroom - any courtroom in the whole of Australia. Sometimes it might be in some distant part where neither the presiding magistrate nor any of the locals knew who she was.

But before long, everyone knew exactly where she stood. Her sheer bulk seemed to reinforce the symbol. She was not going to be moved easily, nor would she slide. She would not answer the accepted rules for court witnessing.

But her implacable presence told where she stood - she stood with her own people, defiant, absolutely certain of her stance. It was absolutely clear that she knew where her certainties came from - shared by all Aborigines since the beginning of time. And she was not going to allow some white lawyer to muck around with those certainties, or try to tell anyone, including himself, that Aboriginal certainties are not really what they are.

One of the Aboriginal certainties of Shirley's was that jails are inhuman - "nothing but dirty, stinking dungeons".

Dungeons suggest caves, a powerful image that implies that the white man has remained stuck in the prehistoric world of cavemen, in a state that pre-dates the discovery of the wheel. All Aborigines are far too compassionate and advanced in civilisation to allow that fate for anyone at all to languish in prison.

But there are glaring cultural reasons for seeing that prison experience for blacks should be regarded as anathema. That most whites do not have the eyes or ears to see or hear that point, shows how far the processes of reconciliation have yet to go. Our respect for plain human dignity should require us to help keep all blacks out of jail at all costs.

To the shame of white Australia, more jails are being built. When it becomes obvious that politicians are confused, the slogan becomes "when in doubt, build more jails" - a desperate, cynical response to what should call from us enough imaginativeness to try something human, whatever the cost.

Shirley Smith knew that jail experience for all inmates is a time warp where people do not grow. At best it is like treading water where no progress occurs. But for Aborigines it is a terrifying and therefore harmful experience.

Shirley Smith was capable of doing anything to keep her brothers and sisters out of jail. If a clever lawyer could think of a legal technicality so that the case could not proceed, all to the good.

In the meantime she was driven by a compulsion - based on an ancient, and to whites a profoundly arcane, knowledge - to go into the jails to give solace to those who could not get out, because she knew that, in more senses than one, they were all "dying inside".

Mac Silva was a Kempsey Aborigine and a brilliant musician. Like his brothers, Paul and John, he died young of a heart attack in 1989. Mac Silva founded a band called Black Lace, the cruelly ironic phrase that described the chains that used to be clamped around the necks of Aboriginal people. Not long before he died, he published a disc with the euphemised title for Long Bay Jail, "Malabar Mansion".

I was in a sad and sorry state
The day they brought me through that gate.
I felt just like a bird in a great big cage.
Then they put me in a wing
Where the lifers think they're king.
If you're weak, you'll never live to see old age.

Long Bay Jail, you're doing bad -
You have made sane men go mad.
Some even took their life at different times.
But you won't do that to me,
I'll still be sane when they set me free,
And I pray to God to help me keep my mind.

I would like to quote from a poem by the man we once knew as Colin Johnson, now preferring to rename himself Mudrooroo Nyooyah [from his 1991 book of verse The Garden of Gethsemane]. It is called "Prisoner", and it evokes the pungent sensory experience contained within memory, always capable of being revived.

Prisoner, the cell is secured from
The storms of the forests of the night -
Time madness lurking in a delirium
Of worse that you did to land you here.

The poet recalls that the prisoner, caught in a frenzied delirium at the time of the crime, now faces an even worse state of delirium in his incarcerated state.

Screw, secure the house you escaped from,
Secure the windows of your eyes peering,
Locked on the crimes of my passion.
Hold my hand and slip me a caress:
I cruise to flow free from the lurching word.

The prisoner, feeling starved of human company, craves for human touch, even from the 'screws'. He is tired of the stilted words of the jailer, mechanised, seemingly computerised, totally impersonal…

Convict, lock up the anus of your mind,
Stem the diarrhoea flowing from your eyes,
Jangle my keys into the slime of your ears:
Unlocked the door swings free to thud,
Shifting you away from temptation and anguish.

Contortions in the brain create psychotic episodes which confuse personal experience with alien ones where the two seem to fuse, where the rotting smells of the jailhouse are melded in a person's brain, and seem to come in delirium from one's own fetid corroding body.

Warder, the uniform of your mind shouts commands,
Unlike the wind, it shudders without shrieking
Out the order to let things be:
Lightning flashes between you and me.
We quake at the jumbled signs
Of that great storm gashing blood from stone.

The unimaginative mind remains stuck, fearful to think beyond the status-quo. And an impregnable system continues to exude blood from stone.

That poem, in my view, could have been written only by an Aborigine. Certainly Aborigines seem, with an uncanny accuracy, to identify the interior torture they experience in an Australian jail.

I believe the poems of Mudrooroo, and also those of Robert Walker, will take their place with the classic literature of convict experience like the Gaelic poem, "The Convict of Clonmel".

[In the same week as this opening], The Guardian Weekly [had] a front page headline:

It's divine justice, Gore is told
Al Gore may have lost the presidential election not because of a badly-designed ballot, dubious counting practices in Florida or the defection of independents to Ralph Nader, but because of the criminal justice policy that he and President Clinton have pursued for the past eight years.

(This policy directed that anyone with a criminal record or serving a prison sentence was disqualified from voting.)

That policy appears to have robbed the Democrats of victory by disenfranchising nearly one in three black men in Florida, most of whose votes Mr Gore would have received.

The eloquence of that piece of irony, when the unpoor, uncoloured, unoppressed found they should have taken the poor seriously, will, perhaps, never be forgotten.

I am wanting to make an appeal to you: if we are to honour the memory of Mum Shirl and maintain the rage that drove her, we will work towards the abolition of all jailing of Aborigines, and so lift an intolerable burden from their shoulders.

We could make a start by helping to shift the consciousness of the rest of Australia from retributive justice to reformative justice. This would involve the offender meeting up with the victim or relatives of the victim.

I have no doubt that the compassionate nature of Aboriginal people who have offended society in some delirious state would respond with remarkable heartfulness to any alternative reconciliation process.

I was impressed by the answer given by Lowitja O'Donoghue to the press when asked why Aboriginal protest threats to disrupt the Games did not occur: because Aborigines felt that for the first time they were being honestly acknowledged in history and in their participation in the Games.

Such a suggestion - of pulling down the jails and letting prisoners go free - would once have been deemed unfeasible. But remembering the phenomenal crowds who walked over the Bridge in support of reconciliation, a firm declaration that the invasion has finally ended is possibly in sight.

To work for this cause seems a good way of saying 'Sorry', not only for what has happened in the past, but for what is happening now.

The beginning of the cause of deaths in custody does not occur within the confines of police and prison cells or in the minds of the victims. Initially it starts in the minds of those who allow it to happen.
[Jack Davis, in the foreword to Duncan Graham's book, Dying Inside (Allen & Unwin Australia, 1989).]

In this year's Australia Day Honours list the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) was awarded to "The Reverend Father Edward Philip KENNEDY, Redfern, NSW 2016. For service to the Aboriginal community of Redfern, particularly through the provision of housing and medical services. Parish Priest of St Vincent's Catholic Church, Redfern, since the 1970s, Father Kennedy has worked alongside Shirley Smith ('Mum Shirl') for the betterment of the local Aboriginal people."

by Ted Kennedy


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