Updated: Jan 31, 2020
As a native of Ireland, I first moved into the inner west of Sydney in January 1988, just in time for the Bicentenary Celebrations. A long panoramic photograph of the First Fleet re-enactment in Sydney Cove on January 26 of that year, showing a multitude of craft on the harbour, is mounted on my living room wall as I write this.
Thirty-two years on, I would like to imagine I am more informed on the contentious events of the day the British First Fleet arrived here, and what they represent. But back in 1988, a conflict of conscience had me with a foot in two camps.
Mary Wickham from Nowra was a friend of mine in London and it is thanks to her I ended up sharing a communal house with her and other Australians in Birchgrove. At the time, the two-storeyed house with a wrought iron balcony struggled to be described as ‘shabby chic’ but it retained the faded grandeur of former days; and its occupants disguised well the flaking walls and damp patches with swathes of Indonesian batik and cheap sarongs from Thailand, as well as political posters. There were six legal tenants residing there during the week but the numbers swelled at weekends when bodies could be found crashed anywhere. As one of the few workers in the house and the last in, I had the most expensive room with a water view, although the balcony was for communal use. The one bathroom on the landing nearby consisted of an old gas shower with an antique sink, and the dunny, out the back at the bottom of the garden, contained an assortment of left-wing newspapers in a wicker basket, whether for reading material or for other emergency use, I could never work out.
The cheapest rental was the shed extension out back, occupied by Jill who worked for Australian Telstra and whose indigenous boyfriend lived next door. Patrick and his mate Charlie had moved to Sydney from Dubbo, and shared their house with a motley crew of mostly stray Kiwis, and our friendly gatherings were very multicultural.
As our garden sported the most shade, the barbies and impromptu corroborees happened more on our side of the common wall, and a patch of sand with a fire pit served well as a dance floor. One of the guys next door had a few guitars and a ‘didge’, which Charlie played. Clapping sticks could always be found among the firewood and I sometimes contributed with some spoons from the kitchen. The music and yarning sessions were good fun and there was no doubting which side of the political spectrum my housemates adhered to, so the animated debates proved a rapid education for my new life in Oz. I learned to keep my mouth shut and listen as plans were being made to boycott Australia Day, which was approaching.
The decision was to fly Aboriginal flags from my balcony and blast out Radio Redfern for the day as a form of protest against the perceived hypocrisy of celebrating the founding of the colony in 1788 on the presumption of it being ‘terra nullius’, when in fact it had already been inhabited for more than 60,000 years. Charlie and Patrick explained to me that busloads of Kooris from all over Australia, including elders from remote communities, were descending on Sydney for a big march against the colonisation which had caused injustice and suffering for their people. Many people were angry that the Hawke Labour government had excluded any indigenous involvement in planned events. The protest march would attract world attention and our two households were going to join it in solidarity as it weaved from Redfern to Hyde Park.
I had a dilemma. I didn’t know what to do. On first arrival in December, I had spent Christmas with some old English friends on the North Shore who had given me a great introduction to Sydney and welcomed me into their circle generously. I was invited to spend the afternoon of Australia Day with them on their catamaran to enjoy the festivities and fireworks happening on the water. Having looked at this iconic harbour on television for years from afar, I was excited at the opportunity to see the tall ships and other events at close hand. In those days, my weak political conscience was very swayed towards youthful Irish craic instead of serious moral issues.
Each morning as I fixed my healthy grains for breakfast, I often shared the kitchen table with Patrick, Jill’s boyfriend who rose early for his morning ‘bong’. He claimed it was a good start to the day to get his creative brain working on composing his radical poetry. I, who was rushing out the door for a frazzled commute to Bankstown and a busy workday ahead in a busy medical practice, didn’t have much empathy for Patrick’s creative life on the dole and I frequently challenged his ideas. He had the surname Duffy, as he’d had an Irish great grandfather. And I would question why he disowned his Irish heritage, and knew little about Irish culture, while concentrating solely on his Aboriginal background. With little patience for drugs of any sort, as his eyes got more glazed over my furious little righteous madam within would rear up. I had a lot to learn.
The landlord, a wealthy barrister, arrived to collect the rent at random times, hoping the element of surprise might line his pockets better. One morning, he caught me coming out the door in my smart radiographers’ uniform and nearly fell backward off the step. ‘Do you live here’, he asked. ‘Yes’, I replied. ‘And you’re working!’ he exclaimed. With a grin, as I could sense his pleasure at the social status of his tenants improving, I scuttled off quickly before he expected me to foot the shortfall in that week’s rent.
As the 26th approached, my devious Irish brain got to work plotting how to have the best of both worlds. Often, I was on call for medical centres at Lakemba and Marrickville at weekends and public holidays, so I told my housemates that I might have to carry the ‘bleep’ to be in contact on Australia Day as I was the only ‘foreigner’ in the practice with no family in Australia to celebrate with. I gave the same excuse to my friends on the North Shore whom I knew had some reservations about my bohemian lifestyle in the Inner West. The seed of deception sown, I relaxed and arranged to meet them at Rushcutters Bay in the late afternoon.
On Australia Day morning, my housemates and I festooned my balcony with a string of Aboriginal flags and someone from Kangaroo Valley rigged up an amp to broadcast Radio Redfern out to the street below. Patrick and Charlie were drawing up placards for the march at the kitchen table amidst a strong whiff of the ‘wacky baccy’ and Yothu Yindi blasting out of the cassette player. ‘Don’t celebrate 1988, White Australia has a Black History,’ the slogans read. Jill had printed some flyers at work to divvy up between us and distribute in the local bars and on the street before heading into the city for the march.
It was a truly colourful spectacle of thousands of people making their way to Hyde Park where speeches, dance and ceremony were scheduled. The crowd, which also comprised many non-indigenous supporters, were chanting for land rights and other important issues like health-care, and protesting against the injustice of incarcerated youth. Arriving at Hyde Park, I learned that on Gadigal and Bidjigal Country it was the custom to pay due respect to the custodians of the land with a smoking ceremony involving smouldering native flowers and leaves, to produce smoke which Aboriginal Australians believe has cleansing properties and wards off evil spirits. There were speeches by the activist Gary Foley and others. The park was a sea of painted faces proudly representing mobs from all states, and as a newcomer to Australia, I was swept along on the emotional tide of the occasion.
I guess as an Irish person belonging to a nation that experienced its own rebellions and conflict with the British, I’d always had empathy for the underdog. Despite this, the tourist in me resurrected itself mid-afternoon and the harbour beckoned. It was easy to slip away from my companions in the crowd but not so easy to quell the pang of guilt I felt. I would just tell them that my ‘bleep’ went off and I’d had to rush off for an emergency.
The harbour was at its best and awash with the pageantry of eleven Tall Ships that had traveled across the world for the event, elegant yachts, and the usual ferries and tugboats adorned with lights and flags. Local watercraft with revellers aboard were moored in all the small bays, and I learned later that nearly two miIlion spectators lined the shoreline. I had missed most of the air displays and Navy gun salutes that had happened earlier in the day but the atmosphere was still electric.
At Rushcutters Bay yacht club, my friends and other members were glammed up for the occasion. Pimms and champagne were flowing and trays of seafood were waitered about. Most people had been there since early morning and the yarns were getting maudlin and a bit repetitive. I added my own tale of deception on being queried about my morning’s work and was delighted when John Williamson’s ‘True Blue’ drowned out the scanty details, as a group nearby belted out the chorus. My housemate friend Mary was a big fan of his and would take me to Tamworth Country Music Festival a few weeks later as my initiation to rural Australia. The mood changed with the music as Redgum and Paul Kelly livened the crowd and young kids and grannies danced on the decks. All were waiting for the skies to darken for the fireworks display over the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
At 9 pm the pyrotechnic extravaganza was all I thought it would be, as fireworks exploded off the arches of the bridge and illuminated the scallops of the Opera House and nearby city buildings. Yet somehow, as the performance fizzled to a close, I experienced another twinge of guilt and regret.
It was then I knew - I was with the wrong mob.
All names in this article have been changed for privacy reasons. Copyright Gerdette Rooney. Photo credits: indigenous flag dreamstime; harbour Holger Link; fireworks Andreas Dress.