[caption id="attachment_9111" align="alignleft" width="580"] A retouched portrait of Aboriginal DCM winner William Allan Irwin of Caroona station in NSW.[/caption] NATIONAL: In September this year, a tough little Aboriginal woman living in a tiny country town called Werris Creek in New South Wales, turns 100 years of age. Not one to make a fuss, Aunty Mary Porter dismisses talk of a party to celebrate her latest and greatest birthday. “I’ve told the family I’m not having a party, and I mean it,” she chirps with a cheeky smile. It’s a milestone to revel in for any human being, but let’s be honest - for an Aboriginal woman of her era, its simply staggering. As compulsory military training was coming into effect across Australia, Mary Porter (nee Allan) came into the world, the second eldest of eleven children born to Henry (Harry) and Elsie Allan on the Aboriginal camp at Caroona station in northern NSW. Mary has lived through a hell of a lot of change during what continues to be an amazing life journey. In Aunty Mary’s first year, Australia sent women to the Olympic games for the first time with great success, and the fledgling town of Canberra in the Brindabella Ranges was on its way to being Australia’s fancy new capital city. But around the time Mary turned two, perhaps the greatest catastrophe of the century commenced in the fields and towns of France, Belgium and Germany; it would later be known simply and bluntly as, The Great War. It would stand to be one of the goriest global conflicts the world had ever known until it finally ended in November 1918. Figures of the dead boggle the mind even to this day. Try this…fifteen million deceased and a staggering 20 million injured. Of course Aunty Mary then saw the madness of another world war unfold in Europe and across the Pacific. She saw the advent of the motorcar and yet more horrific war, on her television screen this time - in the jungles of Vietnam. But one thing she’s yet to see, as another ANZAC Day comes and goes, is genuine and sincere recognition for the brave actions of her people that fought in these calamities; people like her own uncle, Harry’s brother, Private William Allan Irwin. “I only have a very faint memory of ‘Bill,” Mary says. “I was only very young when he left Caroona. My father was very upset about it. He didn’t want him to go; didn’t agree with it at all. “He and my father we inseparable; joined at the hip. They worked around the stations out here you see, following the work…they were shearers,” she nods, her eyes focussing on nothing in particular. In many ways, Mary’s father was right; William Allan Irwin, (the ‘Irwin’ borrowed from an uncle), had no business as a 37-year-old Aboriginal sheerer joining the Imperial Forces to fight a war triggered by the assassination of an Austrian Arch-Duke by a Serbian nationalist. In fact, just reading that sentence out loud makes no sense whatsoever. But the reality is Aboriginal men like William Allan Irwin are peppered throughout Australia’s war history, from early Aboriginal resistance during first contact, all the way through to modern theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, and through no fault of our own, we just don’t know a great deal about them. In the Great War alone, Aboriginal enlistments totaled around 400. Seems like a small number, but for an Aboriginal population of the time of only around 80,000 it’s actually a fairly decent percentage. So-called ‘full-blood’ Aborigines weren’t allowed to enlists either, which makes those figures all the more impressive. Born in Coonabarabran in 1878, William was the eldest grandson of an Irish convict named Eugene Griffin and a traditional Aboriginal woman thought to have hailed from King Island, between mainland Australia and Tasmania. His story is certainly an extraordinary one for its extremes, but its foundations are common to many Aboriginal families across this country and that’s why accounts like his are vitally important to tell. SEE OVER PAGE.
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