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Irene Doyle’s story: A young Aboriginal woman, a priest and a daring escape from Palm Island #australia #australia_news #ABC_News #Just_In


Posted

July 14, 2018 07:54:46

Irene Doyle has a good life now, but it wasn’t always the case.

She grew up under Queensland’s oppressive Aboriginal Protection Act on Palm Island, a penal settlement off the coast of Townsville for Aboriginal people deemed disruptive, or girls who fell pregnant to white men.

Mrs Doyle spent her first 18 years of life up until the late 1960s on the island where every aspect of life was controlled by administrators.

“You had to be like a child and do as you were told, and we really thought we weren’t as good as a white man,” she recalled.

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Palm Island society was completely segregated.

At the movie theatre, white people sat upstairs and black people were relegated downstairs; at the store, white people went straight to the front to be served first.

“People don’t understand that when you’re living under a system like that, you’re not an equal person and we were taught we weren’t as good as the next person, and we believed it.”

When Mrs Doyle finished school, she was sent to Brisbane to undertake training to become a kindergarten teacher.

That is when her life took a turn.

“I didn’t want to go back to Palm Island because I had a taste of freedom that I hadn’t had before and I became a normal person.”

After training, Mrs Doyle returned to the island to set up a kindergarten, but she was given no resources and worked for months with no pay.

The plot

So she decided to escape.

It was a daring plan, masterminded by Father Cassian Double, a priest who had been posted to the island from New Zealand several years before.

“I said I’ve decided to go but I don’t where to go and I haven’t got any money,” Mrs Doyle said.

Father Cassian had very little money too, so he borrowed funds from the congregation’s collection box to help with travel and hatched the plan.

As it happened he was being transferred to Townsville, so he gave his old suitcase to Mrs Doyle, told her to pack it and bring it to the parish early on the morning of his departure.

He would take the suitcase on the boat with him, and Mrs Doyle would then travel to Townsville with just an overnight bag on the pretext she was going for the weekend.

No one would suspect she was leaving.

The plan unfolds

On the morning of the escape, Mrs Doyle dragged her heavy suitcase towards the presbytery.

“Every time a truck went past I would chuck myself in the grass with my port so that no one knew that I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing.

“A lady from across the road saw me taking this port up to Father Cassian and she told my mother,” Mrs Doyle said.

This could have been the end of the plan, but her mother, who worked in a training centre for girls, let Mrs Doyle go.

She managed to get her suitcase to Father Cassian and it was then a matter of watching and waiting.

Mrs Doyle arrived at the jetty, just in time to see Father Cassian in a doodlebug — a small boat — making its way to the bigger boat.

Her suitcase was sitting in the middle of the jetty.

“I thought I’d missed my opportunity. He’d gone without my port.

“I was crying inside because I was thinking he can’t do it; how am I going to get away from this island without someone helping me?

“I was on the jetty, feeling all forlorn and that.”

But all of a sudden, the doodlebug turned around.

Father Cassian pretended he had forgotten his suitcase and had the boat skipper turn around and head back to the jetty.

It was going to be alright.

“Just thinking about it now I’m getting freaked out, I feel as though I’ve gone back in time and trying to get away from the island.”

Mrs Doyle managed to get to Townsville and from there she caught a train to Melbourne.

She had a cousin there, but Father Cassian also gave Mrs Doyle the addresses of two friends in case she needed somewhere to stay.

“I left the state because I thought the authorities would come out and get me because I was still under the Act.”

It was frightening.

“I had been one a train before, but when I got to Brisbane I had to work out how to catch a train to Victoria.”

Mrs Doyle made it, landed an office job but spent months looking over her shoulder in case she was tracked down.

Learning to live

Now she faced new challenges — living her own life and learning independence.

“It was really hard to getting used to making your own decisions and I guess it had a lot to do with trial and error like you can’t really grow up unless you make mistakes and learn by them.”

But having that freedom?

“It was really good, having a taste of freedom.

“Even to this day now, if someone is down and out or not being treated fairly, I don’t care what the situation is, I get myself involved and I probably get myself in trouble. But I prefer to stick up for a principle, even if I’m the only one standing up and being counted.”

Mrs Doyle moved back to Queensland and now lives in a tiny town a 20-minute drive west of Rockhampton with her husband John.

Their life is busy making music and creating programs to engage young people, but mostly it is filled with children, grandchildren and a great grandchild.

Because of Mrs Doyle’s experience growing up on Palm Island’s oppressive system, she has created a different upbringing for her family.

“I tell them stories about what my mother told me. All the different things about Aboriginal history and sometimes they want me to repeat the same story over and over and we’ll lie down at night time just before they go to bed and we’ll have a good yarn.

“And I have special time with each of them.

“If there’s the opportunity we’ll go out bush and feel the freedom of the bush.

“The sky and land is like your relation. I made a couple of songs for them — all the little stories my mother used to be told by her grandparents.”

As for Father Cassian, he baptised Mrs Doyle’s children.

She stayed in close contact with him until he passed away in 2009.

Topics:

indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander,

murri,

stolen-generations,

discrimination,

gracemere-4702,

rockhampton-4700,

qld,

townsville-4810



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