Open-hearted Shepparton storyteller remembered

By John Lewis

A Shepparton Indigenous elder who spent a lifetime keeping the stories of her culture alive through storytelling and writing, is being remembered as a generous, selfless and open-hearted woman who welcomed people from all backgrounds into her life.

Aunty Irene Thomas’ son Michael Hamlyn said his mother was someone whose door was always open for the troubled, the lost or the fragile.

“Mum's door was open to everyone - we were all the same people to her. She was a real Christian, with a heart of gold,” Mr Hamlyn said.

Shepparton filmmaker and ABC journalist Michael Hudson remembered his grandmother's mesmerising storytelling abilities.

“Whenever she started a story she held you spellbound. She just captured you. You may have heard it before, but she always put a new spin on it. Sometimes she told scary stories - but always with a moral,” Mr Hudson said.

Aunty Irene's storytelling abilities have been captured for posterity in her several published children's books such as 2007's How the Murray River Was Made, which is included in libraries and schools across Victoria.

Aunty Irene Thomas is remembered with affection and respect for her storytelling abilities.

Irene Muriel Thomas was born in Sydney on January 24 1945 to mother Leticia Clark and father Claude Douglas.

She was named after her grandmother Irene Morgan who was born at Cummeragunja, near Barmah.

As a child, Aunty Irene was brought up by her grandmother and grandfather John Clark among her Bangerang family in Fitzroy Melbourne where she learned to look after money - and to write.

Her love for words and writing continued throughout her life.

In August this year, Aunty Irene sat down to writer her memoir.

She remembered early days picking fruit around Mooroopna and Shepparton.

“I worked out in the paddocks with my Nan when I was eight years old. We went everywhere there was work by car. I hardly ever went to school,” she wrote.

“A lot of our people worked for Silverstein's, they were Jewish people and extremely good to us.

“We were picked up by a lot of Italian people on the orchards, too.

“We picked pears, apples, grapes and apricots. It was hard yakka, but good money.”

As a young teenager, Aunty Irene moved with her grandmother to Kinglake where she found her first job - washing potatoes for seven pounds a week.

“I was filthy rich and this is what Nan made me do with my money - pay board, bank money and the rest was mine,” she wrote.

In her memoir, Aunty Irene said she was told by her grandmother to look after money because one day she would have a family of her own -"and most of you will be girls with no men around them".

Auntry Irene continued: "That happened. I was by myself at 21, with four kids. I worked from 21 until I was 71 and now I no longer work. I don't have any problems, because I paid my taxes and I'm entitled to my pension,” she wrote.

As a mother and grandmother, Aunty Irene travelled the country to work and support her family.

She collected eggs for the Egg Board at Murchison; she worked on the caustic line washing peaches at SPC; she worked at Campbell Soups; she laboured as a fruit packer and grader around Shepparton; in Queensland she worked for the Fish Board, at an Arnotts Bicuits factory, and at a Golden Circle pineapple factory in Brisbane.

Eventually, she came back to the Goulburn Valley to work as an Aboriginal educator with 45 children at South Shepparton Technical School.

In 2006 Aunty Irene represented the Goulburn Valley at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony wearing a specially made possum-skin cloak now exhibited at Shepparton's Bangerang Cultural Centre.

In the same year, she proudly paraded the Commonwealth Games baton through Shepparton.

Last year she helped open the Koori Court in Shepparton.

But it is her love of storytelling for which Aunty Irene will best be remembered.

“Just five or six weeks ago, she was reading to kids at the ASHE festival. She said ‘Im going’ and she got her own taxi there. She wouldn't miss a thing,” Mr Hamlyn said of his mother.

Through a long battle with diabetes, two marriages and a third relationship, Aunty Irene became mother to 16 children, a grandmother to 11, a great-grandmother to more than 40 children, and a great-great-grandmother to one.

Mr Hamlyn said his mother died peacefully in her sleep at the Rumbalara Aged Care Centre on Wednesday, October 30, aged 74.

“She's one of the last of the old people - she had all the knowledge. Now it's got to be passed on,” Mr Hamlyn said.

Aunty Irene Thomas’ funeral service will be held at the Sir Ian McLennan Function Centre, Echuca Rd, Mooroopna, from 11am on Tuesday, November 12, followed by burial at Pine Lodge Cemetery.