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Dedication to Aunty Irene Lawrey


Sandra Smith Aunty Irene's close friend and colleague standing next to Irene's memorial plaque at the Frog Pond, Yea Wetlands

Family, friends and associates gathered near the frog pond at the Yea Wetlands on Sunday to pay their respects to Aunty Irene Lawrey who passed away almost two years ago. A permanent bronze plaque was put in place near the frog pond (Irene's favourite spot) to honour Aunty Irene and serve as a remininder of the esteem in which Irene was held for her work and dedication to the Franklin family.

Following is the script of the dedication presented by Loraine Padgham A most important person is missing from this weekend’s celebrations – Irene Lawrey.

Aunty Irene was a key person with a huge understanding of the Franklin family and the Indigenous people who inhabited this region before white settlement. Aunty Irene contributed more the collective knowledge of the family than anyone else and was committed to preserving the family culture for the benefit of us all. Irene felt very strongly that the Franklin family had inherited a very rich legacy and this is one of reasons we are all gathered here in the Yea Wetlands today - to pay our respects and honour the memory of Aunty Irene Lawrey, a mother, friend, mentor and respected Taungurung Elder.

Irene Margaret Melhuish was born on 26th May 1938 in Launceston, Tasmania. She was the oldest daughter of Rose Franklin and older sister to twins, Dorothy and Shirley. She married Peter Lawrey on the 19th of July 1959 at Holy Trinity Church, Coburg. Irene and Peter had two children Sue and Neil both of whom were her pride and joy. She had two grandchildren – Jayden and Victoria. Sadly Neil passed away in 1997. His death caused Irene much sadness and grief. Through her inner strength and resolve she was able to overcome her broken heart. With the passing of her beloved husband Peter in August 2002 at Lismore, NSW, she was once again forced to resort to her inner strength and with the support of friends and relations found solace in her spirituality. It is now almost two years since Irene passed away on the 28th March 2011. She was only 72 years young. She had been unwell for some time and each time I saw her she expressed her exasperation that the cause could not be found but she was ever optimistic..

In the early 1940’s Irene lived on the Carter property approximately 4 miles out of Yea with her grandparents Herbert and Mabel. With her grandparents, Irene then left the Yea district and went to live in Coburg, close to the Greenvale Sanatorium where her mother Rose was hospitalized. Irene never knew her English father and when her mother died in 1952 she remained with her grandparents at Coburg until she married. One of her lasting memories of living with her grandparents was the joy she got from spending time with her grandfather Herbert, reading the Yea Chronicle. The newspaper was posted to the Franklin family in Coburg every week for over 40 years and ensured the family kept a close link with Yea and their many friends and family still living in the district. Without Irene’s curiosity and eagerness to know about her grandfathers early life we wouldn’t know about how Herbert used to sleep on a pillow of gum leaves to ease his breathing, or how he used bee stings to ease pain, or about how nutritious wombat rissoles were.

Irene spent her school holidays camping in a three roomed hut on the high side of the Goulburn River at McLeish’s property at Killingworth. It was here that she taught herself to swim and appreciate the pleasures of being in the bush.

In her younger days she worked as a florist and arranged flowers in her local church for services and for other special occasions and like many other members of the Franklin family shared a great love of dancing.

In her later years, Irene actively pursued the questions of her heritage beyond those she understood from her grandfather Herbert. She wanted to know more about the Franklin family, where they lived, how they came to be in Yea, what properties did John Franklin farm and all those other questions that involved family anecdotes. She tried to assemble the stories collected from relatives and friends into a more complete story of the family. Because of her depth of research and impeccable memory she became very knowledgeable about the district, the Taungurung people and cultural history. She was respected and renowned for her research by the Melbourne Museum and the State Library. She worked closely with Sandra Smith and between them they uncovered the answers to many questions but also ironically other questions and inconsistencies were highlighted. Aunty Irene also provided assistance to Dr Jim Poulter and Fiona McAllen for their research and publications and to the Yea Wetlands Committee.

In 1994 when Peter became ill, Irene and Peter reluctantly left Strath Creek to move to a warmer climate at Lennox Head, northern NSW. Before they left, they had one last drive around the district to collect those lasting memories that would be called up when they were living at Lennox Head. It was on this occasion that while taking a photograph she stubbed her toe on a rock. That rock turned out to be an Aboriginal greenstone axehead. That find held an emotional and significant memory for Irene. She was forever grateful to Peter for his patience, assistance and indulgence in helping her with her search and understanding of her Aboriginal heritage.

After Peter died in 2002, Irene returned to Victoria, finding a comfortable home at St. Johns Park, Mooroolbark where she participated in community activities and made many lasting friends who also provided support and care for her. When her health started to deteriorate she had the comfort and care of Carlene Miller and Penny Wagstaff and many others in that close community. Irene was always there for others wherever she felt there was a need. She was also the person everybody turned to when they needed any practical help.

As you probably know, Irene was a very artistic person, always dabbling in painting, art and crafts, creating a beautiful garden and expressing her individuality in many ways. A visit to Aunty Irene’s house at Mooroolbark was like visiting a gallery. Her walls were decorated in photographs of her family, sideboards displayed samples of her arts and crafts. She was well organized and knew exactly where things were to be found. Often during visits to her at Mooroolbark our conversations would spark a thought and off she would dash into another room retrieving a book or photograph to emphasis the point she was making. I was always most impressed that she could lay her hands of information so readily.

With the management decision to close St. Johns Park, Irene moved to a retirement home at Kilmore. She told me she had found a welcoming place on Taungurung Country to spend her retirement and proudly showed me around the premises with its peaceful rose gardens and private lounges. She was even impressed that a picture of the old manse where John Franklin and Harriet Tull were married was hanging on the wall. It pleased me that Irene had found a beautiful place to live and she seemed very contented.

Irene had a remarkable memory. Where other people would have to look up a date, Irene could readily recall the date and details. She was also a great talker and her stories were delivered with a vividness and freshness. Sometimes she would ring me at work for a quick chat and ¾ hour later I would still be on the phone she could be so engaging.

Irene enjoyed being part of the Aboriginal community and invested a lot of her time in sharing her knowledge. She participated as an Indigenous Elder on the Monash University Indigenous Education Advisory Committee, advised Sally Abbot-Smith and Russell Wealands on the Yea Wetlands Committee, assisted in the content for the video prepared by Fiona McAllen investigating her research into ‘Indigenous and Settler Interactions in Australia’. A lasting legacy is a valuable video recorded by a young school boy, Jeremy Blaze as a school assignment when he interviewed Aunty Irene about ‘What it is to be an Aboriginal Elder’. Her grace, ethics, compassion and dignity shone though in this video and will be one of the most treasured memories of Aunty Irene for her family and the Taungurung community. Together we completed her memories about her Uncle Norman and the way his horse won the Cameron Cup in PNG during WW11. We had planned to prepare more videos but sadly she passed too soon.

Her daughter Sue, Eugene and grandson Jayden placed a small wooden cross at the start of the Franklin Track along with some of her ashes on the spot where she stood on the day of the official opening. The remainder of her ashes were scattered at a favourite camping spot at Murrindindi along with the ashes of her husband Peter and their son Neil.

Irene was a kindred spirit and person who had spent many years putting together information about the Franklin family. She willingly provided anyone with information about her research and kindly lent me photographs that I was able to scan – many of which are on display at the reunion. She possessed a great interest in her Aboriginality which I believe was fostered by her respect and love for her grandparents, Herbert and Mabel. I can just imagine her eagerly sitting by Herbert listening to the stories of his early life growing up around Yea and sharing those small snippets of traditional knowledge that would have been passed down from his father John Franklin.

Irene was highly regarded for her generosity, integrity and graciousness all of which has been recognized by the work she did to honour the Franklin family in the development of the Yea Wetlands Franklin Walk. It is a token of the esteem in which we hold Irene that that Franklin family organized this memorial plaque to honour our Elder and dear friend – Aunty Irene Lawrey.

When Irene moved from Mooroolbark, she entrusted me with much of her research and papers. In amongst the files, I found a one page script adapted from Corinthians. I suspect someone gave it to her because Aunty Irene would have been too modest to have collected it. So in conclusion I’d like read a modified version of the script. I ask you to take the time to listen to the sounds of nature surrounding us in this wonderful wetlands environment, and remember her voice, her laughter and the joy you found spending time with our Aunty Irene Lawrey.

Irene was patient and kind
Irene did not envy or boast
Irene was not conceited nor did she disrespect other people
Irene was not self seeking or easily angered
Irene never kept a record of wrongs nor delighted in evil.
Irene rejoiced in the truth and always protected the rights of others
Irene always trusted, hoped and persevered
Irene always looked for the best and never looked back.
Irene kept her faith until the end.