Contributed by Joanne Mc Entee
‘Did you want to come to Australia?’ ‘I thought I was going on holiday. They told me I was going on holiday. Said I would be away for six weeks. I didn’t know where Australia was.’
(Child migrant, Perth, 1988)
The holiday proved short lived. Within two days of arriving in Australia the child was scrubbing floors in an orphanage.
Oranges and Sunshine (2010) directed by Jim Loach tells the story of the children who were sent abroad under state-sponsored migration schemes to various parts of the British empire from the mid- twentieth century until 1970. Through the courage and determination of one social worker from Nottingham the issue was brought to international attention. This film is her story too.
In 1986 social worker Margaret Humphreys who was known for her interest in adoption cases, received a letter from a woman named Madeleine who claimed she had been sent from a children’s home in England to Australia over forty years earlier. She was requesting assistance in finding her family. Humphreys was intrigued by the letter and although initially a little sceptic, subsequent investigations corroborated Madeleine’s claims. Thus began the long and emotionally draining process of uncovering a heart breaking state secret that had been concealed for decades.
It is believed that approximately 150,000 children were deported from Britain under migration schemes. Irish children were also involved. In 1947, a group of boys aged between five and twelve were transported to Australia under the auspices of the Catholic Church. In 1952 eight year old Des McDaid travelled from an orphanage in Co. Derry to Perth, Western Australia. He originally was sent to the orphanage due to his ‘illegitimate’ status in the intolerant Irish climate of the mid 1940s. Many of the children sent to Australia experienced horrendous physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
David Wenham pulls off an impressive performance as former child migrant ‘Len’ in Oranges and Sunshine. Initially portraying the character as somewhat juvenile in manner and lacking appropriate communicative skills, Wenham subsequently and deftly introduces other deeper facets of Len’s personality through the expert use of body language. Emily Watson is perfect in the role of the crusading social worker. Her ability to display both strength and vulnerability simultaneously results in a thoroughly realistic depiction of Humphreys. Margaret and Len’s relationship is an interesting one. The interplay between Len’s inability to express himself and Margaret’s increasing sensitivity as the true story unravels is one of the most moving elements of the story.
The primary relationship under the microscope appears to be between mother and son. The long term psychological and emotional affects of the disruption of the maternal bond through the separation of mother and son is at the very heart of the film. The female migrants’ experience, on the other hand, is explored to a much lesser degree and the few who do emerge seem well-adjusted in comparison to their male cohorts. However the definition of the mother/son relationship is not solely biologically based and is instead expanded to encompass the professional social worker/client relationship between Humphreys and the adult migrants. Although Humphreys clearly wishes to avoid this filial bond – evident in her assertion to Len that she is not part of their family – a developing closeness is nonetheless clearly apparent as she becomes more immersed in their lives. She comes to embody and represent a mother figure to those who never had one. A recurring theme of abandonment pervades the story – abandonment primarily by the state and the family. Margaret’s abandonment of her family in her quest to obtain justice for those affected is also explored. Loach plays on light throughout the film with shots of searing brightness in Australia set in contrast to the dull, greyness of England. This direct inversion of the associated meaning of tone is a useful tool in which to relate the story of the distorted childhood of those sent abroad.
It is more than a story. It is a history which needs to be told and a film worth seeing.
Oranges and Sunshine is currently running in Irish cinemas nationwide.
Joanne Mc Entee is completing doctoral research on the nineteenth century Irish landed estate, as part of the Texts, Contexts, Cultures programme in the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. This project is funded by PRTLI 4.