THE GIRL WHO THOUGHT SHE WAS IRISH
By Biddy O’Loughlin
I grew up on Giles street, at number 32. I remember the day we moved in. I was four years old. When we left our old house on Newland Street, I sobbed. I looked out the back of the car as the only house I knew got smaller and smaller. “Where were we going?” I wondered and, “were we all going together?”
We did all go together and I fell in love with our new home. Nevertheless, I always had a bag packed and by the door, ready to leave. Usually, I’d just walk to the end of Giles Street, sit there for a while and then walk back. One day Mum asked me where I was going and I yelled back that I was going to my cousin’s house, “so I don’t have to change my last name!”
Years later, when I was 17 and going through some obligatory angst, I walked out to Simpson’s Gap. It was at least forty degrees. I’d been sitting at home, bored and depressed. The air conditioner was on full blast. I was so cold I felt like putting on a jumper. That’s when I cracked, thinking, “I live in the desert! I should feel this heat!” I packed a bag with some dry biscuits, two litres of water, a pen and some paper and went walking. I wasn’t even out of town before I ran out of water. But I kept going, stopping every few minutes under trees and filling my bottle from taps along the trail to Simpson’s.
When breathing became difficult, I decided to hitch-hike. I walked to the Larapinta Highway. A fair few cars went by without picking me up. I felt ashamed at my weakness, thinking I was not built for this land and therefore shouldn’t be here.
Eventually a fat white pastor from Hermannsburg stopped for me. He was chewing beef jerky. He told me it was dangerous to accept lifts from strangers and I nodded, wondering where he’d bury my body.
He dropped me at my destination of Honeymoon Gap, from where I walked to a friend’s property. When I got there, my friend’s Mum, Leslie Reilly, was in the garden.
“Biddy!” she called out, “I didn’t hear a car – how’d you get here?”
“Get inside!” she ordered and I obeyed. She followed me in and gave me half a watermelon, and said I was a very silly girl. True. But I wasn’t bored or depressed anymore.
Growing up on Giles Street, I was contentedly creative, if perhaps a little too solitary. There were plenty of kids around — I just didn’t know any of them. So I created a few of my own. And for a while I was a happy little boy, making things and having adventures with my imaginary friends (who lived around the corner in a tree on Raggatt Street). Mum said she used to watch me through the kitchen window as I played, talking to my “friends”. She thought I must be learning lines for a play or something.
Eventually my imaginary friends, “Double F” and “Witchy Woo Woo”, left me. I suppose I’d always been the third wheel anyway. They went to live in La La Land and said I couldn’t go with them because I was mortal. I knew they were lying — because I was speaking for them. I sobbed as I watched them walk away down Giles Street. My poor perplexed mother.
Luckily, a few years later, I discovered a brilliant way of exercising my imagination without resorting to fictitious friends. With my siblings and cousins I discovered the beautiful art making movies. We all went through a phase of filmmaking in and around 32 Giles Street during the late nineties, making a string of hits such as “The Lizard of Aus” and “James Bond and the Attack of the Clone”. I’d never been happier. However, it was just a phase. Sooner or later everybody seemed to have better plans. And I was alone again.
I met Ronny Reinhard on Saint Patrick’s Day, 2006. I was 18 and on my first of many “gap” years. My Aunty Gee had given me his number. She said I should call him about his filmmaking night class at Charles Darwin University. I think she saw how bored and depressed I was and figured it would be a good thing for me to do. It was.
I’d always liked Saint Patrick’s Day — because I thought I was Irish. So I borrowed my Dad’s Samsung MP3 player and listened to an Irish band called The Chieftains as I walked to meet Ronny. Changing Your Demeanour diddled away as I cut through some scrub to CDU.
When I got to the university, which is also a public high school, I walked around furtively. I’d been sent to private Catholic schools, so it was with a sort of guilt and sadness that I moved through the campus, feeling like I’d missed out on something more real.
I found the Media faculty and I found Ronny.
We sat down in his “office”, which was a space in the hallway. He smiled wryly from the other side of the desk. He was wearing a green and black striped T-shirt for Saint Patrick’s Day. I liked his T-shirt and I liked Ronny. I thought he looked a bit like Bob Dylan. Ronny and I talked about film for a while and he said I could come to his class on Monday nights.
Then I walked home, kicking the dirt dreamily as I listened to Baba O’Riley by The Who. I’d never heard the song before and I must have put it on because it was Saint Patrick’s Day and it sounded like it might be Irish.
When I turned the corner into Giles Street, I found myself staring into the eyes of a large perentie. It was fierce but beautiful at about two meters long. I stepped onto the road as the totemic goanna watched me pass. When I got to our house, I looked back and it was still staring at me. And Baba O’Riley was still ringing in my ears. Now whenever I hear that song I think of large lizards and Ronny Reinhard.
I thought about getting my video camera and going back to film the perentie but by the time I’d walked through the mud brick wall and into 32 Giles Street, the pointlessness of everything had swept over me again. So I lay on the greenest patch of grass I could find and listened to Dad’s music instead, soaking up the sun like a lizard. Meanwhile, gum leaves whispered “existentialism” in the wind.
Later that evening I ran into Ronny again. I had my first shift at my new job. I was going to be a waitress at a local restaurant, The Lane, for a year to save money to go to Ireland. (Apparently, the grass was greener on the other side.)
The restaurant was busy. I weaved through tables, taking down drink orders. It was crowded and messy. Barefoot hippies drank cans of Guinness and Kilkenny while their adorably feral children ran around with slices of wood-oven pizza. I managed to spill only one glass of red wine on a woman wearing white.
Amid the chaos, a man sitting coolly in a green and black striped T-shirt caught my eye.
Ronny was sitting at A7 with Yuma Fujimoto, his Japanese exchange student who was the bass player in Ronny’s band, Fujimoto and the Setting Suns.
I wanted to say something witty or wise but I wasn’t witty or wise, so I asked if they’d like a drink. Yuma asked for a Coke and Ronny ordered a bottle of Cascade Light. Ronny didn’t drink much. He said he’d given up his partying ways — whereas I was just beginning mine.
Having just turned 18, I went out after work and joined a bunch of revellers to drink in Sean’s Bar. I had a pint of Guinness for the first time. And I imagined one day walking into a proper Irish pub and having a Guinness. And one day falling in love with a boy. I spent a good bit of time in Sean’s Bar that year, drinking and dreaming.
Taking Ronny’s film class was a fairly relaxed affair. I walked there from Giles every Monday night and Ronny would give me a lift home. Some of us did work, some just hung out. Attendance was casual. It was a Monday night collection of misfits. I worked on a couple of films with Fran Sharp, a beautiful, funny, flame-haired artist, and Pirate (Nic), a handsome heavy metal guy, who was hilarious and a terrific actor, in a stoned Jack Nicholson kind of way.
Ronny was a wonderful teacher. He’d sit around and help us to write our scripts and edit our footage. He told me not to pay my fees if I didn’t want to.
One day I came to Ronny’s class with a script for a short film. It was called Thespians.
At the end of the year, on the roof of The Lane, Thespians was played along with all the other films by Ronny’s students. The Alice Springs News reported, “The longest film of the program and the one that yielded the most laughs came from O’Loughlin (Cert III). Titled Thespians, it was an engaging, well-observed satirical look at a youth drama group in the hands of a failed actor suffering from delusions of grandeur and an adult committee more concerned with cleaning than creativity.”
A very generous review, because it was not a great film. But I still love watching the last scene, when Ronny, Fran and Pirate are playing the “Disappointed Audience” out the front of Totem Theatre, on the banks of the Todd River. Ronny references Tarantino and ad-libs, “What did you think, Mr Pink?” to Pirate, who is wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt. (And you can see how much he loves Pirate when he does it.) Pirate replies, “It was shit!”
Eventually I did pack my bags and leave Giles Street for a while. I was 19 and I went travelling, with the intention of finding somewhere else to live; somewhere to belong.
Travelling alone is wonderful and awful. It’s liberating and lonely, exciting and boring. One day I wrote Ronny an email and he wrote one back:
From: Ronny Reinhard (Ronny.Reinhard@cdu.edu.au)
Sent: Thursday, 5 April 2007 9:29:54 AM
To: Biddy O’Loughlin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Biddy, the class is pretty good… I still have Nick the Nihilist doing his thing and Darcy Davis making his film “Big Fat Wanker”, which is sort of an Alice Springs version of Little Britain, and Ronja is back churning out scripts and Tashka Urban wanting to do a music video of herself, plus a new girl called Robyn and a young ABC radio journo Lexi, who’s doing a doco on Michael Watts and his play “Not Beckett”.
The older folk (one) come to class on Fridays, so the Monday night class is pretty much young groovers full of dreams and ambition (maybe that’s an exaggeration) but they do have spirit and humour, so it’s fun.
It’s fantastic to hear from you (I often wonder how you are) and I’m glad you’re finding some creative outlets. I guess by now you’re perceiving all the possibilities and places you would like to see and I guess that might mean we aren’t going to see you for a while. I wish I had got my shit together when I was a young man and travelled alone to see the world that I’ve still only seen via a television.
Funny you should mention Jim and Cameron, as I was going through old tapes and found a film they had acted in for a Year-11 student when they were still boys in shorts at OLSH. It was made by a deeply religious kid called Luke Harland and it was of course a Ninja film set in the library.
One exciting bit of news is that next year the School of Creative Arts are offering a degree course, which is pretty exciting. Very exciting for those who are happy to complete their education in the Red Centre (which I imagine there won’t be too many of) but I think that with a bit of national promotion, we might attract interstate students who, at the very least, have failed to find places in the major higher ed institutions of the big smoke. Sorry for the self-promotion but who knows, it might suit someone like you?
Thespians was a fine idea that could be polished somewhat and maybe even turned into a musical, I reckon for either stage or film. I like the notion that, through a desire to make something, different people can find their level and gain a unity of purpose, no matter what their difference. That sounds a bit ‘high falutin’ but it is essentially there at the core of Thespians.
Remember Biddy what George Harrison said, “It doesn’t matter what road you take as long as you move forward.” We don’t always have to know exactly what we want to do but quite often by just doing something that we care about, we find the direction to our questions in the most unexpected way. I don’t think you should agonise too much but just apply for everything you may be interested in. I got to film school by applying for a directing course in theatre and at the interview the panel said that my approach was more filmic than theatre, so I applied for a film course and the rest is still unfolding (slow learner).
You are a creative spirit and I don’t think it matters much which path you take, as it will all lead you to the places you need to be. I just wish you were able to study here in Alice to keep the artistic community buoyed with new emerging talent.
Don’t rush home Biddy. Everything will be here waiting for you and don’t let yourself worry about the future, as it will unfold as you grow and experience life. We don’t always have to hurry headlong into a career and adulthood. There is more time than you imagine.
Anyways Bidds, we miss you and even though we didn’t get to know you all that well in the short time we had, you won our affections (me and family) and when you get back I look forward to many detailed stories of the adventures you’ve had and are yet to have.
Take care little friend and stay well.
Your old buddy Ronny
Charles Darwin University
Alice Springs Campus
School of Creative Arts
M: 0439 871 786
F: 08 8959 5325
I arrived in Ireland on the 1st of May, 2007. And eight days after that I did walk into a proper Irish pub and, while sipping my Guinness, I fell in love with a boy. But he couldn’t love me back.
I went to Ireland looking for my tribe because I’d always felt a bit homesick. Or out of place. Like a wandering Odysseus. However, I was born in Troy — after the invasion — so I don’t know where the hell Ithaca even is.
Ireland’s a beautiful, complicated place and I feel a strange affinity for the land and the people. Maybe it’s because we both share a cultural indoctrination in the Catholic Church. Maybe because we both tend to self-medicate a common sadness with drugs and alcohol, giving us a temporarily better sense of self-esteem and purpose (which we inevitably have to payback with interest). Maybe it’s just because of how Irish my name is, or how pale my skin.
In Ireland, I joked that I’d left Australia because “I have such pale skin, I kept getting sunburnt. And I developed a lot of white guilt. But unlike Catholic guilt, at least with white guilt I know what we did wrong.” Ha, ha.
GIRL WITH A FACE:
There once was a girl with a face
Who felt just a bit out of place
’Cause it wasn’t much fun
In the hot desert sun
With skin as pale as paste.
So she went back to Auld Dublin city
In a pub, she sang an old ditty
Then she gave them her name
In order to claim
Her place as a true Irish Biddy.
But they said to her, “Howiye, Brigid,
We actually think you’re an eijit
’Cause Ireland is changin’
No one cares what your name is
And besides, you’re really quite frigid.”
“I’m not frigid by the way, boys, it just rhymes. I mean, I might have to cry and cut myself a bit first but then I’m good. That’s just Catholic foreplay…”
– Stand up comedy routine from Ireland, 2011.
Ironically, I lost my faith in Ireland, where our Catholicism came from. I fell into a groovy group of ex-Catholic musos in Galway. They were in a couple of cover bands. They took me in and played me songs when I needed them. Living with Sandra, Ted, Sal and Al at 17 Presentation Road was, for me, like stepping out of the fifties into the swinging sixties. My world was turned upside down.
On Saint Patrick’s Day 2012, I was back in Ireland for the third time. I’d been working all day at an old store in Galway, to save money to get to New York. I wore a long green skirt, a green shirt, green tights, a green jumper, a green ribbon in my hair, and a copious amount of green eye shadow. Everyone laughed when they saw me.
After work I joined the crowds of revellers to drink at a pub called the Roisin Dubh. My friends’ band, The Converse Allstars, were playing. The place was packed but I kept to myself. I was in the mood for being alone. I sipped my Guinness in the corner and watched them play a solid four-hour set of rock ‘n’ roll.
Their last song sent a little shiver down my spine, as it had the first time I’d heard it and found myself staring into the eyes of a giant perentie. As soon as Baba O’Riley finished, I put on my green coat and walked through the cold Irish night, thinking about films, Ronny Reinhard and large lizards on Giles Street.
In the end, Ireland wasn’t home. The conundrum of belonging only worsened when I travelled and the guilt of leaving Alice Springs made me sick; I felt like I had abandoned it. As much as I identified with the Irish and love my Irish brethren, I missed home. I missed the desert. I missed walking down Giles Street in the afternoons. I missed the rarity of the rain and the welcome smell of it when it hit dry dirt. I missed our orange trees and the scent of the blossoms in September. I missed camping in winter and the sound of cicadas in summer. I missed that creative energy, which seems to flow down Giles Street, making it an inimitable place. Most of all, I missed people who chose to live in the middle of the desert.
So eventually I returned to Giles Street, with more awareness and less guilt (a futile emotion) and with the hope that perhaps I’m not as useless as I thought I was. And that perhaps I don’t have to exile myself to a country on the other side of the world, just so my features match those of its Indigenous people.
Despite the visible grief and pain within the Indigenous communities, both in Alice and around it, so many people living in Alice care about our unique little town and its people. It’s confronting because there are so many questions and so few answers, but it’s also why I think we are a very fortunate town. I’m starting to see how big small gestures can be.
I’m incredibly grateful that I grew up in Giles Street, Alice Springs. And I’m extremely glad that I’m getting older. I’ve never really understood the virtue in saying, “I feel young at heart.” I can’t help but think, “Why would anyone want to feel anxious and ignorant all the time?”
There’s an easier existence to be had in other cities of Australia, for sure. But I wouldn’t swap my childhood in Alice Springs for a second.