Cirrigee’s family life centred around ‘running after’ her two younger siblings and keeping them safe from their bad-tempered Irish father until she was four, when authorities removed the three children from their mother’s care.
‘We became part of the Stolen Generations. One minute we were camping by a creek, the next we were at a children’s home. I have no memory of what happened in between or how we got there.’
Life in the mission was a world away from the life Cirrigee had known with her parents.
‘We didn’t speak a word of English, we only knew our native language and the Sisters were very cruel and frightened us. Sometimes they’d give the boys cakes, but the girls never got any.’
Cirrigee told the Commissioner that younger children were offered little protection from others under care, and she recalls being forced to participate in disturbing games.
‘The older girls would make us younger ones lie down with our pants off, then tell the boys to lie on top of us and have sex with us. They’d be laughing watching the boys try to get their penises in us while we fought them off.’
When Cirrigee was eight, her mother visited the mission, telling her to look after her younger brother and sister.
‘She put her arms around all of us and spoke to us in our language, then she was gone and we were being put on a train in the last carriage like the Aborigines always had to travel in. Some Aborigines on the platform was calling my name and pointing. I looked out the window and saw my mum, she’d just had a baby and was waving to us.’
That was the last time Cirrigee saw her mother for several years. The children were sent interstate to live with a missionary couple.
‘They thrashed us often, it was so bad we’d nearly pass out. They’d both come into the bathroom when I was washing to make sure I used enough soap. If I didn’t use enough she’d flog me, then he’d flog me, then she’d come back and push my head down towards the plughole. I worked out as I got older she was doing it so she could look at my private area.’
Cirrigee started wetting her bed which attracted severe and humiliating punishments.
The children were starved while under the care of the couple, and the siblings resorted to stealing food from other children’s school bags or scouring bins for leftovers.
‘We were so hungry all the time. Then one day my headmaster came around to our class and called me out, I thought I was in for a big flogging. When we got to his office there was a big chocolate cake on the table and he said, “My wife cooked this for you”, and we stopped stealing after that.’
Cirrigee continued to suffer abuse under the ‘care’ of the missionary couple until she turned 17 and left.
‘I was always told I’d be a prostitute, I was worthless, and I made a mistake marrying my ex-husband, he was a bad person. I live alone, I don’t trust any man. I’ve been a single woman maybe over 20 years. I had three children with him because I always wanted a family. We starved, he wouldn’t give us no money. I wanted to commit suicide but I couldn’t leave my children.’
Painting and drawing have helped Cirrigee cope and keep her mind occupied.
‘To pick myself up, I kept busy. I’ve done nursing and midwifery, and I’ve fostered over 30 children to make sure they don’t go through the same pain I went through. My own family is broken, my eldest said I ruined her life and I don’t know how to fix it but if we don’t tell our stories, nobody will know.’