This weekend Australia will be represented in the grand finals of the 2017 Eurovision song contest being held in Kiev, Ukraine, by a 17-year-old Indigenous singer named Isaiah Firebrace. Whether or not he (or the wider Australian public) knows it, he is almost certainly following in the footsteps of members of the extended Firebrace family who have been flying the flag for this country for several generations.
The information publicly available about Isaiah Firebrace states that he was born and raised at the New South Wales border town of Moama, which faces the Victorian town of Echuca across the Murray River, and is one of twelve children in a family where the father is a Yorta Yorta Aborigine and the mother is Gunditjmara. Further north along this same stretch of the Murray lies the Victorian city of Swan Hill, while 70 kilometres north-east is the small town of Moulamein, NSW.
On 14 March 1916 two men named John Arthur (“Jack”) and Arthur Firebrace enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, determined to serve their country in the First World War. They were probably cousins, since Jack, aged 18, gave his father’s name as John, while Arthur, having just turned 39, was the son of Edward. Both were, however, single and station hands from Moulamein.
The medical officers who examined them on enlistment at Bendigo, Victoria, separately commented on their Indigenous appearance. The local doctor who examined Arthur bluntly described him as ‘Aboriginal descent, Coloured man’, while the army captain who looked at Jack more diplomatically noted that his skin colour was ‘dark’, the result of having a white-skinned father and a dark-skinned mother.
Both Jack and Arthur sailed from Melbourne in June as reinforcements for the 38th Infantry Battalion. Arthur was transferred to the 7th Battalion in September, and in France developed the condition known as ‘trench feet’ and was eventually considered unfit for further front-line service. This undoubtedly saved his life, since he was transferred for duty with the Australian Army Medical Corps in England and eventually returned home in 1919 after the end of the war.
Jack Firebrace also got trench feet, but after recovering was determined to be fit for further service in France. He became a Lance Corporal in the 59th Infantry Battalion—one of a relatively small number of Indigenous men given non-commissioned rank—and was killed in action on 9 August 1918, aged 21. Also killed at the front a week later was Private William Reginald Firebrace, another son of Edward Firebrace from Moulamein. He was a ploughman who enlisted in July 1917, aged 22, and embarked from Melbourne in November to join the 24th Battalion.
When a second global conflict erupted barely 20 years after the first had ended, no fewer than five members of the Firebrace clan along the Murray again rallied to the flag. This time there were four men and one woman, and four of them served in the Army (two in the AIF) and one the Royal Australian Air Force. Three of them came from Swan Hill, and two from Moulamein. Perhaps not all these individuals were of Indigenous heritage, but almost certainly some would have been.
Regardless of whether Australia’s entrant wins at Eurovision, Isaiah Firebrace has again brought his family’s name and the Indigenous cause to national prominence.
Troops of the 2/6th Australian Infantry Battalion enjoy a rest at a Salvation Army hut in the Mubo-Salamaua area of New Guinea in July 1943. Among the personnel shown (but not specifically identified) was Private Laurence George Firebrace. (AWM 054515)