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Dame Mary Gertrude Durack (1913–1994)

by Malcolm Allbrook

This article was published:

Dame Mary Gertrude Durack (1913–1994), writer, was born on 20 February 1913 in Adelaide, second of six children of New South Wales-born Michael Patrick Durack, pastoralist, and his South Australian-born wife Bessie Ida Muriel, née Johnstone. Mary spent her infancy on the family’s East Kimberley cattle stations, Argyle Downs and Ivanhoe. About 1917 she moved to Perth with her mother and siblings; her father was an occasional visitor from his pastoral duties. She was educated at Claremont Practising School and then Loreto Convent (1920–29), where she excelled at English and history. Recognising her flair for poetry and creative writing, her parents published a small book of her verse, Little Poems of Sunshine, in 1923.

Drawn by a desire to return to the Kimberley, Durack elected not to sit for her Leaving certificate examinations and spent 1931 at Argyle Downs. After her return to Perth, she contributed articles to the Western Mail and the West Australian, her principal subjects being the Aboriginal people who lived and worked on the Durack properties. In 1933 she and her younger sister Elizabeth travelled back to the Kimberley, where they worked as cooks and general hands. The sisters published All-About (1935), a light-hearted account of the mainly Miriwoong Aboriginal community at Argyle Downs. Two children’s stories followed: Chunuma (1936) and Son of Djaro (1937). With their savings supplemented by royalties, Mary and Elizabeth voyaged to England in May 1936, also visiting Ireland, Europe, and North Africa, before returning to Perth in February 1937. Mary took a job in the city with the Western Mail, writing a column for country readers under the pen-name ‘Virgilia’ and a page for children as ‘Aunt Mary.’

On 2 December 1938, at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, Durack married Horatio (Horrie) Clive Miller (d. 1980), an aircraft engineer and a renowned aviator; the couple had met when he travelled north in 1934. With her husband mostly absent developing his airline venture, MacRobertson-Miller Aviation Co. Ltd, she resumed freelance writing while raising a family at their Nedlands, Perth, home. She published a series of children’s books—Piccaninnies (1940), The Way of the Whirlwind (1941), and The Magic Trumpet (1946)—which were illustrated by Elizabeth.

Dividing her time between Perth and Broome, where her husband had bought a house, Durack completed her first novel, Keep Him My Country (1955). The book’s main theme was the relationship between an Aboriginal woman and a white pastoralist. Three years later she wrote the libretto for Dalgerie, the composer James Penberthy’s opera version of the work, which would be performed at the Sydney Opera House in 1973. Her next book, Kings in Grass Castles (1959), was an instant success and established her as an author of repute; it has been republished many times since. Combining her skills as an imaginative storyteller with detailed family archival research, the book relates the history of her ancestors’ departure from Ireland, their establishment at Goulburn, New South Wales, and migration first to western Queensland and then to the Kimberley.

Throughout her career, Durack produced book reviews and articles, as well as poetry, radio plays, and talks. With Elizabeth she completed four more children’s books. In 1969 she published The Rock and the Sand, judged by many to have been her finest historical work, which portrayed the emerging, often fraught, relationships between Kimberley Aboriginal people (‘people of the dream’) and Catholic missionaries (‘people of the clock’) (Durack 1969, 21). Swan River Saga (c. 1972), a play she co-authored with the actress Nita Pannell, drew on the letters and journals of Eliza Shaw, who arrived at the settlement in 1830. Shaw’s story became To Be Heirs Forever (1976), her only major book not set in the Kimberley.

Durack regularly returned to the north, principally to visit the Miriwoong people, most of whom had been displaced to Kununurra following the award of equal wages in 1972. The demise of the system of Aboriginal pastoral labour, combined with the inundation of Argyle Downs after the damming of the Ord River the same year, motivated her to resume work on the Durack family history. Her progress was delayed by Horrie’s worsening health after a debilitating stroke in 1977. She also grieved the deaths of two of her daughters (in 1960 and 1975) and in 1979 was injured by a car when crossing a road, and required a lengthy period of rehabilitation. She eventually completed Sons in the Saddle in 1983. Using the diaries and letters of her father, and oral history material from Aboriginal people, the book tells the history of the family stations under the management of the second generation of Duracks. The same year she published her best-known poem, ‘Lament for the Drowned Country,’ in which she imagined the voice of a Miriwoong woman, Maggie Wallaby, mourning the loss of her traditional lands under the waters of Lake Argyle.

Having been appointed OBE in 1966, Durack was promoted to DBE and awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by the University of Western Australia in 1977. She had been a foundation member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Western Australian section, in 1938 (president 1959–61 and 1966–67; life member 1967), and an executive member of the Aboriginal Theatre (later Cultural) Foundation (1969–76). Reflecting her interests in literature and history, she was a member of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society and the Australian Society of Authors, and the State branches of the National Trust of Australia and the Society of Women Writers. She was a patron of the Friends of the Battye Library and of the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre (founding director 1976). In 1989 she was appointed AC.

Among the twenty-eight books Durack authored or co-authored, Kings in Grass Castles, The Rock and the Sand, and Sons in the Saddle are regarded as Australian literary classics. She has been widely praised for her narrative skills and for her willingness to portray Aboriginal people and European women as protagonists in the history of northern Australian colonisation. Some, though, have dismissed her as an apologist for the ‘squattocracy,’ and for trivialising the role of Aboriginal people in its pastoral enterprises. She has also been accused of concealing violence on the Kimberley frontier through her celebration of the achievements of her forebears (Owen 2017, 30). Others have suggested that it was her success in enunciating the ‘lasting ideology of paternal responsibility’ that elevated her books to ‘classical status in Euro-Australian culture’ (Rowse 1987, 97). The anthropologist Bruce Shaw recognised the evolution of her views on Aboriginal people, from the ‘affectionate paternalism’ and ‘unconscious stereotypes’ in All-About, to the deeper, sympathetic understandings of her later works (1983, 16–17). She enthusiastically promoted Aboriginal participation in the arts and literature, and would come to support land rights, advocating ‘vesting of pastoral properties in Aboriginal communities’ (Millett and Millett 2000, xiii).

A respected figure in the national and State literary and cultural spheres, Durack was modest about her achievements, and believed she had never reached her full potential as a writer. She was generous in her support of aspiring authors, and cultural and literary organisations, the time she devoted to others often being at the expense of her own work. With a wide circle of friends, she loved to entertain; at heart she was a homely person, devoted to her family. Despite declining health from the effects of abdominal cancer, she continued to write and to attend public engagements. She managed a final trip to the Kimberley in 1993. Dame Mary died in her home at Nedlands on 16 December 1994, survived by her two sons and two of her four daughters. After a requiem Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth, she was cremated; her ashes were buried in the garden at the Argyle Downs Homestead Museum, near her now-inundated ‘spirit country.’

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bolton, Geoffrey. ‘Writer Forged Image of Pastoral Age.’ Australian, 20 December 1994, 13
  • Durack, Mary. Interview by Hazel De Berg, 12 March 1976. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Durack, Mary. The Rock and the Sand. London: Constable, 1969
  • Durack Miller, Mary. Interview by Stuart Reid, 1990–91. Battye Library collection. National Library of Australia
  • Grant, Don. ‘Mary Durack.’ In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 260, Australian Writers, 1915–1950, edited by Selina Samuels, 106–15. Farrington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2002
  • Greer, Germaine. Whitefella Jump Up: The Shortest Way to Nationhood. London: Profile Books, 2004
  • Millett, Patsy. ‘Mary Durack: The Diarist.’ Early Days. Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society (Inc.) 13, no. 5 (2011): 678–96
  • Millett, Patsy, and Naomi Millett, eds. Pilgrimage: A Journey Through the Life and Writings of Mary Durack. Sydney: Bantam, 2000
  • Niall, Brenda. True North: The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
  • Owen, Chris. ‘Every Mother’s Son Is Guilty’: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882–1905. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017
  • Puchy-Palmos, Alison. ‘Dame Mary Durack 1913–1994.’ Westerly, no. 1 (Autumn 1995): 5–6
  • Rowse, Tim. ‘"Were You Ever Savages?" Aboriginal Insiders and Pastoralists’ Patronage.’ Oceania 58, no. 2 (December 1987): 81–99
  • Shaw, Bruce. Banggaiyerri: The Story of Jack Sullivan. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1983
  • State Library of Western Australia. MN 71, Durack Family Papers, 1886–1991

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Allbrook, 'Durack, Dame Mary Gertrude (1913–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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