Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mick (Irinyili) McLean (1888–1976)

by Luise Hercus

This article was published:

Mick (Irinyili) McLean (c.1888-1976), Aboriginal 'clever man', was born about 1888 near Pirlakaya well, Simpson Desert, South Australia. Irinyili belonged to the Wangkangurru people. Because his paternal grandmother was lower southern Arrernte, he learned to speak the languages of both tribes. He lived in the Poolowanna area, north of Lake Eyre, until 1900 when his group travelled south to Kallakoopah Creek. They settled in the vicinity of the nearest stations, Old Karlamurina and Cowarie on the Diamantina River. It was there he first encountered White people, European food and clothes, and horses and bullocks.

Displaying an intense interest in songs and customs, in 1901 Irinyili accompanied other young people to Goyder's Lagoon where he participated in the Mudlunga (Molonga) ceremony which involved spectacular dancing and singing, brought from the Georgina River in Queensland. Soon after, he and his immediate family moved to Arabana country (west of Lake Eyre) where they lived near the Peake telegraph-station, run by Archie McLean. Irinyili adopted his surname and was known by the given name 'Mick'. He recalled J. W. Gregory's and (Sir) Baldwin Spencer's visits to the district in 1901-02 and 1903 respectively. Mick McLean married Kathleen Heel Arabalka who came from Anna Creek; they were to have four daughters.

On 29 December 1921 McLean joined the Police Department in Adelaide. Paid 7s. 6d. a day, he became an outstanding tracker and was twice mentioned in the South Australian Police Gazette for his work. He resigned in December 1925 and was employed as head stockman on Stuart Creek station. Later, he took a job as a drover. In 1971 he retired to Port Augusta.

McLean's main interest lay in the songs, stories and totemic geography of the people of the northern Lake Eyre basin. With marked perseverance and against considerable odds, he acquired a vast store of traditional knowledge from the few remaining Aboriginal 'clever men'. Caught in a changing world, these men were reluctant to pass on their knowledge, preferring to see their traditions disappear rather than hand them to the unworthy or the unappreciative. Through his enthusiasm and intelligence, McLean managed to persuade them to teach him. He gradually became a 'clever man', the last minbaru from the desert. On a trip to Innamincka (to the east of the country he loved best) he once said: 'I don't like this country, it is dead men's country, nobody knows it now'. He was desperate that the culture of the northern Lake Eyre basin should not die out. Committed to its preservation, he learned the languages, customs, history and songs of the Aborigines in the region. A senior researcher from the Australian National University did extensive field-work with him over twelve years. Recordings of her interviews with McLean are held by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra.

Tall and thin, McLean was essentially a cheerful, if rather reticent, man. He died on 7 August 1976 at Port Augusta and was buried in the local cemetery; his wife and children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. M. Berndt (ed), Australian Aboriginal Anthropology (Perth, 1970)
  • L. A. Hercus, 'Mick McLean Irinjili', Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter, no 7, 1977, p 27
  • L. A. Hercus, 'How we danced the Mudlunga
  • memories of 1901 and 1902', Aboriginal History, 4, 1980, p 5
  • L. A. Hercus, 'Leaving the Simpson Desert', Aboriginal History, 9, no 1, 1985, p 22.

Citation details

Luise Hercus, 'McLean, Mick (Irinyili) (1888–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Pirlakaya well district, Simpson Desert, South Australia, Australia


7 August, 1976 (aged ~ 88)
Port Augusta, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.