O’Leary of the Underworld by Kate Auty

Article | Issue: Feb 2023

In June 1926, a posse of police officers and white civilians murdered at least 20 Oombulgurri people at Forrest River in the Kimberley. After the massacre, a conspiracy of silence descended. In O’Leary of the Underworld KATE AUTY brings to light this terrible injustice.

Read on for an extract.


Between the waterhole of Gotegotemerrie and the treed plain at Mowerie, three women walked. Two men rode. O’Leary was at the head, Constable St Jack brought up the rear. From time to time they shifted sideways, speaking to each other.

Old and blind Warrawalla Marga, with Goolay and Yowan guiding her, hard as it was in neck chains, were herded by St Jack. In his sweat-stained uniform, he might have shoved his horse’s shoulder into her back, bunching them up, driving them. The horsemen were likely impatient.

O’Leary kept the chain tight and forced the pace.

Warrawalla slowed them down but, chained as the women were, O’Leary knew she was an impediment to the others trying to run. That made her useful. The women also knew this, so they helped her. What else was there to do?

None of the women was present when Hay charged at Lumbia and was fatally speared, but they didn’t expect that would save them. The story was now across the country. They knew the drill. For them, O’Leary was likely cut like Jack Barry of Birrindudu, a man described even by his own as a ‘c*nt of thing’ who had a ‘stud’, an Aboriginal woman (or women) who was held in camp and used for sex and general labour.

When one woman ‘cleared out and ended up at Turner [Station] … Barry went across and flogged her back with the whip … on horseback … she died when she got back’.

Earlier, as the sun threw early morning shadows, Goolay and Yowan had watched as their men, chained together and seated back to back, were shot in the forehead. One after the other they slumped where they sat. Warrawalla Marga, unable to see, heard the cracks and yelling. Later she heard tree branches being chucked onto a bonfire and smelt bodies burning. Shudders of shock rippled along the chain which connected her to Goolay and Yowan. She felt and heard their tight-throated wails.

Eagles above them, watchful opportunists, might have circled on the thermals. If the women were watched it was by countrymen. If they talked it was with fingers.

As they plodded along, pushed and pulled by O’Leary and St Jack, the women all knew their fate would also be a bullet in the head, just over the next sandbank … or the next … or the one after that … past the next stand of inadequate fuel.

It might have been eerily quiet or noisy with startled birds. The stink of smoke-infused sweat would have been bitter in the warm June air. Behind this shambling string, a narrow chimney of smoke coiled skyward, fitful. Eagles above them, watchful opportunists, might have circled on the thermals. If the women were watched it was by countrymen. If they talked it was with fingers.

In the far distance were the hills.

These women knew the story of this country, the river system, the distant ranges and ravines.

As this column – the armed and powerful on horseback and the piteous on foot – wound its way north-west, depressions of foot and hoof were left in the sand. Horses and humans all beat down the lightest of native grasses.

As they breasted the ridge at Mowerie, the light was bright.

Soon chained around the base of a big tree, the women waited, weary and knowing. If they spoke it was in their own language. If they wept it was not just for their own fate.

Later, scattered and dry fallen timber was collected and slung around the bodies as they sagged forward, bleeding from head wounds.

With the fire burning overnight, the bush was well lit despite the feeble shadows cast by a waning crescent moon.

In the morning, O’Leary and St Jack saddled up and left camp. The tree stump was still smoking.

In the months that followed, three distinct heaps of bone and 32 teeth were dug out from around the base of that tree stump. Only handspans away from the charred remains, O’Leary and St Jack had lunched and boiled a billy, folding their daily activities into their butchery.

At the 1927 royal commission O’Leary swore he knew ‘nothing’, denying ‘every’ allegation.

It would be a mistake to believe anything he said.

Barney O’Leary, the man who described himself as Patrick Bernard O’Leary, wanted the commissioner to accept that his story began in 1914. That was the year he remade himself. It was the year he enlisted, later claiming hero status as one of the very first Anzacs. He joined the 5th Light Horse in Gympie. He liked himself in a khaki uniform. He liked the bullet bandoleer slung across the shoulder, crammed with ammo.

On the day he enlisted, he was so new to ‘being O’Leary’ that he wrote his surname as ‘O’Learey’, adding an ‘e’. As we will see, there were reasons for that.

The tales of Barney O’Leary could begin then. But they don’t … Beginning at the end, O’Leary died in the late 1950s, comfortable on clean white sheets provided for war veterans at the Adelaide Repatriation Hospital. He spent his last hours clinging to the authenticating narrative of his World War I Light Horse service and giving directions about how he liked his tea. Going out in a calming smog of morphine, his unpolished customised orthopedic boots sat stiff under the bed. All available death benefits flowed to his wife, Dorothy Delaney of the Northern Territory.

You and I paid for O’Leary’s war-service grave. His name can be found in the lists of those who putatively served us.

There are reasons for rankling about O’Leary’s entitlement.

Most obviously, his tidy and painless death was in stark contrast to those of whom he put to the torch.

In a bitter irony Lumbia, the man who did kill Hay, lived through the punitive purge only to be sentenced to death by the Supreme Court, not once but twice, decades apart. Unlike O’Leary, Lumbia shuddered out his last breath under the blue sky of a Kimberley day, hardly wasting sweat on an old hessian camp bed, but worn and dispirited. Lumbia should have had a war grave but didn’t. The war that O’Leary and the others declared and prosecuted in the 1920s was a clandestine one and its victims have been mostly forgotten.

Author: Kate Auty


Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: La Trobe University Press

ISBN: 9781760643980

RRP: $34.99

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