A “STREET angel and a house devil” is how a pioneering Cork woman, based in Australia, describes her father.
Helen Oxenham, aged 90, explains in a forthcoming documentary on RTÉ Radio One how her violent father was the unlikely catalyst for her campaign to have a memorial erected in Adelaide to commemorate the women and children who have died through domestic violence.
Born in Cork and raised in a corporation house in Dublin, Helen, the second eldest of six, became a campaigner for abused women in Adelaide in south Australia, quite by accident. Her husband, August, was gentle, the opposite of her oppressive father. August had damaged his ears during World War II and was advised to move to a dry climate. South Australia is one of the driest places in the world. The couple emigrated there in the 1950s to raise a family and run a watch repair shop.
One day, a woman from the local social services office in Adelaide came into the shop and started chatting to Helen. She mentioned the number of women with children coming into the office looking for help to get away from their violent partners. This struck a chord with Helen, who immediately thought of her own childhood, when she lived in fear of a volatile man. He used to beat Helen’s mother as well as Helen and her siblings.
Helen’s earliest memories are of her standing between her parents, knocking her father’s legs with her fists because he was hitting her mother.
“And then he would pick us up by the scruff of the neck and just throw us somewhere,” says Helen.
“And we would get back up and hit him again because it’s just terrifying to see your mother getting beaten. “ (The children’s mother, described by Helen as beautiful and a very nice person, died at just 59, worn down.)
Revisiting her childhood sparked a desire in Helen to do something for the women and children in Adelaide who had experienced the kind of violence that Helen had endured. She persuaded her husband to leave their living quarters at the back of the shop and turn it into an unofficial shelter for women and children in crisis.
Helen naively used to think that domestic violence only happened in Ireland. The rude awakening saw her step up to the mark in her adopted country. She and her friends fund-raised by baking cakes. The community donated clothing and bed linen. Nobody talked about domestic violence at the time.
“Everybody covered it up. I’m sure that our neighbours heard us scream,” she recalls of her own childhood.
Helen and her siblings didn’t tell anyone about how they were suffering. They thought they were the only ones being treated so badly and hid it. Helen didn’t run her father down to other people but nor did she speak well of him. She would have liked to have been able to say that her father drank and that the violence wasn’t his problem but was due to alcohol. But he didn’t drink. He would “explode” for often very trivial reasons.
One Sunday, Helen came home from Mass. Her father noticed that her white shoes had become scuffed. Somebody had stepped on them while she was in the church pew. Her father turned on her, shouting that he worked hard for his family and that they were ungrateful.
“To me, it was bloody stupid. How can you turn into a monster because of scuff marks on a shoe?” she said.
So where did the name for the upcoming radio documentary come from? Substantial Helen. When the formidable Helen and a friend were lobbying for a shelter in Adelaide, the administrator of a housing trust asked: “Are you substantial women?” Helen knew what he meant.
“He meant, were we important women? Like doctors’ wives?”
Helen, realising they weren’t being taken seriously, describes herself as having been “pretty big then. So I stood up and I said, ‘I think I’m a pretty substantial woman’ and my friend started laughing and she stood up too and said, ‘and I’m pretty substantial too’.”
The administrator threw the women out of his office. But undaunted, Helen continued lobbying and got the shelter. She became notorious with the police. If a husband came looking for his wife, the police would tell him to “go down to No. 73 Beach Road. There’s a mad Irish woman down there. She’s bound to be behind it.”
When the shelter was incorporated and received government funding, Helen pulled back. But she was still conscious that women and children were being beaten and dying.
She still believes that domestic violence is not being taken seriously. Helen points to the rise in incidents of domestic violence during the lockdown of Covid-19.
Her campaign for a memorial to be built and erected in Adelaide is being carried out through a charity she set up called ‘Spirit of Woman’. It will be a place to go to in order to grieve and to heighten awareness of the problem of domestic abuse.” Poignantly, Helen says: “I need to mourn my mother.”
The Documentary On One: Substantial Helen, is on RTÉ Radio One on Saturday, August 15 at 1pm, produced by Tiarne Cook and Ronan Kelly.
Everybody covered it up. I’m sure that our neighbours heard us scream.