OBITUARY – IRENA SKIRA
8 December 1922 – 22 September 2022
By Eva Skira
Irena Skira passed away in Perth on 22 September 2021.
Irena Skira was a woman who greatly valued and treasured life. She was a fighter every step of her 98 years. She embodied the classic triangulation of being Ukrainian Catholic, a migrant refugee and a naturalised Australian: a story of family, faith and country.
Irena was born on 8 December 2021 in Drohobych, 80 kilometres from Lviv in western Ukraine, a part of the Ukraine nation that is fiercely Ukrainian and Catholic, and which had been under foreign occupation for centuries. Much religious and national persecution has been visited on the people, and against that backdrop surviving with integrity becomes very important.
Irena was the youngest of three children and had a stable childhood. Her father was a tailor, a trade greatly valued, and for whom she had great respect and admiration. She attended school in Drohobych and went to university in Lviv to study veterinarian science. This was an incredible achievement for her and her family. Her oldest brother, Lubomyr became a doctor.
By this time, Second World War had broken out and Ukraine got caught up in the cross fires of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist Russia. What a choice? In 1941 Ukrainians in western Ukraine were being tortured and killed by the Russians and Irena along with others, fled to the west on a night train. She did not say goodbye to her parents. She was thin, petite and only 19.
After the war, and given the horrific communist regime in Ukraine, she found herself in a refugee camp in northern Germany, and there met my father. She started studying medicine at the University of Kiel but then the great international post-war movement of people happened. She was one of millions of displaced people in Europe and the western powers got together to migrate them to far lands, mainly Canada, Australia, United States, and in 1948 she and my father Joseph were wanting to emigrate to one of these new lands. The choice came of a ship going to Canada but only taking single men or a ship going to Australia that could take both of them. So they came to Australia. One of those sliding door moments, when such a momentous outcome comes down to a split moment.
They arrived by ship, the Protea SS, in Melbourne on Christmas Eve 1948 and were taken to the displaced persons camp in Bonegilla outside Albury in Victoria. For Christmas lunch they had a traditional Australian meal, which would have been English style, and my Mum always remembered it for its ‘strange’ cuisine. In 16 January 1949 Mum and Dad got married at Bonegilla.
Within a few months Dad was sent to do his compulsory 2 years labour at a sawmill (later Gunns) in Launceston, Tasmania and on 7 June 1949 Irena gave birth to her eldest son Peter. In August she joined my father in Launceston, and 9 months later (18 May 1950) gave birth to her second son, who was named Irynej after St Irenaeus, as his birthday was on 18 May, in the same month as the feast day of Saint Irene, her namesake.
The small family of four lived in a tiny timber cottage on the banks of the North Esk River in St Leonards, which flowed into the Tamar River. In winter by the river bank it was damp, foggy, wet and very cold. They scrimped and saved, Dad quickly got promoted to an office job – he had 2 university degrees, neither recognised in Australia, a very beautiful handwriting, and was naturally intelligent and quick with numbers. They borrowed money from the bank and completed building their home in 1954. In the refugee community in Launceston there were other Ukrainians and they helped build each other’s homes. Working at a sawmill, Dad would buy and bring home cuts of timber on his bicycle.
As they were building their house, Mum fell pregnant with me and so they added an additional room. That little 3 metres by 1.2 metre room extension was my bedroom for 17 years.
My bedroom was very small and probably cold and damp. But I never saw it that way. All I remember is a very warm homelife. We were a close family.
When I was 6 months old Mum started night shifts at a new aged care facility set up by the Poor Sisters of Nazareth, called Nazareth House, ostensibly to earn money to buy milk for me as she was having trouble breast feeding. She cared for 3 babies at home during the day and worked at night. That typifies the priority of my mother. She worked there all her working life till the age of 65, mostly as a full time worker.
She worked as an unskilled employee, for a very low wage and with no superannuation. She disliked that situation greatly, given her intelligence and studying at university level, but because of refugee poverty, she really did not have opportunities that built on her gifts and talents. A typical female refugee’s lot. Added to that was the challenge of living in a small regional Australian town in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Therefore my mother invested her dreams and inspirations into her children. They sent us to Catholic schools and struggled to pay the fees, but they did pay them. Their priorities was our education and development. They saved and bought a piano, rather than a car. The car came some 6 years later when I was already in high school.
Mum was greatly interested in what we were doing. I remember her staying up till late at night to make a dress for me for the next day when I was in year 8 for an evening school function, or to cook sweets and cakes for the school fair. Mum was so proud when Irynej got his bachelor’s degree, then master’s, and then PhD. She was equally proud when Peter was promoted at work and then also for my various academic achievements along the way.
I left home at 17, as had my brothers, and a few years later in 1977 Mum’s husband Joseph, my father, died of cancer. Mum was 54. She was to be on her own for the next 44 years.
Mum was devastated by Dad’s passing and she even contemplated becoming a Ukrainian nun, but I think Bishop Prasko dissuaded her! She tried to pick up the pieces.
Irena continued working full time at the aged care home, Nazareth House, and started many craft activities. She did china painting, and produced some beautifully painted plates, dinner sets, cups and bowls. She learnt calligraphy and developed a fine style with her handwriting which had always been very ordinary because while she was left handed, she had been made to write right handed at school.
In Australia from the outset, Irena turned her deep love and passion for her Ukrainian heritage into being a staunch representative in Launceston. She did beautiful Ukrainian embroidery, painted Ukrainian Easter eggs, loved cooking Ukrainian food and having it featured in the newspaper. Mum and Dad established the Ukrainian school in Launceston and classes were held every Saturday morning, which we all attended. They helped build the Ukrainian Community Hall and Dad became President of the Ukrainian Association and after he passed away, Mum took on that role for some years.
Irena also became heavily engaged in community organisations, especially the Good Neighbour Council and the Ethnic Council of Tasmania, which were active in Launceston, and was founded to enhance ethnic and cross cultural engagement and to promote diversity, integration, and inclusivity.
Irena had great empathy with people from overseas. She understood the persecuted: the injustice, the constant vigilance, the constant living in fear, and the need to survive. Her own parents, my grandparents, were taken away to a forced labour camp in Siberia and kept there for 10 years. Her sister was incarcerated by the Communists for suspected treason.
Irena completely lost track of her family after the war, and it was only through the efforts of the International Red Cross that family members were reunited via letters. Mum’s heritage was a Ukrainian patriot, a fighter, and a survivor.
Thus she continued her involvement in the Ukrainian community. Whenever there was a street parade or a fair, Mum would dress up in national costume and represent the Ukraine nation. She made and collected many Ukrainian items such as painted ceramics, embroidery, food dishes, national dress, and dolls dressed in national costume.
Irena was invited to represent the Ukrainian Community in Launceston at many official functions, eg lying a wreath on Anzac Day, attending many citizenship ceremonies, donating her embroidered work to the Museum, attending multi cultural events and community functions.
A community radio station was established in 1986 and Irena was a key part of the inaugural team, became a radio star or disc jockey headlining a weekly one hour program on Ukraine, playing Ukrainian music, reading news items from Ukraine, Ukrainian poetry. Mum undertook this at the age of 63 years and continued for 21 years, only stopping when she became ill. For her pro bono community work she received many Volunteer Awards.
Irena was also very active and a huge supporter of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The priest would visit from Melbourne 4 times per year. Often he would stay at our place as the Church was across the road. Irena was very devout in her faith. When there was no Ukrainian service, she would go to the Roman Catholic Church for Mass.
In October 1979 she joined a tour group and visited Ukraine and saw her mother and sister for the first time in 37 years. How momentous that must have been. The tour group with Bishop Prasko returned via Rome and Paris, and my husband and I have a wonderful memory surprising her at Paris airport because we happened to also be touring Europe and coincidentally in Paris on the same day.
Mum visited Ukraine again in 1984 and on the way back stayed with me some 6 weeks in Geneva in Switzerland while I was doing my MBA. She and I visited Ukraine together in June 1988 where I met my grandmother who later passed away in December of that year, aged 92.
In the late 1980s my eldest brother Peter returned to Launceston and bought a cafe and milk bar business in central Launceston. Mum would help in the shop. In June 1993, Peter had a heart attack and passed away. This was an immense tragedy for my mother, now having lost her husband and eldest son and child.
Mum would have struggled after that. As we all did. I had moved with the family to Perth 2 years before, so we were very far away from her. We offered to move her to Perth but she did not want to leave Launceston. She had her husband and son buried at the Carr Villa cemetery and friends and community.
Then tragedy struck again 12 years later, when my brother Dr Irynej Skira, Mum’s second child and son, died three weeks after a massive stroke, while doing research on birds in the Southern Ocean. That was an immense tragedy for us. Mum was again devastated, having now lost and having to bury both of her sons.
Then, in 2007, my mother became ‘my daughter’, and I her guardian, administrator, and carer.
On the two year anniversary of Irynej’s stroke, January 24 2007, Mum had her own massive stroke. John and I flew across immediately. She stayed in Launceston General Hospital for 6 months and was never to return to live in her own home. As there was no family left in Tasmania we decided to bring her closer to us in Perth. Mum suffered numerous strokes after that and a multitude of lung infections but hung on for another 14.5 years. Her will to live was remarkable. So many times the doctors told me she would not live for more than another, 2, 3, 7 days, and each time she defied them. Then just as we thought she was again recovering, she passed away in her sleep on Wednesday 22 September.
Irena leaves one daughter and 4 grandchildren, Raine, Josie, Andrew who are Eva’s children, and Sarah who is Irynej’s daughter, and Sarah’s 2 children, my mother’s great grandchildren, Isabelle, and Caleb.
In her final 14 years, I walked that difficult journey with Mum in Perth. Her will to live was remarkable and inspirational. Growing up as a youngster in Ukraine, and then as a refugee and migrant to a country on the other side of the world, deep, deep in her soul she knew and appreciated how precious life is, and she would never give it up.
A friend in Sydney who stayed with me in Launceston wrote to me on the day before the funeral service:
It’s incredible to realise what internal strength your mother must have had, built up from her early life surviving through the personal upheaval and huge uncertainty of WWII, and the sacrifices she had to make.
Then the tenacity demonstrated in settling in Tasmania, building their own home and bringing up 3 children, a reflection of the extraordinary effort made by so many people who came here in the late 1940s and 50s, that contributed to the rich diversity of our country.
It is indeed a wonderful legacy Irena Skira has passed on to her children and grandchildren and to our Australian community.
Irena Skira’s funeral was in four parts. The first was a Ukrainian Catholic funeral service in Perth, the second was repatriation back to Tasmania, the third was a service for burial for gravesite committal at Carr Villa cemetery in Launceston, there to lie in rest with my father. The fourth part was a get together at my home in November to celebrate her life.
Irena Skira was an honest person, loved her family and lived her life with faith and integrity. She is now in God’s arms.
Written by Eva Skira, Perth Western Australia.
14 November 2021