Born on 22 September 1919 at Mossman, Queensland, Gladys O'Shane was the sixth child of Edgar Davis and his wife, Caroline, née Brown. Although Gladys was bright she left school at twelve to work, as was expected for an Aboriginal girl at that time, as a domestic. Six years later when working in the Mossman hospital laundry she met and fell in love with Patrick O'Shane who had migrated from Ireland. In October 1940 Gladys and Paddy were married in the Assembly of God Church in Cairns. Over the next ten years five children were born to the couple who suffered social ostracism on account of their mixed marriage. Paddy was known as 'Tiger' for his prowess as a fighter when taunted for his marriage to an Aboriginal woman.
O'Shane began her political life supporting her husband and other Cairns wharfies during the 1954 national waterside workers' strike. Four years later she began her advocacy on behalf of Aboriginal Australians with an address to the Waterside Workers' Federation Women's Committee national conference in Sydney. O'Shane informed her spellbound audience that the Queensland Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act was 'as vicious as any Crimes Act' and that the Director of Native Welfare - not the parents - was the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child in the state. She exhorted the women to 'join with us in our struggle for a better way of life' (Maritime Worker, 11 November 1958).
O'Shane joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1960 attending Party summer schools where she continued her education and developed her public speaking skills. While she acknowledged the important role the Communist Party had played in promoting the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal people she showed her independence by being prepared to publicly criticise policy statements by senior Party figures with whom she disagreed. In 1964 she was elected to the North Queensland District Committee of the CPA.
Her most influential political work was as the inaugural president of the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Advancement League which was formed in 1960. This very active league took on cases involving Aboriginal people maltreated by those in authority: a young man flogged on Hopevale mission, and police brutality in Mareeba. In these two cases an alliance of unions, the Cairns Trades and Labour Council and the Cairns League succeeded in bringing the offenders to justice and in publicising these cases.
O'Shane had a wider influence through the Cairns League's affiliation with the national body, the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. She involved the secretary of this body, Stan Davey, in issues in northern Queensland, and through her friendship with Pauline Pickford, honorary secretary of Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights, addressed meetings of the Union of Australian Women and other gatherings to educate Victorians as to the situation for Aboriginal Queenslanders.
She was regarded as a successful leader by her Cairns colleagues, able to inspire others to action, forthright in her advocacy and prepared to develop her skills as a public speaker despite a natural reticence but on 29th December1965, after a year of illness, Gladys O'Shane died of cardiac arrest in Cairns. She was forty-six years old and mourned as a champion of Aboriginal rights. She was respected by those with whom she had worked and inspired her children to continue her work for social justice. Her daughter Pat became the first Aboriginal magistrate in New South Wales, and Terry, Margaret, Daniel and Timothy also contribute to their communities.