Peg Cockram: Irish by Birth, English by Marriage, an Elective Aussie
Peg Cockram is well known to many Irish and Irish-Australians who go to Bloomsday, to Celtic Club cultural events, and the Melbourne Irish Studies Seminar circles. She was a serial attender of a dedicated kind. She died on 13 November 2020.
Her story began in 1928, at the once semi-derelict Wilton House 1.5 miles from Rathkeale in Co. Limerick. Her father, John FitzGerald, had inherited his small farm at the extreme end of the Golden Vale from a much wealthier lineage, from great grandparent, Big John of the three wives, who had married two Murray sisters, and from parents John and Marie Neville. Peg had fond memories of the big house at Wilton, with its stories of gold hidden in the basement and its hidden passages and recesses.
The deeper family history is a curious one. The Murrays of Antrim and Down were wealthy planters who followed Sarsfield’s army and Dennis Murray secured land in Ardgoul, Limerick, for his service in the seventeenth century. The stone house Dennis Murray built for his mother (whose husband and all of her sons were killed in battles on the way down to Limerick down from Ulster) was never properly finished until its recent refurbishment. Three Fitzgerald Brothers married three Murray women, and among their descendants was Sir Terence Aubrey Murray MLC who served in the first responsible government in New South Wales, and took up land around Lake George and Yarralumla.
Peg was one of eight children (one was stillborn). The two boys, the eldest Patrick who was close to Peg, and Noel, both died relatively early, leaving five girls. Of these, two spent time in Australia, with Peg being the one most committed to staying. The small scale of the farm, the timing of his inheritance at the start of the Great Depression, and his numerous offspring meant John Fitzgerald’s family knew poverty intimately, especially the indignity of living on tick, and the ways in which creditors had no compunction about making the fact public. As a child, Peg felt this keenly. What hurt her parents most was that the much wealthier older generation, living as they did on income from pubs and shipping and larger landed estates, did not really understand their circumstances. Peg, however, believes the family was not seriously wanting – they ate well, had ample clothes, and shoes. Her father kept the whole family, down to the littlest, busy with the jobs around the farm and all the children were expected to work hard, to be meticulous, and to pitch in. Peg still characteristically evaluates people by how hard they work.
Peg began school at St. Anne’s National school in Rathkeale with the Mercy nuns. Although school did not excite her, the journeys to and fro provided opportunities for Patrick, her older brother, to indulge his passions for rabbiting. He caught only one rabbit in his entire life, and Peg failed in her sisterly duty to cook it for him, allowing it to rot in the cupboard.
Peg had a year and a term at a secondary boarding school in Athlone before being sent home when her knees swelled and other illnesses meant that being away from home was not desirable, and she was withdrawn to attend the private Secondary school in Rathkeale. She was an avid reader, though she had to contend with her mother’s censorship of books she wanted to read, including Joyce. That deficit she made up for while still in Ireland.
Jack O’Connor, her teacher, recognised her abilities and pressed her to study to be a chemist, teaching her Latin declensions while ambulating together in his garden. After a successful Intermediate Certificate, she got bored in the ‘lazy year’ that ensued and talked her parents into withdrawing her. At the age of 18 she won a scholarship to the Agricultural College in Athenry run by the French Sisters of Charity.
She struggled to win a scholarship to the Munster Institute/Model Farm, because the nuns had promised the only two scholarships to other women and told her she didn’t have the ability. She could have applied political pressure because she had the support of Donacha O’Brien, secretary to De Valera, but chose to do it under her own steam, taking a more indirect and crafty route to her goal. She commandeered the notes of a cousin, Rosie, and wrote her exam in Irish. Whether it was the superior notes, or the use of Irish, she secured her scholarship to study Dairying, Poultry, Laundry and First Aid. Life in Cork at the Institute was high pressure: milking from 4 am, classes all day and study at night. The relaxation came in the week for laundry studies when she could sleep in and the work was easy. She learnt skills here – in grading and testing eggs, running hatcheries, buying and selling poultry, and sexing chickens – that were to serve her in two hemispheres.
Jobs in Ireland in the late 1940s were highly competitive, and graduates of places like the Munster Institute normally went back on to farms, but not Peg. She might have trained to be an instructress at the Munster Institute but would have had to hang about for another boring six months; moreover, £3 per week (£1 for lodging; £1 to help defray sister Joss’s medical bills, and some of the rest to pay off the bicycle) in the poultry industry was too seductive. The industry was just beginning to develop in Ireland, and she was confident, already familiar with electrical hatching in the top room at Wilton; furthermore, her aunt had incubators.
Peg worked first in Caherconlish, and later for Ideal Chicks in Ballina Co. Mayo, which was eventually sold to Thornbers, an English company. Her connections in the poultry industry eventually brought Harold into her life. An English manager appointed to Ireland, he had heard about her from another employee and looked her up while she was waitressing in Dublin at Cleary’s in O’Connell Street. A comradeship slowly turned into a romance. Peg effectively proposed by offering to live with him in England. Harold was astonished and delighted. Her father (‘very devout’) and mother (‘holier than God’), and the priest who married them in Lancashire, were far from discombobulated by this mixed marriage, and it happened quietly in St. Joseph’s Todmorden (Lancs.), on the main altar, with an altar-boy substituting for brother Noel, the best man, who was fog-bound in Dublin. Subsequently, she encountered incomprehension and (minor) opprobrium from nuns and other Irish Catholics.
When the poultry industry began to appoint graduates and suits into its management positions, Harold feared he too could become obsolete and sought to migrate in his 45th year in 1963, just before he would have become too old to qualify for the £10 migration scheme. Peg favoured New Zealand where she had relatives. But Australia was to be the first stage. They could have chosen to come by air, but preferred to take the sea route, on one of the last ships to leave from Southampton for Australia, the Fairstar. Not having children who were bored by the ship, she and Harold were content to go anywhere and elected to take the longer trip to Sydney and later took the train to Brisbane. She smiles as she tells me how much she enjoyed the voyage, her ‘honeymoon’.
The migration officer at the Kangaroo Point hostel was rorting the system by press-ganging innocent migrants to work in Gympie on a dairy farm (owned by friends and family) which did a seasonal line in beans for the Victorian markets and needed hands for six months of the year. He told this highly experienced team that there were no jobs in poultry (false), and they took up the job that paid a total of £20 per week (‘daylight robbery’ according to Peg). Although treated well there, they were glad later to find a use for their expertise in a poultry farm at Castle Hill – work that was not easy to secure from such a distance, because the advertised positions would often be filled before they saw the notices in the specialised poultry magazines.
Peg remembers Castle Hill with affection – she enjoyed the village life, the dances and the local fish ’n chip shop on Friday nights, and the three mile walk into town. The electrician for their hatchery also worked for Patrick White who lived locally, growing flowers and raising pugs, and writing The Tree of Man and Voss. Another move, this time to Victoria, gave Harold more autonomy as manager of Golden Poultry in Mornington. Their first car came with this job in 1964. Peg had always walked before that. It was a hard life, dominated by Collins Street farmers, who creamed off the profits in exchange for a 365-days-a-year, 24-hour-a-day commitment, and back-breaking physical work keeping birds well and clean and watered, and the equipment primed. Although she does not complain about it, it took its toll on Harold: he died in 1995. Later in life, Peg reverted to the ‘doddle’ of laundry work, and eventually retired from the Mornington Laundry. Both Peg and Harold felt their life in Australia was charmed.
In retirement, the human dynamo embarked on another adventure – the tertiary education she’d missed out on. The idea of going to night school was Harold’s, but he didn’t last beyond the first class. Peg got her matric. The Whitlam government’s NEAT (National Employment and Training) Scheme gave her the opportunity to study, and she graduated from Monash in the late ’70s with majors in Anthropology and English. There Shirley Leembruggen and Bev Armstrong befriended Peg, and their enduring relationships have continually taken them and still do into Irish-identified cultural activities like the Yeats Society, Bloomsday in Melbourne and the Melbourne Irish Studies Seminars. Living in Baxter at the Baptist Retirement Village is no impediment to Peg to enjoying the intellectual stimulus she craved. Until the last two years of her life and despite her advanced age, she took the train from Frankston to cultural events in the city on a regular basis.
Although she flirted with retiring to Ireland where she kept close ties with her surviving siblings and their families (she is a surrogate granny to many), she sank deep roots in Australia and intends to remain here. Meanwhile, she hurtled around the country and the world with the insouciance of one who lived fully, contentedly, and made an art of creating and taking opportunities. She earned her nickname, Young Peg. She was much loved and admired for her energy and curiosity.
Frances interviewed Peg for Táin in 2006.