Autobiography of My Mother

BOOK: Autobiography of My Mother
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About the book

Autobiography of My Mother
is delightful biography of Australian painter Margaret Coen and is written by her daughter, Meg Stewart, the highly acclaimed biographer of Margaret Olley.

Margaret Coen was born into an era when it wasn't easy for a woman to forge an artistic career. Yet she survived as a commercial artist during the Depression, joining Sydney's bohemian set in their sketch clubs and raucous studio parties. She became close friends with Norman Lindsay and married poet Douglas Stewart, which immediately gave her entree into Sydney's literary circles of the time.

Meg tells her mother's story, first published twenty years ago, in Margaret's voice, with a stream of anecdotes and personal details that build a captivating picture of her life, and of Australian social and artistic history in this era. Meg has also written a fascinating new chapter on her mother's relationship with Norman Lindsay.


Margaret Coen painting in her studio at St Ives, 1970s, by Michael Elton


Autobiography of My Mother
was written in 1983. It was based primarily on interviews I recorded with my mother during 1982. I also drew on writings she had prepared about her life, and dipped into material she had preserved relating to her family, which is now deposited in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales. Although my father died before the book appeared in print, he was able to read the finished manuscript and so participated in it to that extent.

I wanted the book to give an account of my mother's life as she saw it, and to present the stories of her youth, which I grew up listening to and loving. It was never intended to be a fully-fledged critical biography, let alone an exposé of her love life. However, since
Autobiography of My Mother
's first publication in 1985 I have done a great deal more research. This was partly necessitated by
A Passion for Painting
, the art book of my mother's work that was published in 1997, and partly out of an obligation to present what has come to light since my mother's death in 1993.

In this edition the anecdotal aspect of the text has been enriched in some places, while in others specific factual details have been added, especially in the sections relating to my mother's painting career. For these I have mostly relied on the collections relating to my parents held in the State Library of New South Wales, plus the extraordinary
correspondence between my mother and Norman Lindsay (unread by me when she was alive), now placed there too. Not only did I find my mother's letters fascinating in what they revealed about her day-to-day life (including my early years), they are also very funny.

I have not added anything to the text that I feel she would not have been happy with, or would have been unaware of. The final chapter, written in my own voice, deals with her last years and death, and the more tantalising matter of her intimate relationship with Norman Lindsay. Since my mother chose never to talk about a romantic bond between her and Norman, the exact details of their relationship are unknowable. Therefore I felt it would be completely unfair (also impossible) to write about this from her point of view.


My mother's grandmother, Margaret O'Connor, was eighteen when she arrived in Australia to marry a man she had never met. At least, that's what my mother always told me.

According to the inscription on their tombstone in Boorowa, however, it seems more likely she was in her early twenties. Patrick Maloney was still old enough to be her father; there was an age difference of thirty years between them. Patrick, or ‘Paddy' as he was known, Maloney had come out to Australia from King's County (now County Offaly), Ireland, in 1838. He worked first on land near Bathurst but ended up at Boorowa, which was known as Burrowa in those days.

Boorowa, in undulating sheep country, 320 odd kilometres south-west of Sydney, roughly halfway between Young and Yass, was hot and dry in summer, and frosty cold in winter. Paddy Maloney settled on the Boorowa River, then moved to a property on Stoney Creek. The Stoney Creek property prospered and when he felt established, as my mother recounted it, he wrote to the parish priest in Ireland asking him to find him a wife. The only way he could be sure
he wasn't marrying a convict woman, he said, was to bring a bride out from Ireland.

And so in 1844 Margaret O'Connor, newly arrived from Tipperary (the adjacent county to King's County), and Patrick Maloney, by now in his mid-fifties, were married in Yass.

Margaret Maloney fell quickly into domesticity at Boorowa. She became used to the flies, forgot to be frightened of possums thumping on the roof or surprised by wombats lumbering along moonlit bush tracks. Kookaburra laughter and magpie calls became familiar birdsong. Subtly hued eucalypts, wattle yellow, gold everlastings and the soft haze of native bluebells replaced the greenness of Ireland with its brilliant hedges of fuchsias and rhododendrons.

She cooked, sewed, washed, made candles, bore children; they had eleven children in twenty years. Patrick Maloney was seventy-four when his last child Brigid, who died as an infant, was born. Mary Maloney, their seventh child, was my mother's mother.

Life in New South Wales wasn't much harder for the Maloneys than it would have been back in Ireland, but there was one big difference. At home they would always have been battling poverty; here, if they worked hard, they could live in affluence.

Ireland was still the mother country. As special treats for his wife, Patrick Maloney would order presents from Dublin. Trunks would make their way into the bush filled with new material, dresses, shawls, all sent out from Ireland.

My mother used to tell me how Margaret Maloney hid their money from bushrangers. Country kitchens had great tin dishes full of fat for cooking and Margaret Maloney put their sovereigns at the bottom of this dish then poured fat
over the coins. My mother also told me stories about the bushranger, John Gilbert, handed on by her mother.

Before he took up bushranging, John Gilbert used to break in horses for Paddy Maloney. He was eventually shot down by troopers at Binalong, close to the Maloney property. The inscription on his tomb says that, despite his wicked ways, John Gilbert never harmed a woman. He certainly never hurt any of the Maloney women. The girls wept when he was killed and Lizzie, the eldest of them, obtained his bloodstained shirt as a memento.

When I was about ten, just after my great-aunt Lizzie had died, I visited her house at Summer Hill in Sydney and asked my cousins where the shirt was.

‘We don't know,' they replied. ‘Mother collected masses of rubbish and we burned it.' To burn John Gilbert's shirt seemed sacrilege to me.

When tall, good-looking, black-haired, black-bearded Michael O'Dwyer asked Patrick Maloney for the hand of his daughter Mary, Patrick Maloney said, ‘I like the colour of your name, but I don't like the colour of your coat.' Michael O'Dwyer was a policeman; the memory of John Gilbert's death was still strong with Patrick Maloney.

Michael O'Dwyer was born in the late 1830s at Derreenauliff, a place consisting of about half a dozen stone houses – hardly big enough for a village – three or four miles from Sneem in County Kerry. His father was killed, thrown from his horse on his way to Killarney, when Michael was about eighteen. His mother then married a man called Brennan and they had two more sons.

Brennan, being a fair man, insisted that Michael O'Dwyer, the oldest, should still inherit the farm; farms in Ireland were only big enough for one son. But Michael
O'Dwyer renounced his inheritance because he wanted to emigrate, either to Australia or to America, he couldn't decide which.

He joined the Royal Constabulary in Dublin, then arrived in Australia in his early twenties. Already a skilled horseman, after a brief period in Victoria he was accepted into the New South Wales Royal Mounted Police Force.

Mum used to tell us endless stories about his adventures as a mounted policeman. He was at the infamous Lambing Flats riots that followed the gold rush there in 1860. Strangely clad, pigtailed ‘Chinamen', as they called them then, were among the many who flocked to the paddocks near Young to look for gold. The other prospectors regarded the Chinese with suspicion, which turned to resentment and violence. Michael O'Dwyer was with the troopers who were then called in to quell the riots.

He had to take a number of Chinese prisoners from Young to Goulburn. The ‘Chinamen' were chained together. They walked while the troopers rode alongside on horseback. As soon as they were out of Young, Michael O'Dwyer ordered the prisoners' chains off so they could walk more easily.

Every Christmas thereafter a parcel mysteriously arrived from China for Michael O'Dwyer. It usually contained jars of ginger, thanks for his kindness from one of the prisoners who had returned.

Like her mother, Mary Maloney began married life with a much older husband. She was twenty-one when she married Michael O'Dwyer, who was about forty. As a wedding present, Patrick Maloney gave each of his daughters 2,000 guineas. With his wife's dowry, Michael O'Dwyer was able to leave the police force and build a hotel – The Royal Standard – in Boorowa. Again, this is
what I heard over the years from my mother. Paddy Maloney died three years after Mary was married and she would have inherited money then that could have enabled them to build the hotel. But Mum always talked of Michael O'Dwyer using her dowry money.

My mother Elizabeth, always called Bessie or Bess, was their first child, born in 1878. She was born in a caul, like a beautiful transparent bag, she described it. Her mother had been born in a caul, too, and so was I. My mother told me that sea captains considered such people very fortunate and tried to take the caul to sea with them in a bottle, the superstition being that anyone born in a caul would never drown. This is why I will go anywhere by boat, though I am terrified of planes.

My mother told us, too, about a Negro who called at the hotel looking for work as a cook. My grandmother said that they already had a cook, but she offered him something to eat before he went on his way. He set off after his meal, but hadn't gone far before he returned, begging my grandmother to let him stay just for one day to show them how well he could cook. He turned out to be a marvellous cook, so he remained at the hotel with the O'Dwyers.

My mother and her sister Margaret loved sneaking into the kitchen. The Negro was over six feet tall and wore a white coat and a tall chef's hat. He would pick up my mother, put her on one shoulder, pick up Margaret, put her on the other and dance around the kitchen.

Things were not always so happy for the O'Dwyers. There was a big age gap between my mother's younger sister Margaret and her brothers Frank and Joe. Several babies were born in that gap; they all died. Two little girls, who were born a year apart, caught diptheria and went within three
days of each other; one on Saturday, the other on Monday. Out of ten children Mary O'Dwyer bore, only five lived.

The hotel did not make money and after a few years the O'Dwyers sold out. Michael O'Dwyer bought a corn and hay store at Darlington in Sydney and the family moved to the city. Mary O'Dwyer put up with their new life for a while, even though she hated it, but then she rebelled. ‘I am not going to bring up my children in the slums of Sydney,' she told Michael O'Dwyer. They returned to the country and with the last of her wedding money, Mary bought a property at Murrumburrah. Her husband named it after his Irish birthplace which Mary spelt ‘Dreenoliffe'.

Murrumburrah was a forgotten pocket, only about thirty miles from the bustling town of Yass, but far from thriving. While Michael O'Dwyer was building a pisé house on the new property, the family were live-in caretakers of the Murrumburrah presbytery. The priest only came over from Cootamundra on the weekends to say Mass, so the rest of the time they had it to themselves.

Michael O'Dwyer had always dreamed of finding gold and he was sure the creek that ran through the property was full of it. With what little money they had left, he bought machinery for working alluvial gold and installed it on the creek. But the creek dried up in a drought; Michael O'Dwyer sat and waited. When the rain came, the creek flooded. The machinery was washed away and with it went his dreams.

He was much older, too, by this time; he was in his mid-sixties but still had a young family to support, his youngest daughter Aileen having been born only a few years before. Michael O'Dwyer's prospecting days were over for good.

When I was about five or six, I was sent to Dreenoliffe for
a holiday. Michael O'Dwyer was dead by then, but Grandma O'Dwyer was still alive. She was tall, slim and very stern, with beautiful silver-white hair pulled back from her face in a knob at the back of her neck, just as my mother's looked when she was old. Grandma O'Dwyer gave me a little glass tube full of gold dust. It was gold from Dreenoliffe Creek, I firmly believed, and I treasured it.

Being the oldest, my mother was forced to look after the younger O'Dwyer children. She grew very tired of being a nursemaid. She didn't like the bush or the dusty little township of Murrumburrah. As well as looking after the babies, my mother did more than her share of chores such as the washing up; there is always a great deal of that in a large family.

She longed to get away to the bright lights of the city. A milliner was what she wanted to be. If she could go up to Sydney and stay with her aunt Lizzie Flanagan (the Maloney girl who saved Gilbert's shirt), she could do her apprenticeship.

One day, Grandma O'Dwyer washed her hair. She was sitting out in the sun to dry it while my mother washed up inside. My mother finished the dishes and opened the back door to throw the water into the yard. She didn't notice her mother sitting there and the washing-up water drenched Mary O'Dwyer. Bessie got a sound trouncing. It was the last straw. My mother determined to leave home that day and marched down to the railway station to buy a ticket to Sydney. She was fourteen and a half.

The stationmaster at Murrumburrah had a soft spot for her. Either someone had left a ticket behind, or returned a lost one; all Mum told us was that the ticket didn't cost her very much.

She went home from the station, wrapped a cake of soap and 4½d in a handkerchief and told her sister Margaret she was going, but forbade her to tell their mother.

Margaret walked down to the railway station with her, crying all the way. The train came, my mother got in. Margaret watched it disappearing down the track, getting smaller and smaller until it dwindled to smoke in the blue sky.

Margaret didn't return to the house until it was dark; she didn't want to face their mother.

‘Where's Bessie?' Grandma O'Dwyer demanded when she went in.

‘She's gone,' Margaret answered.

‘Gone where?'

‘To Sydney,' Margaret said. And that was that.

Now we come to the Coens.

My father kept a diary on his honeymoon. In it he describes a visit to the stone farmhouse in Ireland in which his father was born and where the Coens had lived for hundreds of years.

May 1902
. Got up early, very nice morning indeed, after breakfast hired a car and drove out to Clunemore [Cloonmore], about two miles from Tuam.

My uncle was delighted to see us as we were to see him and find him alive. Was shown the old stone farmhouse in which my father was born and where my uncle now lives. The River

Clare flows right past the door and there are plenty of salmon trout and other fish to be caught therein.

After dinner we walked over to the Clunemore cemetery
and saw the graves of my grandfather and grandmother, also the grave of Mr Patrick Waldron.

We plucked some shamrocks from the graves then walked back to Tuam with my uncle and his wife. On the way we visited several farmhouses of people who knew my father well and they were all delighted to see us and accorded us a hearty welcome. Had some tea, said goodbye and then went to bed.

My mother's comment about this visit back to Tuam was that at all these farmhouses they were offered plenty of Irish whiskey and it was too much for her. But it does show how close were the Coen family ties to Ireland.

BOOK: Autobiography of My Mother
8.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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