In 1961, the poet Paula Fitzgerald wrote a short, ten-minute play to be performed at the South Brisbane Library. The 65-year old author based the play’s heroine, Petrina, on parts of her own life story and personality. A poet and a dreamer from Ireland, Petrina represented, in Paula’s own words, an ‘inherent love of the beautiful and good’.
The character of Petrina captures in ink the ‘gentle and sensitive’ personality of a writer deeply immersed in her Irish heritage. Paula’s soft and melodic poetry, often undercut with notes of melancholy and longing, is imbued with allusions and allegories of her Celtic past. Her own pioneering immigrant family were a Catholic dynasty in Queensland, with strong ties to the State’s Sisters of Mercy and Catholic intelligentsia. A literary traditionalist devoted to the sonnet, Paula embraced her cultural identity as an Irish Catholic to create a place for herself in Queensland’s nascent poetry scene of the 1930s and 1940s.
Paula found her family’s history exciting. Her grandfather’s stories about his first days in Australia and the Irish folk lore that was passed down through the family were her first literary inspiration. She wrote about her family’s story for the All Hallows’ School magazine, and lectured on the topic for the Sisters of Mercy centenary celebration at the Queensland Women’s Historical Association. Paula characterised the Fitzgeralds as an old and distinguished Irish family, a branch of the ‘famous Geraldine family’. Thomas Henry Fitzgerald, Paula’s paternal grandfather, travelled to Queensland via New Zealand, arriving in the early 1860s. A surveyor and civil engineer, Thomas was employed by the Lands Department and designed the street plan for what would become the Port of Mackay. He established a sugar plantation on the banks of the Pioneer River and, in 1868, opened the Alexandra Sugar Mill in partnership with John Ewen Davidson. It was the largest sugar mill in the colony at the time.
Thomas took an active interest in local civic affairs and served for short periods in the Queensland Legislative Council in 1867, before becoming Colonial Treasurer for two months at the end of 1868. After the Alexandra Plantation was decimated by storms and rust in 1876, Thomas turned his sights further north, exploring the rivers along the Queensland coast. He settled on the Johnstone River district as the best environment for sugar cane and and established another plantation, Innisfail, named for his homeland. The town of Innisfail would later be named in his honour.
In the Far North Queensland sugar fields, Thomas’s ventures crossed path with the State’s Catholic establishment. He partnered with James Quinn, the Bishop of Brisbane, to secure eight sugar selections beside the Johnstone river. The selections were taken in the names of members of Brisbane’s Sisters of Mercy congregation, and partly financed by the Sisters’ benefactor Florence O’Reilly to support building projects at All Hallows’ School.
Clearing the fertile banks of the Johnstone in the unforgiving tropics was gruelling work, but Thomas had the Church and economics on his side. Bishop Quinn was eager for Irish migrants to take advantage of the new land opening up in the region, and Thomas foresaw the commercial potential of selling sugar to England. His work along the Johnstone secured the region’s future as the State’s sugar heartland, and cemented a strong bond between the Fitzgerald family, the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy.
For Paula, the Fitzgerald’s origin story in Queensland was tied up with Celtic mythology. It showed that the State’s early Irish migrants were responsible for building industry and agriculture, and that her family’s history was intertwined with the State’s success. ‘The Hon TH Fitzgerald is likely to become … a legend because of his alliance with the fairies when he named his home Innisfail, for is not Ireland the home of the fairies and the leprechauns?’ she wrote. She added in verse:
Such dreaming from Celtic ancestry:
From Irish vision by an Irish sea,
Where leprechauns with cobbling many shoes
Have gnarled grown, with knotted hands
Wedded to my country – this I know –
The Irish Shamrocks with the wattles grow;
That desert, with its whirl winds, floods and fire,
Is haunted by the sweet strains of Lyre.
The connection between the Fitzgerald family, sugar, and Queensland’s Catholic community continued through Thomas’s descendants. Two of his sons were sugar farmers and another, Henry, was ordained as a priest in 1892. Two of Thomas’s three daughters entered religious communities. Agnes Fitzgerald chose a vocation with the Sisters of Charity over a burgeoning music career in 1893, and worked at the Sisters of Charity’s first school in Queensland, St Finbarr’s Ashgrove, until 1929. Mary Fitzgerald was professed as a Sister of Mercy at Brisbane’s St Stephen’s Cathedral in January 1880. She had already worked as a teacher at the Sisters of Mercy’s All Hallows’ Infant School in the late 1870s, and it is likely that her connection with the order stemmed from her father’s commercial dealings with the Sisters. As Mother Audeon Fitzgerald, Mary served as the first full time Mistress of Novices at All Hallows’ Convent and then as Mother Assistant to Mary Patrick Potter from 1916 to 1923.
Although Paula was close to both her aunts, Mary Fitzgerald would have been a familiar figure during Paula’s years as a student at All Hallows’ School between 1908 and 1911. The youngest of seven children, Paula was born on 29 June 1896 and grew up in a rambling Queenslander called ‘Enderley’ in New Farm. Her father, and Mary’s brother, was Brisbane-based solicitor James Fitzgerald and her mother the Victorian-born Laura Catherine Martin. Her childhood was typical of the middle class, Catholic milieu of which her family was a part. She attended children’s balls, matinees at the theatre and charity fairs at the grounds of Government House. Mercy fundraisers and charity events were a constant feature of the Fitzgerald family’s social calendar. A 13-year old Paula, for example, took part in a dance performance at an All Hallows’ School fete to raise money for the Mater Hospital.
Poetry was the other constant in Paula’s life. She began writing at an early age, with a passion and drive that foreshadowed another Mercy educated ‘child poet’, Ernestine Hemmings. As a teenager, Paula began submitting her stories and poems to popular periodicals and writing competitions. Her first success came in 1911, when, at age 15, her story ‘The Moon’s Christmas Present’ won second prize in The Australasian’s annual ‘Christmas Story’ competition. She had another story published in The Australasian in 1912 and received second prize in the magazine’s story competition again the next year. Paula left All Hallows’ School at the end of 1911. From the age of 15, her life was dedicated to building a career as a writer.
The first woman to achieve professional success as a writer in Queensland was the poet Mary Hannay Foott (1846-1918). She was the editor of The Queenslander’s women’s’ pages in the 1880s and published volumes of poetry in the 1890s, which were gifted, with handwritten dedications, to the All Hallows’ Convent library. By the early 1900s women writers and poets were becoming increasingly common on the pages of local periodicals, such as The Courier, The Daily Mail and The Catholic Advocate, which mostly catered to working class and middle class audiences. These audiences had largely traditional literary taste, and the fact that they were writing for this market explains the lack of experimentation in early twentieth century women’s writing in the State. Foott was central to the expansion of literary activities and opportunities in Brisbane at the turn of the century, and her influence is also felt in the nationalistic themes that became popular in literature following Federation.
As Belinda McKay (2004) notes, the years surrounding World War One were a watershed period for women writers in Queensland. There was a rapid increase in publications by women during this period, and an expansion in the subject matter and genres they worked in. Magazines and publishing presses that served particular niches in the market, such as the Catholic community or the Labor movement, gave increased opportunities to writers who could cater to specific interests. The Catholic Advocate, for example, was an ‘influential and community binding’ publication for literary minded Catholics in Brisbane (Morris 2014). There were also national and local writing competitions that bestowed publication opportunities and prize money to emerging writers.
Paula took advantage of all of these opportunities in the early years of her career. By 1916, Paula’s poems were published regularly by The Daily Mail, sometimes as specially commissioned pieces. She also began collaborating with her sister, Agatha, on illustrated pamphlets. Agatha’s art-nouveau inspired illustrations accompanied Paula’s story ‘The Seed’, in a small book exhibited at the Arts and Crafts sale in aid of the Red Cross in October 1916. The story showed Paula as among the ‘leading Australian poets’ and the illustrations were praised by Truth as ‘wonderful’ and ‘of great charm.’ The horrors of World War One had, by this stage, begun to seep into Paula’s allegorical and faerie-inspired work. The 1916 poem ‘The Broken Pipes’ concludes:
And the Earth people weep for their
For the pain and the Horror of War;
For the peace that is gone and the Woe
That is here,
For the pipes that will echo no more!
It is not surprising that the war in Europe began to play a bigger role in Paula’s work in 1916. In September of that year her brother Cyril enlisted and was assigned by the 47th Battalion. It was an important year for Paula’s career too, as her work appeared in a collected anthology of poetry for the first time. Pan Land and Other Stories was published by the Hibernian Newspaper Company, the owners of The Catholic Advocate, with a forward by James Duhig, the Archbishop of Brisbane and the Advocate’s editor James L McArdle.
This slim volume was published to raise money for Ernestine Hemmings’ education. At just 16, Hemmings was lauded by the Advocate as a ‘literary genius’ and the ‘future Queen of poetry.’ Pan Land collected 26 of Hemmings’ poems, previously published in the Advocate’s children’s pages, along with work from other Mercy educated poets, including Paula. Bishop Duhig noted in his introduction, ‘Hitherto the Sisters of Mercy have fostered and developed great talent in vocal and instrumental music … Now they give us a group of young students who have made their own songs.’ He hoped that the book would help the writers achieve the ‘success which they so richly deserve.’ Both Hemmings and Paula’s poetry of this period was inspired by ‘faerie’ or Irish folklore, which was a popular theme for women poets in the early twentieth century. Belinda McKay (2001) notes that faerie subject matter was a means for women to distance themselves from the limitations of nationalist, bush poetry and embrace a more cosmopolitan sensibility.
Although she was achieving some success in the literary world, in 1915 Paula decided to pursue further education in another field. The Kindergarten Training College had been established by the Crèche and Kindergarten Association in 1911 with an initial intake of five students. The College’s aim was to train ‘suitable’ young women in the principles and philosophy of pre-school education, so they could work in the Association’s growing number of free kindergartens in inner-city Brisbane. The kindergarten movement in Australia had been pioneered by female educationalists and philanthropists, and from the start kindergarten teaching was regarded as ‘women’s work.’ The training college was welcomed in Brisbane as a supporter of female employment, as well as an answer to the State’s shortage of domestic labour, which, Governor Goold-Adams noted, made it more difficult for women to work outside of the home.
However, the training college was also seen by some as a finishing school for affluent young women, and suitable preparation for marriage and motherhood. The Prospectus for the college in the 1920s promised that the training would ‘keep women cheery, fresh, young, original and healthful in soul and body’, while a 1930 report from the principal encouraged parents to see the training not merely as a livelihood for their daughters, but as an ‘interest in life’ and ‘food for the mind’ (Gahan et al. 2011). The fee structure for the college also contributed to its reputation as ‘the best Australia could offer in the way of a finishing course’ (Buchanan 1966).
Paula’s motivations for enrolling in the training college are unclear. Writing was still an unpredictable and challenging career for women in Queensland, and it is possible that she wanted to develop alternative skills and interests in her professional life. Whatever her motivations, she remained aligned with the kindergarten movement throughout her life. When she commenced her training in 1915 the course ran for two years, with practical training every morning and afternoon lectures at the college, then located at Shafston House at Kangaroo Point. Free kindergartens at this time were located in impoverished areas of Brisbane’s inner city, including Fortitude Valley, Paddington and Wooloongabba. Despite the genteel aura surrounding the training college, working at the kindergartens was challenging, with poor resources and basic amenities. Students were also expected to be involved in fundraising efforts for the Association by volunteering at fetes and jumble sales on the weekends. The conditions fostered a strong sense of collegiality between students.
Paula graduated from the Kindergarten Training College at a ceremony presided over by the wife of the Governor in November 1917 and attended by Freda Bage, the then Principal of the University of Queensland’s Women’s College. Bage praised the graduates’ work in the context of the ongoing war effort. The finest war work women could do, she explained, was to ‘help children who were coming into the world to fill worthily the places of those who had gone to war, perhaps never to return.’ A poem Paula wrote for the occasion, ‘Within the Circle’ was read by the College’s principal Mrs Champlin.
Paula was inspired by the friendships that she made at the College, and the shared sense of mission and collegiality the course engendered. In 1918 she published a short essay in The Daily Mail, explaining that ‘a college spirit is something that can be felt rather than defined. Is is that which gives lift and vigour to a movement that inspires cooperation and union.’ She highlighted the value of enthusiasm, as a ‘a flame that is burning in the eyes of the poet, the artist, the religious,’ and the necessity of cooperation and shared purpose. ‘We must all give our best efforts towards the good of the whole, just as one star gives all its light, the poppy all its colour and the violet all scent.’
One month after Paula published this essay her brother Cyril was shot in the head on the battlefield in France. He contracted meningitis and died of wounds on 17 April, 1918. His belongings were lost at sea and never returned to his family. Paula didn’t publish any poems in the months following Cyril’s death. Instead, she travelled to Toowoomba and stayed for several months with her friend Cecily Donnely, who had recently lost her fiancé to the war. Poems published in The Daily Mail in early 1919 show a marked change in subject matter; the fallout and tragedy of war was now a major theme. The poem ‘Somewhere in France’ published on 25 February 1919 makes Paula’s grief explicit:
And Sorrow walks in that hallowed place,
With her hands held close to her tear
With her head bowed down on her breast
For He, the Reaper of Souls, passed there.
Despite the tragedies in her family life, Paula’s reputation as a poet continued to grow as she approached her 23rd birthday. The Daily Mail ran a lengthy feature on Paula and Agatha’s collaborations in April 1919, titled ‘Talented Brisbane Girls: Art of the Misses Fitzgerald’. The article announced that Paula’s poems would be published in weekly instalments in the coming months accompanied by Agatha’s illustrations, and praised Agatha’s ‘modern romantic tendencies’ and Paula’s ‘imaginative powers’. In these poems Paula returned to her favoured subject matter, finding inspiration in nature, faerie lore and ‘realms of fancy’ rather than war.
Paula’s published collaborations with Agatha came to an end with Agatha’s marriage to Dr Gavin Cameron in February 1920. Like many women artists before her, Agatha’s career as an artist and illustrator did not survive marriage. In December 1919 the sisters’ 35-page illustrated children’s poem ‘The Lady in the Blue Cloak’ came to the attention of Sydney Ure Smith, an editor at Art in Australia. Both the writing and images were inspired by the nineteenth century fairy tales of northern Europe and Celtic manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. ‘I like the drawings very much indeed,’ he wrote in a letter to the publisher George Robertson, of booksellers Angus & Robertson. ‘I had hoped that Miss Fitzgerald would be free to accept a position with our noble firm but alas she is to be married—so really she will only have time in the near future to illustrate A&R publications.’ This proposed work with Angus and Robertson never took place.
Throughout the 1920s Paula continued to publish poetry regularly in magazines and periodicals while working as a nursing sister at the Brisbane General Hospital. She continued to live at home in New Farm and took on the care of her mother; her father had died of heart failure in 1915, aged 58. Although she suffered from poor health herself, Paula was a prolific writer. Her friend and fellow writer Margaret Connah recalled, ‘poems flowed so freely from her heart and pen.’ In between her work as a nurse, her family life and a social calendar of charity fundraisers and cultural events Paula wrote poems and short stories for The Daily Mail, the Australasian and The Brisbane Courier. Her connection to the Sisters of Mercy also continued; she attended All Hallows’ School alumni fundraisers for the Mater Hospital and, in 1925, was invited to the opening of a new Mercy convent in Nambour.
In the early 1930s Paula drew on her background at the Kindergarten Training College to establish a new venture in partnership with her friend Beryl Carvossa; a ‘children’s rest room’ in the heart of Brisbane city, where children were cared for while their mothers went shopping or attended the cinema in town. The ‘Mother Hubbard Playroom’ in the Commercial Bank Chambers on Albert Street attracted considerable attention as a new form of child care. It was an ‘undertaking of exceptional interest’, noted The Courier Mail, established by two ‘social girls’. Paula and Beryl outfitted a suite of room as a nursery and charged sixpence an hour to care for children, advertising Paula’s background in nursing as a marker of their high quality care.
It appears that the Mother Hubbard Playroom was a short lived venture, but another development in Paula’s life in the 1930s had longer term implications. The Catholic Poetry Society (CPS) was established in 1936 by Brisbane writer Paul Grano as an extension of the Christian Brothers’ Old Boys’ Literary and Debating Society’s Aquinas Library. As Joan David (1986) explains, the Catholic influence on Brisbane’s cultural and social life was integral to the poetic approaches of its writers in the 1930s. Many poets in the city were, like Paula, of Irish descent with ties to Melbourne’s Catholic and literary circles. The CPS consolidated these shared interests, bringing together writers of the ‘Catholic intelligentsia’ and organising them into a coherent literary movement.
The Catholic Poetry Society had regular meetings at the Aquinas Library, where they had access to the Library’s literary resources. Women were not allowed to participate in some of these activities but were otherwise welcomed into the writing group. Paula joined Gwen Belson Taylor and Margaret (June) Saunders as female members of the CPS and contributed to the society’s one-off publication, The Southwellian, in 1938. Around this time Paula was also contributing to Jindyworobak publications, an Adelaide-based literary movement that found inspiration Australian culture and environment. Paula’s poem ‘The Twisted Path’ was singled out for praise in The Courier Mail’s review of the Jindyworobak Poetry Anthology in 1938. She was also a part of the Meanjin literary circle, which revolved around the Meanjin Papers literary magazine founded by Clem Christensen in Brisbane in 1940. Paula’s contribution to the magazine in 1941 was a ‘sonnet worthy of Keats’ according to The Daily Mercury.
The period around the start of the Second World War was amongst the busiest in Paula’s literary career. She had become a stalwart in literary circles and a regular contributor to literary and popular periodicals. Paula was also involved in war work with both the Authors and Artists Association and the Women’s Auxiliary, and actively encouraged other writers not to give up their craft during the war. Her poem ‘Epilogue to a Book’, The Telegraph’s ‘Poem of the Week’ on 12 October 1940, reminded writers that, ‘Our words will fight for us when we are gone.’
This productive stage in Paula’s career culminated with the publication of her only individual book of poetry, The Singing Tree. The book was sponsored by the Melbourne based Bread and Cheese Club, which promoted the work of Australian writers through its journal Bohemia and individual publications. It was through the Catholic Poetry Society that Paula connected with the Club via the poet and journalist James Devaney, who was a member of both groups. The Singing Tree was positively reviewed in a range of Australian newspapers including The Age and The Courier Mail. Its traditionally-formed sonnets explored a range of emotional states. Titles such as ‘Despair’, ‘Hatred’, ‘Jealousy’, ‘Joy’ and ‘Grief’ are suggestive of personal heartbreak and loss, and the volume included two memorial poems: one to Paula’s brother Cyril, who died in France in 1918, and the other to her friend and fellow poet June Saunders, who was swept off the cliffs at Stradbroke Island’s Point Lookout in 1939. The Telegraph praised the ‘deep emotional quality’ of the poems, that showed ‘a wealth of human understanding and an abiding spiritual faith.’ It was this sense of spirituality that imbued the poems, and their tenderness of feeling, that set them apart for critics. Paula’s sensitivity, commented on so often by her friends, is fully realised in The Singing Tree.
Paula remained a central figure in Brisbane’s literary world throughout the 1940s and 1950s. She served as a committee member for the Queensland Association of Authors and Artists (later the Fellowship of Australian Writers), was involved in the Warana Literary conventions and was known in literary and artistic circles for her social evenings. Paula took an active interest in the work and careers of other artists, particularly women. Her scrapbooks from the 1950s are crammed with newspaper clippings on the successes of women writers and painters, including her fellow All Hallows’ old girl Thea Astley.
What is left of a life in poetry when the poet is gone? The rejection letters from newspapers and edited first drafts that Paula also saved in her scrapbooks are testament to the challenges she continued to face in publishing her work as she approached her sixth decade. Writing was a difficult profession for women in mid-century Queensland, where publishing opportunities were circumscribed, and Paula experienced many ebbs and peaks throughout her 50-year career. Although she took every opportunity to publish, her reliance on popular daily newspapers and niche literary journals means that her literary legacy is ephemeral. Only 250 copies of her only book of poetry were published, and this contains only 25 of the hundreds of poems she wrote throughout her career. Other book projects were abandoned for various reasons throughout her life. Fifteen more poems were published in a memorial book, Softly Falls my Shadow, printed by the Fellowship of Australian Writers after Paula’s death in 1972.
Paula’s own feelings about her poetry, her personal losses and loves are knowable only through her writing. Although her work is deeply, tantalisingly emotive, it is never truly confessional. The true tragedies and joys of her life remained obscure. Paula’s poetry requires us to remember her only for those things for which she was proud to be known: her family, her faith, her Irish heritage and her deep, abiding love for the written word.
‘Paula’s Epitaph’ by Betty Helen Armytage
Let it be said
I have loved life,
Its sunshine and sorrow;
Let it be said
I have endured its strife,
And reconciled myself to its tomorrow.