Dymphna Cusack: Beautiful Exile; an Epistolary and Cautionary Tale of What Happens to Tall Poppies When They Take on the Big End of Town

By North, Marilla | Hecate, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Dymphna Cusack: Beautiful Exile; an Epistolary and Cautionary Tale of What Happens to Tall Poppies When They Take on the Big End of Town


North, Marilla, Hecate


Dymphna Cusack: Beautiful Exile; An Epistolary and Cautionary Tale Of What Happens to Tall Poppies When They Take On The Big End of Town

Ellen (Nell) Dymphna Cusack was born on Sunday 21 September, 1902 in the New South Wales goldmining town of West Wyalong where, in 1896, her father had pegged the famous True Blue claim. James Cusack went bankrupt about 1910 and in childhood little Nell was living with her aunt and uncle, the Leahys, and attending Guyra Public School. The Irish schoolmaster, Paddy Hawe, nurtured her gifts for storytelling and play-making. In 1916 the Leahys sent her as a boarder to St Ursula's Convent in Armidale, where the aristocratic German nuns provided a rigorous classical education. Nell Cusack topped the district and gained a bursary to Sydney University where she graduated with honours in history and psychology in 1925. A decade later she gained a prestigious post at Sydney Girls' High.

She had become increasingly well-known over the 1930s as Dymphna Cusack -- playwright, poet, novelist and radio broadcaster. As a Vocational Guidance Counsellor and Teachers' Federation activist and a Committee member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers she had become increasingly involved in the public debate on matters socio-economic; she'd become `political.'(1) By 1939 Cusack was identified with the left of the Fellowship, and she was entertaining Xavier Herbert at her fiat just across the park from Sydney Girls' High. On Christmas Eve 1939, Cusack was summarily transferred from Sydney Girls' to Bathurst High School following her victory a week earlier in a landmark Workers' Compensation court case against the New South Wales Minister for Education. Her correspondence with Miles Franklin and colleagues from the Fellowship of Australian Writers eloquently tells the tale.

Article in Western Times, Bathurst, February 1940

MISS CUSACK'S TRANSFER

`When the case of Miss Dymphna Cusack, teacher, is considered in all its aspects, the most generous assumption to be made is that the Education Department of NSW chose a very unfortunate moment to transfer her from Sydney to Bathurst,' states an article in Smith's Weekly.

`On December 15 Miss Cusack appeared in a case before the Worker's Compensation Court, a case in which Judge Perdriau was moved seriously to criticise the action of the department in its treatment of this teacher.

`On December 23, a week later, Miss Cusack received notice that she had been transferred to the High School, Bathurst, a transfer having no element of advancement and definite elements of disadvantage.

`In the minds of every teacher in NSW must arise the question whether it is wisdom to seek legal redress for an injustice inflicted by the department....

`Miss Cusack has been for the last five years a member of the teaching staff of Sydney Girls' High School. She has an `A' efficiency mark and has for some time held top grade status, and has served over five years in excess of the obligatory three year period [of Country Service].

`She is an educational psychologist and has been doing vocational guidance as one of the counsellors at Sydney Girls' High School. This is specialised work. At Bathurst she will be doing general work. Her special qualifications will not be called upon.

INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR

`The Director of Education (Mr Ross Thomas) interviewed by Smith's stated that the transfer of Miss Cusack was to meet exigencies of the department, that no status was lost by her going to the country, that there was no relationship between the transfer and anything else that had happened, that she had not had such long service in the country as some others of the high school staffs, and that such a thing as victimisation was unknown in the department,' continues the article.

`The Central Cultural Council and the Fellowship of Australian Writers, of which Miss Cusack is an executive member, consider her departure such a loss culturally that protests are being sent to the education department. …

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