Peggie Hickey - ‘A very special person who captured the heartbeat of Clonmel’

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Jeddy Walsh

Jeddy Walsh

“You knew you were in the presence of a very special person, when you were in the company of Peggie,” was how Fr. Billy Meehan, put it in his homily, when recalling the beautiful life of Peggie Gaine at her funeral Mass last week. If ever one word was apt to describe a woman who was herself a lover of words, ‘special’ was it. Peggie Hickey was indeed extra special and Peggie Hickey was so much more than that as those who crossed her path in life were blessed to experience.

The eldest of four children, Peggie, with her siblings Mary, Eddie and Frances, grew up right next to the Westgate on the Irishtown side, of course. As if almost in the short shadow of the Westgate and the long shadow of St. Mary’s Church further up the street; this was to be her home, her space, all her life. The Westgate meant so much to her always and she carried it with her in her heart everywhere she went. She even incorporated its picture and logo into her writings as her journalistic career flourished over the years.

And down the years, while she was living there, one would often meet this always stylishly dressed lady coming and going in and around Irishtown. She took the time always to stop and chat and make an effort to share news. Sharing news was in her blood it seemed but it was also a genuine caring nature at work and you could sense it every time in Peggie’s company. As the world constantly evolves and social media seems to dominate today, the Peggie Hickeys of this world disappear. There is no doubt the world is a poorer place for it.

Peggie joined ‘The Nationalist’ sometime in the late 1950s when our offices were still in Market Street in the centre of Clonmel. As a child she realised she had a way with words and even as a young girl won a couple of writing competitions in various publications. From then on she decided she would love a career in writing and a job in the local newspaper seemed an obvious progression, and so it was.

Initially Peggy wrote a short weekly column called ‘Clonmel Cameo’ and then took charge of proofreading from ‘Rowe’s,’ which older Clonmel people might remember in Market Street as next door to the newspaper office at the time. Over a number of years she introduced her own ‘Women’s Page’, “Looking Into Things” which at the time was a new departure for any regional newspaper.

St. Mary’s Parish Priest Fr. Meehan in concelebrating her Mass with Fr. Sean Nugent, said “Peggie captured the heartbeat of Clonmel in her articles each week.” Those old enough to remember them - and many hung on her every word - can testify to that. Her weekly writings of human interest stories in particular thoroughly detailed the social, cultural and historical life of the town. Almost like a child on Christmas morning many readers would discard the early pages of “The Nationalist” to get straight to Peggie Hickey’s Page, it was often that good.

In a lovely homily eloquently delivered Fr Meehan quoted no less a literary giant as Ernest Hemingway to capture the way and style in which Peggie wrote.

Quoting Hemingway, Fr. Meehan said “my aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” It worked for the American writer and it worked also for Peggie whose soft and easy-reading style made her a highly respected journalist and made her weekly column so very popular.

In an analogy with a master craftsman working with stone, Fr Meehan said that Peggie too was a master of words and “she modelled herself on the greatest journalist of all time in Jesus.”

Fr. Meehan went on to say “The truth is what motivated Peggie” in her philiosophy and ethos in life and “she possessed a passion for the truth.”

At all times “Peggie was aware of the power of the written and spoken word. She took her model from Jesus, He was for her, the way, the truth and the light.”

In concluding his homily Fr Meehan described Peggie as “a woman with a deep faith, a gentle person, a welcoming person, a person who reached out to other people, a person who took people under her wing always.”

“Perhaps,” he concluded, “‘The Nationalist’ might gather up all her columns over the years and publish them as a book in the future, a real social history of Clonmel.”

At the commencement of the funeral Mass many gifts were brought to the altar symbolising Peggie’s full and fruitful life.

Flowers - These symbolised that for many years Peggie tended to Our Lady’s Altar at her beloved St. Mary’s Church, often with the help of her young nieces. The flowers on the altar were always beautiful and in season. What wasn’t said and what few knew was that Peggie more often than not purchased them herself out of her own pocket. She was like that.

A piece of crochet - Symbolising Peggie’s creativity and surprising to some her ability to fix things for herself around the house. Also she could crochet, she could sew, she could bake a swiss roll. “Was there anything you couldn’t do?” her niece Cecelia asked from the altar.

A book - Depicting her love of words but also her storytelling. All her nephews and nieces remembered her for her magic way to tell a story, her slideshows, her outings, her picnics, but most of all her love for them.

‘The Nationalist’ - A copy of her beloved weekly publication and also a framed award from an American literary institution in recognition of her outstanding journalistic ability.

A globe - Symbolising Peggie’s first journey overseas to a sanatorium in Switzerland and later her many travels abroad with her husband Billy Gaine.

When news came through of Peggie’s passing last week it brought with it a particular kind of soft sadness to all who knew her. People were very much aware of her prolonged illness but those who knew her, especially her immediate family and former work colleagues, recalled everything she was and stood for in life.

Incidentally Peggie and Garda Sergeant Billy Gaine married in March 1977; sadly he predeceased her in November 1992. Peggie retired from ‘The Nationalist’ in the summer of 1988.

A newsroom colleague Eamonn Lacey had this to say of Peggie...

“The ‘Because Life is Local’ slogan that now appears under ‘The Nationalist’ masthead accurately captures what Peggie Hickey brought to the newsroom during her journalistic career.

“Her ability to connect with the people living in the town she loved so much and reflect their lives through a unique style of writing every week in ‘The Nationalist’ provided a wonderful social history of what life in Clonmel was like.

“When myself and Eamonn Wynne joined ‘The Nationalist’ newsroom in 1981 Peggie Hickey was part of an editorial team that was made up of Mick Strappe and Ted Dillon under Brendan Long as editor.

“To young journalists coming into this environment of widely respected veteran newspaper figures Peggie was a guiding influence, a graceful lady whose courtesy and kindness shone through.

“She enjoyed writing about the people of Clonmel, loved the town so much and her compassion and regard for others was reflected in her weekly column which was such an integral part of ‘The Nationalist’.”

Former work colleague for almost thirty years John Fennessy said of Peggie...

“Her skills made her the envy of editors of all the national newspapers of the day. Over the years her column went from strength to strength; her writings were put before her readers in her own gentle manner.

“In the following decades some of the finest female journalists in the country modelled their newspaper and magazine articles on the template discovered and caressed by Peggie.

“In her time at this paper Peggie was always first to embrace a new member of staff and in her own caring way take the new person in hand with introductions to their future work colleagues.”

Another to know Peggie very well was her lifetime friend and an equally proud Irishtown woman, Carmel Drohan, who described Peggie as “one of the most beautiful human beings that ever lived. She was a lovely, lovely person, who was so appreciative of everything.”

Carmel added that “Peggie was modest and humble always and wanted to be anonymous in everything she did.”

Carmel told me that Peggie often recalled with fondness the days of ‘The Nationalist’ in Market Street and in particular the fun times she had there. She too recalled, as Peggie did in her columns, the newspaper office’s move to Queen Street (1974) and how Peggie marvelled at the new views of the Comeragh foothills and the Copper Beech trees outside. Sadly only last month the last of the Copper Beeches had to be removed. Peggie wouldn’t have been impressed at all.

The Hickey family sang praises for the care and attention that Peggie received during her seven years in Acorn Lodge Nursing Home, Cashel, praising the excellent staff and the first class care that Peggie received every single day.

To Peggie’s bereaved brother Eddie and her sisters Mary Nugent and Frances Mulcahy, to her adored nephews and nieces, other relatives and friends we extend our deepest sympathy at this very sad time for all of them.

Finally, delving back to a now by-gone era, we publish separately, just one ‘Clonmel Cameo’ of Peggie’s (see panel). Perhaps crafted many years ago in a happy Market Street, clattered out on her manual typewriter, typeset in turn with hot metal by another craftsman on an clackety Linotype and finally somehow meticiously assembled by a skilled compositor into a page of ‘The Nationalist.’

And her final paragraph in that selected penned piece.... about St. Patrick’s Well .... read at the conclusion of her funeral Mass as the coffin departed St. Mary’s Church and Irishtown one last time.

“Reluctantly we take our leave of this tranquil place, climbing upwards over the green springy hillocks, pausing now and then to look back, feeling that we are going forward to another world.”

Indeed you are Peggie, deserved at last. May you rest in peace. - JW