Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Leahy, Daniel Joseph (Dan) (1912–1991)

by P. A. Selth

This article was published online in 2016

Daniel Joseph Leahy (1912–1991), explorer, gold miner, and coffee planter, was born on 14 June 1912 at Toowoomba, Queensland, eighth of nine children of Irish-born parents Daniel Thomas Leahy, railway guard, and his wife Ellen, née Stone. Educated at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ College, Dan struggled at school. He held seasonal farming jobs, before joining his brothers Michael (Mick), James (Jim), and Patrick (Paddy) in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea in 1931.

Having worked at Lae and Bulolo, Dan accompanied Mick on two exploration expeditions into the Highlands. No gold was found in commercial quantities, but the film footage they shot became the basis of an award-winning documentary, First Contact (1983). The two brothers camped at Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands, where they prospected for alluvial gold at Kuta. Sluice mining started in 1934, and by the end of that year the brothers had built a house. After two missionaries were killed by local people, in October 1935 the Highlands region was proclaimed an Uncontrolled Area, open only to field officers and their patrols. The Leahys were allowed to continue mining, but were not permitted to go more than a few miles from their diggings. The Highlands remained effectively closed until after World War II.

Leahy joined the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles on 5 May 1942 and transferred to the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit in August as an acting sergeant (acting warrant officer, class two, from 1943). He undertook a number of arduous treks for ANGAU, on one of which he rescued eight missionaries, five of them nuns, hiding from the Japanese in the Sepik district. In December 1943 he was sent to Australia for medical reasons. Suffering poor vision and hearing, he was discharged from the army as medically unfit on 15 April 1944. He travelled to the United States of America for treatment at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, and other hospitals, but was told he would never have more than tunnel vision, and his sight would likely deteriorate.

Returning to Mount Hagen in June 1947, Leahy worked the area until the alluvial gold ran out in 1953. Not wanting to leave, he had begun growing coffee at nearby Korgua. He also grew other crops and ran livestock; operated trade stores at Mount Hagen, Kuta, and Togoba; and for a time supplemented his living with the agency for Vacuum Oil Co. at Mount Hagen, and as the recruiting agent for the Highland Labour Scheme. In 1960 he moved to live at Korgua.

Determined to make the Highlands his home, in about 1949 Leahy had married a Jiga Pangaga wife, Koka. After she left him, he married Biam Powa, daughter of Powa, the leader of the Jika Mugmana clan, in a traditional ceremony. Later he also married Mancy Tuplga, of the Jika Komp clan, thus coming—as was customary for a ‘Big Man’—to have several wives. Proud of his family, he sent his ten children to Australian boarding schools, and insisted that they each obtain trade or university qualifications. Visitors saw him as ‘quietly spoken and a ready smiler, an incredibly modest man’ (Hollinshed 2004, 51), but his family saw a strong, imposing man with great fortitude. His parenting style was autocratic, yet the family was close and loving. He also raised Mick’s three sons and Paddy’s daughter, whose mothers were local women; Mick’s children were not acknowledged by their father.

When independence came to Papua New Guinea on 16 September 1975, many white settlers left the Highlands. Dan stayed but did not accept citizenship. As much as he loved the country and its people, he remained an Australian. In 1979 he suffered a stroke, which partly paralysed him. He was appointed OBE for services to the development of the Western Highlands in 1983. Biam died in 1984, leaving Mancy to care for Dan, who was frail and frustrated. Reluctant to talk of his early days in New Guinea because he worried for his children if it were known that he and others had shot and killed warriors in armed clashes, he nevertheless maintained that the violence had been unavoidable. He refused to mourn the loss of the Highlands way of life, believing there was nothing in their lives ‘that was better than what they have now’ (Connolly and Anderson 1987, 285). He died at Korgua on 25 November 1991 and was buried next to Biam.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Ashton, Christopher. ‘The Leahy Family.’ In Papua New Guinea Portraits: The Expatriate Experience, edited by James Griffin, 16994. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1978
  • Connolly, Bob. ‘Daniel Leahy.’ Independent, 1 December 1991, 26
  • Connolly, Bob, and Robin Anderson. First Contact. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987
  • Dynasties Special: The Leahy Family. Television broadcast, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 4 October 2007. Transcript. Accessed 28 August 2012. http://www.abc.net.au/dynasties/leahy_transcript.htm, copy held on ADB file
  • Fowke, John. Kundi Dan: Dan Leahy’s Life Among the Highlanders of Papua New Guinea. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1995
  • Fox, John R., and Daniel Leahy. Interview by W. F. Straatmans, 1973. Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, Australian National University
  • Hollinshed, Judith. Innocence to Independence: Life in the Papua New Guinea Highlands 19561980. Canberra: Pandanus, 2004
  • Leahy, Dan. Interview by Tim Bowden, 1 May 1980. National Archives of Australia. C100, 80/10/604 M: 30417982
  • Leahy, Dan. Interview by Tim Bowden, 1 May 1980. National Archives of Australia. C100, 80/10/605 M: 30329008
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, NG2497

Additional Resources

Citation details

P. A. Selth, 'Leahy, Daniel Joseph (Dan) (1912–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leahy-daniel-joseph-dan-18370/text30010, published online 2016, accessed online 12 December 2018.

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