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Dame Mary Dora (May) Daly (1896–1983)

by Ellen Warne

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Dame Mary Dora (May) Daly (1896-1983), charity worker, was born on 24 August 1896 at Cootamundra, New South Wales, eldest child of Australian-born parents Thomas Patrick MacMahon, solicitor, and his wife Mary Ellen, née O’Donnell. ‘May’ was educated at the Loreto convent at Normanhurst, Sydney, and Loreto Abbey, Ballarat, Victoria. She then worked in her father’s law firm and became active in the State division of the Australian Red Cross Society and the Voluntary Aid Detachments. Her immediate family provided formidable examples of professional success and social service: her father was an alderman of the municipal council, justice of the peace, deputy-coroner and member of the local hospital committee; several of her sisters and brothers (including John MacMahon) pursued careers in law or medicine. These family characteristics were reinforced when, at St Canice’s Church, Darlinghurst, on 3 January 1923, she married John Joseph Daly (d.1953), medical practitioner, whose family included five aunts involved in charity work in Melbourne. One of them, Mother Berchmans, was the influential founder of St Vincent’s Hospital: May’s son and daughter carried Berchmans as their second name.

Settling with her husband in Melbourne, Daly became increasingly engaged in charity work: as honorary secretary (1927-29) of the Hawthorn-Kew auxiliary for St Vincent’s Hospital; member (1930) of the executive committee of St Anne’s Hall, a hostel for girls in Carlton; and president (1927-29) of the Loreto Old Girls’ Association. To raise funds for the Loreto Kindergarten Association, she wrote and self-published a children’s book, Marie’s Birthday Party. Under her guidance as honorary president (1933-36) of the St Vincent’s Hospital committee, £1300 was raised in two years to build a new ward. ‘Zest and thoroughness are distinguishing marks of her service’, the Advocate commented, wondering how she found time ‘to engage in the exacting and multifarious range of activities which absorb her interest’. Even so, Daly assured the press, ‘my children come first’. ‘I always try to spend my mornings at home, and whatever happens I have lunch with them’. She was awarded a silver jubilee medal in 1935 and, in 1937, appointed OBE.

With the outbreak of World War II, Daly was the only woman on the executive of the Catholic Welfare Organisation, founded in 1939 by Archbishop Daniel Mannix. She became its president in 1941 as—among its many activities—the CWO established the first canteen in Melbourne for servicemen and women. ‘The Hut’, as it became known, provided food and ‘wholesome’ company to those facing ‘grave moral dangers in the somewhat hysterical wartime atmosphere’. Over all, eighteen ‘huts’ were placed in service camps across Victoria. The CWO raised £253,450 for the welfare of Australian and Allied troops, and sent over 350,000 tins to the Food for Britain Appeal and 40,000 knitted garments to the Allied forces. The organisation also worked closely with the Prisoners of War Service Bureau, co-ordinated through the Vatican, and substantially funded religious pastoral care for Catholics in active service. Daly was president until her death. In recognition of her work, she was elevated to CBE (1949) and DBE (1951); in 1952 Pope Pius XII awarded her the Papal Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (she was the first woman to be so invested by Archbishop Mannix).

Conforming to the Catholic culture of the time, Dame Mary rarely took a public stand on women’s issues, although in 1949 she had defended Catholic women who wanted smaller families, quipping that ‘it must be remembered that the holiest of all families was one in which there was only one Child’. After nursing her husband through a terminal illness she threw her energies into new causes, as fund-raiser for the Caritas Christi Hospice, first woman president (1966-75) of Australian Catholic Relief and a foundation member (president 1975-77) of the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation (Australia). She remained prominent in the Australian Red Cross Society as a member of the national council and the State executive. She also served on the State councils of the Girl Guides Association and the National Heart Foundation, as well as the Victorian Anti-Cancer Council. In 1961 she returned to writing children’s books, now in support of the Yooralla Hospital School for Crippled Children. Cinty and the Laughing Jackass—illustrated by seventeen leading artists including twelve Archibald prize winners—raised $25,000 to build a therapy pool; Timmy’s Christmas Surprise (1967) provided over $800 annually towards its maintenance; and Holidays at Hillydale (1974) generated additional funds.

According to the Herald, Daly could ‘organise people with the ease of a field marshal’—a skill evident when she chaired the hospitality committee for the International Eucharistic Congress held in Melbourne in 1973. Her final years were spent at Kew, living with her daughter. Survived by her children, Dame Mary died on 11 June 1983 at Fitzroy and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Catholic Welfare Organisation (1948)
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 14 Nov 1935, p 27, 17 Dec 1936, p 13, 23 June 1983, p 2
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 Feb 1937, p 9, 22 Nov 1966, p 6, 6 Feb 1973, p 13, 10 Dec 1974, p 23
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 8 Feb 1949, p 16
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Aug 1951, p 17
  • private information.

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Citation details

Ellen Warne, 'Daly, Dame Mary Dora (May) (1896–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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