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Mary Margaret Ryan (1886–1968)

by Carolyn Allport

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Mary Margaret Ryan (1886-1968), community worker, was born on 15 September 1886 at Timaru, New Zealand, third of eight children of Irish-born parents Jeremiah Kelly, labourer, and his wife Deborah, née O'Connor. Educated to primary level at a one-teacher school, by the age of 13 Mary was managing the household while her mother recovered from the death of newborn twins. She admired her mother's domestic skills, but complained of slavery in 'a house full of children in a much too small home, never enough money and nothing but work, work all day long'. After entering domestic service, she trained (from 1915) at Wellington Hospital and qualified as a registered nurse in December 1919.

Moving to Sydney, Mary Kelly registered as a general nurse with the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association on 14 July 1920. She worked in the small hospital at Portland, a town in which social life was dominated by the largest employer, a cement works. At St Vincent's Catholic Church, Portland, on 15 August 1921 she married Michael Thomas Ryan, a billiard marker. Following the birth of their three children in the 1920s, she worked only intermittently as a relief sister. She was appointed a justice of the peace and became an unofficial social worker.

By means of the library of Portland School of Arts and a subscription to the Left Book Club, Mrs Ryan read the works of the interwar socialists. The indignity and poverty of the Depression sharpened her political commitment. Both she and Michael were active members of the Australian Labor Party. As secretary and later president of the local branch, she attended regional and State A.L.P. conferences, persistently pressing the needs of women and children for education, housing, employment and community facilities. Through the Country Women's Association of New South Wales, she organized a Baby Health Centre at Portland. From 1941 she served on the Portland District Hospital board.

Mrs Ryan's warm personality, generosity and sense of humour made her a popular and respected figure; J. B. Chifley was among the regular visitors to her home. As minister for postwar reconstruction, he appointed her to the Commonwealth Housing Commission in 1943. She was propelled into almost two years of intensive travelling, interviewing, correspondence and negotiation. Her own experience in a house with no electricity (save for lighting), no internal water and only a coal-fired stove proved invaluable to the commission in detailing the conditions in which many housewives worked.

As one way of making mothers 'more reconciled to their post', Mrs Ryan advocated the provision of better homes, equipped with electricity and labour-saving devices. She joined the United Associations of Women and the Australian Woman's Charter movement. In 1943, with Jessie Street, she tried to increase the voice of women in A.L.P. policy making. Next year she stood unsuccessfully for the Blaxland Shire Council.

In 1944 Mrs Ryan returned to Portland and to her role as a housewife. She later served in a corner store. Although critical of conservative Catholicism and priestly orthodoxy, she remained a practising Catholic; her second son entered the priesthood. In later years she visited Europe and Ireland. Survived by her daughter and two sons, she died on 19 May 1968 at Strathfield, Sydney, and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Commonwealth Housing Commission, Final Report (Canb, 1944)
  • Women and Labour Publications Collective, All Her Labours, vol 2 (Syd, 1984)
  • S. Kennedy, Faith and Feminism (Syd, 1985)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 15 May 1943
  • C. Allport, Women and Public Housing in Sydney 1930-1961 (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1990)
  • Mary Ryan, unpublished autobiography and diaries 1943-46 (privately held).

Citation details

Carolyn Allport, 'Ryan, Mary Margaret (1886–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kelly, Mary Margaret

15 September, 1886
Timaru, Canterbury, New Zealand


19 May, 1968 (aged 81)
Strathfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.