Donna’s Bicycle

©Noelene Goodwin

First appeared in The Launceston Examiner 3rd August 2008

Charlie was a fisherman and he supported his family of five children with the limited catch taken from the Don River in Devonport.  When his daughter was growing up she was told by her father, “If anyone asks if you’re related to Don and Maggie Leary say No – they’re another branch of the family!”.  Ten years passed and cousins was being told the same thing, “Tell anyone who asks if you’re related to Don & Maggie, that they’re another branch of the family.”

During my search for the fractured bones of my family skeleton I was sent a newspaper cutting acknowledging the sudden passing of Donald (known as Donna) Leary[i].  What began as an attempt to tie up a few loose ends in the family history became an apology for the wrongs a family had heaped upon one of their own.

I am not sure whether it was society of the 1920’s and 1930’s in general, or my family in particular who were unsympathetic to those with a physical, intellectual or social handicap.  With the Great Depression breathing down the neck of every workingman, it took every hour of every day to gather together enough to feed your own family.  Maybe it was a conscious choice to have a narrow view of ‘extended family’ so that you didn’t carry too much guilt about your inability to share the little you had.  You expended all of your sympathy, empathy and compassion on your immediate family.  Perhaps when you were on the lower rungs of society’s ladder yourself, you were jealous of your limited opportunities and didn’t countenance anything that would drag you down further.  And having a family member who was mildly intellectually handicapped, and had given birth to an illegitimate child, would have been seen as a burden and disgrace to all family members.

Because of the need to protect personal privacy, many records are closed after 1920 and so we cannot be sure of Don or Maggie’s early years – we can only rely on the positive memories Donna has left behind in the heart of his many friends.

Don (known as Donna) and Maggie Leary lived at the tip in East Devonport, Tasmania.  Locals were unsure whether they were brother and sister or mother and son, but regardless of their formal relationship, they cared for and supported each other and were each other’s only ‘family’.  Donna and Maggie were both described as ‘simple’ by those friends still living in 2006.  It is thought that Maggie Leary was intellectually handicapped, and when she was in her late twenties, perhaps taken advantage of – falling pregnant before she understood the ‘how and why’.  Maggie and Donna appeared to have been happy together eking out a living selling the scrap metal dumped at the tip and re-cycling many of the objects that other people threw out.  They were a readily recognisable couple; tiny Maggie adorned in whatever items of clothing or napery she could reclaim, and Donna bursting with enthusiasm, always walking at half pace to ensure that Maggie was not left behind.

Donna grew to manhood.  Although lacking the skills and co-ordination to be a sportsman, he developed an avid interest in bicycles as well as a passion for football, in particular the East Devonport Football Club.  He would walk eight kilometres from the Devonport tip to the football clubrooms every night during the winter months to sell raffle tickets, carry water for the football players and, on game days, to carry the oranges.  Then in the cold wet evenings after training, he would walk another 8 kilometres home.

In the days when a masseur did not need qualifications, only strong hands, Donna shared his time between the Devonport Cycling Club and the football club.  In 1958 tribute was paid to him as a ‘masseur’ by the winner of the Darwin Wheel Race in which both Sid Patterson and Russell Mockridge participated.

But Donna’s life revolved mainly around the footy club and the footy club applauded his devotion.  Following the celebration of a 1968 Premiership the football club bought Donna a bicycle in the club colours of red and white, to make his daily journeying easier.  The people of Devonport and the footy club members were much kinder to Donna than his own family who, to my knowledge, never acknowledged him or his mother.

Maggie Leary had died before her son in September 1959.   A death notice in The Advocate[ii] records that Maggie was buried by the Leary Appeal Committee.  Just as they were to do for her son Donna, the Devonport community appears to have stepped in, passed the hat around, and buried Maggie with dignity.  The kindness and generosity of the people of Devonport Tasmania seemed to know no bounds.

Donna lived alone for almost twenty years.  He failed to show up for footy training one afternoon in July 1980.  Worried for his safety a couple of his footy friends called and found he had died peacefully, at sixty-four years of age, of a heart attack.

Over time the Club has collected much ‘Donna’ memorabilia; his red bicycle stands in a glass case just inside the entrance to the East Devonport Club Rooms, together with the many cards which had been attached to floral tributes at his funeral.  Newspaper stories featuring Donna’s devotion to ‘his boys’ adorn the walls of the case.  In the clubrooms, along with the photographs of past club presidents, is a photo of Donna and his bicycle.

On a recent visit to Devonport I went to the cemetery at Spreyton to leave a floral apology to Donna for his family’s neglect.  A plaque organised by the football club identifies Donna’s gravesite at the lawn cemetery.  It describes him as ‘A True Friend to all East Devonport Football Club Players and Supporters’.

Australian football is rarely acknowledged as a supportive culture that accepts all comers regardless of their sporting prowess.  Rather it is seen as competitive and combative and is no place for fostering contributions from any who cannot contribute on the field.  East Devonport Football Club is to be applauded for valuing the contribution made by Donna Leary.  It was said that ‘he was a true friend to all’, but the boot was on the other foot – he was lucky to have had such true friends.

[i] The Tasmanian Mail, 6/8/1980

[ii] The Advocate, 16th September 1959, page 23.


  1. Great piece Neolene,
    During the years that I followed my father around seemingly a thousand football grounds and clubs there was always a “Donna” associated with the teams. Their connection to the club and it’s players was not one based on sympathy for someone less fortunate but built out of genuine respect for an individual who had chosen the club to somehow be their life’s work. And heaven help anyone who treated them with anything other than respect.

  2. Noelene – beautiful story. Restores my faith in mankind.

  3. Andrew Fithall says

    Beautiful piece Noelene. I agree with Tony’s comments (#2) regarding football clubs and having a “Donna” around the club. My own brother David, who died 20 years ago aged 26, was born with an intellectual disability – in those days he was referred to as “retarded”. He was well known around Ballarat as he journeyed around on his bike. His passions were cows, roadmaking machinery and the North Ballarat football club. Our family still remembers fondly a speech Tony Lockett made when accepting a junior football goal kicking award. He concluded the speech with “and thank-you to David Fithall for teaching me how to kick”. It wasn’t true – just an acknowledgement.

  4. Pamela Sherpa says

    Wonderful story – and a reminder of what sporting clubs and communities mean to each other

  5. Nice one Nolene.

    It’s not only on the NW coast of Tassy that there are secrets. They all have them.

    Donna would have rubbed the legs of a few good colts in his time. Baldock……..

    I look forward to the epic clashes between my team (Wynyard) and the Swans in 2011 as we both strive to avoid the wooden spoon.

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