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McDonald, Phyllis Emily (1911–1996)

Merryn McLelland has no shortage of friends.

Her schedule is busy with meetings and appointments to keep.

Life is very different to how she imagined it when she first moved to Tasmania from Sydney 23 years ago.

She had heard it would be hard to make friends in the state and was worried she wouldn't find a social circle.

'I really wondered if I was going to sit back and go mouldy,' Mrs McLelland said.

Upon arriving in northern Tasmania she found the opposite after joining a group of like-minded women.

The Ionian Club welcomed the newcomer into its fold when a Windermere neighbour introduced her.

She threw herself into its activities and stepped up to its leadership roles.

'That really did me the world of good. It made me stand up and be counted,' Mrs McLelland said.

'I was a bit of a wall flower before that.'

Sitting with fellow club member Margaret Wickens, it's hard to imagine the outgoing Tasmanian as a shrinking violet.

Mrs Wickens' health and social life similarly benefitted from her entrance into the club.

She and her husband Bryan lost their 50-acre farm to bushfire on the Central Coast in 1991.

'We just found we couldn't settle,' Mrs Wickens said.

They visited Tasmania on holiday.

'We decided perhaps we should just move here.'

They moved to a small farm at Forth where Mrs Wickens, originally from England, knew no-one.

A friend introduced her to the Ionians.

'Immediately they were so friendly, so helpful.

'It made our movement to Tasmania, which was leaving family behind, so much easier."

They are two members of a 16-strong group that meets to share friendship and help each other.

Launceston's Ionian Club, once a strong presence in the region and turning 70 in October, is hoping to regenerate.

The group, named after a Greek civilisation exiled from its homeland before settling on an archipelago of islands, is an international movement reaching as far as London.

It has its origins in Launceston.

City newcomer Phyllis McDonald founded it after experiencing the loneliness that came with a new town.

Born in Hobart, she moved to Launceston in 1945 without knowing a single person.

As people tried to rebuild their lives in the years following World War II, she decided there was a need for a club where others in similar situations to her could establish themselves in their new community.

Tall, elegant, imaginative and artistic, Mrs McDonald drove the movement in its infancy. It quickly spread to Melbourne and Sydney.

'She must've been an incredibly dynamic lady, incredible insight,' Mrs Wickens said.

The group offered more than friendship and the chance to chat over a cup of tea. Members went to themed parties organised by Mrs McDonald, and learnt from guest speakers on other nights.

French cabaret with can can dancers, a Go-Go disco night with dancers in guilded cages, and a Halloween night of apple-bobbing, pumpkins, witches and a skeleton ballet coloured the Ionians' social calendar.

The dancers were none other than the club members, trained by Mrs McDonald.

By 1982, the Ionian Club had 1000 members.

Today there are clubs in Perth, Canberra, Darwin, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Adelaide, Orange, Newcastle and Albury-Wodonga.

A New Zealand chapter exists in Auckland.

When Mrs McLelland celebrated the club's 60th anniversary, the Launceston club had about 30 members.

Hobart's club is larger, at 150 members. Its sub groups specialise in antique shopping, mah-jong, gardens and film.

Mrs Wickens said the camaraderie among members remains strong.

They get an instant social network if they move to a town with another Ionian club.

'You feel you could ring anyone and they'll help you,' she said.

'It's that sort of atmosphere this has created.'

Guest speakers visit the Launceston club's meetings, and members mingle with those from Hobart at an interclub luncheon each year.

The group will celebrate its 70th anniversary on October 6 with a luncheon at Launceston Golf Club. The evening before, it will mark the milestone with a cocktail function at the same venue. Husbands, partners and friends are invited to join both events.

Original Publication

  • Examiner (Launceston, Tas), 20 August 2016

Citation details

'McDonald, Phyllis Emily (1911–1996)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonald-phyllis-emily-31834/text39297, accessed 21 June 2021.

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