Before the disbandment of the Connaught Rangers in 1922, it was customary on Sunday mornings for the Protestant members of this proud regiment to march in full uniform, with bagpipes and drums, out of Renmore barracks, through the town to attend service at St Nicholas Collegiate Church. It was an exciting spectacle for many of the girls of Galway. They would gather in small groups, or lean from windows, to catch the eye of a handsome soldier. Monsignor Considine would often precede the parade waving at the girls to go away. Pointing up to the girls at the windows (many of them apprentices, who lived above the shops whose trade they were learning), telling them ‘Not to be looking at those Protestant soldiers’. Most girls would quickly hide, and once the monsignor had passed, pop their heads out again.
Two of those apprentices, who shared a bedroom, and watched with big grins from the top windows of Anthony Ryan’s, were Katie Morrison from Sligo, and my grandmother, Mary Rose O’Loughlin from Monivea. But Katie Morrisson was not interested in catching a soldier’s eye; she was in love with the shy young owner Mr Anthony Ryan himself. In 1909 she married him, and the business prospered immeasurably. Katie had a natural instinct for business, while her husband had a talent for figures. It was the ideal partnership. Anthony, from Greenhouse, Craughwell, trained as a bookkeeper in Forrest’s of Dublin (later Browne Thomas), and was a bright book-keeper at MT Donnellan’s household goods, where Ryan’s Shop Street is today. He was an ambitious man, but he was chided by his family that he’d never make money ‘with those old books’. When he got a chance to buy Donnellan’s he jumped at it; and with Katie by his side, the business flourished and expanded. Anthony Ryan’s, one of Galway’s show case fashion and household goods shops, celebrates its centenary this year. To survive in business through the last century, with all its turbulence, dramatic history, recessions and emigration, and in a city that has undergone the many changes that Galway has, is a remarkable achievement.
Katie and Mary Rose became life-long friends, and would often remind each other with laughter about their lives together serving their apprenticeships. An eventful time in the year was Easter, when a new Easter hat was a must-have item for many ladies of Galway. The two young women could tell the ups and downs of many families by whether the lady of the house bought a new hat or merely added trimmings to an old one. The girls and a seamstress would work until midnight getting hats ready.
Before Ireland won its independence, there were few retail wholesalers in the Republic. Katie bought all her men’s, ladies and children’s fashions twice a year from the warehouses in East London, and then to Manchester to buy household goods. As well as working long hours in the shop Katie had five children, three boys and two girls. Sadly two boys died as infants, but their son Paddy (born March 10 1920), survived and grew up not only to take over the business but to oversee its expansion. He bought out the tenants who lived on either side of Buttermilk Lane, and opened an extended ladies’ department upstairs. Unusually for the times the Ryan family persuaded Jimmy Lydon to serve an Irish breakfast to his staff and invited guests on the new floor. The meal was preceded by Mass, celebrated by Fr O’Shea from the Augustinians. The gospel just happened to be the Parable of the Talents, in which the Master on leaving his home, gives different sums of money to his servants to see what they will do with it. The servant who invested wisely is praised.
The late Nellius Faller was in attendance. He was highly amused. Afterwards he remarked: “That was a brilliant capitalist Gospel, Paddy, how did you arrange that for today?”
The late Paddy Ryan was as far from the archetypical capitalist as you could get. He was one, if not the leader, of a generation of business people, who with the help of local politicians, changed Galway from a small provincial town to the thriving tourist, industrial, city that it became in the closing decades of the last century. Paddy was also blessed with a wonderful sense of humour, and perhaps especially in marrying his wife Breda Fitzsimons, from Navan, Co Meath. Breda added a new dynamic to their business when they opened the popular Ardilaun Hotel on St Patrick’s Day 1962. She was sent to Galway to work in the Phoenix insurance office, and Paddy first saw her cycling past his shop window which he was decorating. They were later introduced at a Hockey fundraiser. Their son Anthony, now the third generation of Ryans in Galway, heads up the retail business now numbering four shops. The untimely death of his immensely generous wife Anne on June 14 2005, produced one of the largest funerals Galway ever saw. John Ryan has successfully brought the family- styled Ardilaun hotel into the forefront of the Irish hotel scene with modern extensions and a European class spa. Their daughter Elizabeth also works in the business.
The Ryans have lived in Forster House, Forster Street for more that 80 years. It was formerly the home of an old Clare Jacobite family, the Blake -Forsters*. Paddy Ryan is perhaps famously remembered for being the mayor of Galway who welcomed President Kennedy to the city on a memorable June 29 1963. The president arrived by helicopter at the Sports Ground, College Road, and was driven, in an open car, to Eyre Square for the formal welcome. Paddy Ryan sat beside him as they approached Forster Street. He asked the president if he would mind waving to his mother standing at the gate of their house. Typical of the style that John F Kennedy was renowned for, he stopped the car, got out and warmly shook Katie’s hand, and gave her a hug.
NOTES: * Charles Ffrench Blake-Forster, High Sheriff of Galway in 1874, died during his year of office on September 9 aged 23 years. He was an historical scholar, and author of The Irish Chieftains, or A Struggle for the Crown, published in 1872. This interesting book tells the story of the Battle of Aughrim in novel form. There was only one edition of this very rare book, and if you see a copy in an antiquarian book shop, snap it up!