John J Taaffe and his wife Henrietta came to Galway in the mid-1920s from Co Cork. He had been associated with Bantry Woolen Mills which unfortunately went out of business when the factory was burnt down during the War of Independence. With his background in the textiles business, it was probably natural for John to set up a drapery shop at Number 12 William Street. As you can see from the beautiful Gaelic script on the façade, he was a fan of the Irish language. He and Henrietta had five children, Joseph, Eddie, Netta, Una, and Flo.
Their business was a wholesale and retail drapery. They specialised in selling woollen goods and tweeds, but as you can see from the window display in our photograph (which was taken in the late 1920s ), they sold a lot of lines of general drapery goods. The shop quickly became very successful, a Galway institution. They did a lot of advertising …. In 1941, “All goods in our great Summer Sale are being offered regardless of to-day’s values, some of which could not be repeated at any price. We have some odd lines and some shop-soiled goods which we are clearing at a fraction of their value. Generally speaking, very big savings can be made by paying us an immediate visit. So don’t delay!” A week or two later, they might be advertising for the latest line in fashionable hats for women. John died in 1946 and with the onset of the post-war tourist boom, the business changed as Taaffe’s became a favourite calling place for visitors, charmed by the almost Dickensian quaintness of the shop and its steadfastly old-fashioned way of dealing with customers.
It was now being run by Eddie and Una, and under her management, they began to do a very good mail-order business with American customers but, through circumstances that carried an element of sadness and the ill health of both Eddie and Una, it began to decline and eventually, in 1996, Taaffe’s ceased trading and closed down.
The family lived over the shop. There was an extensive garden at the back which included a tennis court and they often had parties there. They were well known in commercial, social, and sporting circles. Indeed, Eddie and Una could be described as great Galway ‘characters’. Una went to school to the Dominicans in Taylor’s Hill. She always stood out and often said that she never missed a meeting of the Galway Races for 40 years. A great sportwoman, particularly at tennis, she was a good oarswoman and also a hockey player. She did quite a bit of acting with various drama groups in town. She was a beauty, statuesque and always well dressed.
She died in 2006, predeceased by her brother Eddie in 2001. Her neighbour Colm Powell said of her, “Other people would say she was a character but she was more than that, she was extraordinarily charitable and both herself and Eddie were extremely religious. I hated to see her going downhill.”
Read more stories from the Old Galway with Tom Kenny on The Old Galway.