Woolies in Galway

In the early 1950s the chain of shops owned by Woolworths was expanding, but it did experience some difficulty establishing a branch in Galway. It appears some councillors and retailers resisted the move, but after several failed attempts, ‘Woolies’ (as it became known ), acquired the former site of the old Royal Hotel on the Square. Woolies knocked the hotel and put up a purpose built retail store. As the day of the opening approached, local interest became intense.

About 500 girls answered their appeal for staff. The queue of applicants for jobs was more than 100 yards long. On the day of the opening, July 14, 1953, queues formed from an early hour, and the shop floor remained crowded for hours. The spurt of extra business being generated in the Square was palpable. The weekly wage of the girls was £4 7s 6d, very good pay for the time.

The original floor was made of pine boards that had to be treated with a special preparation every fortnight. The counters were made of solid mahogany and were arranged in a series of squares. They were a little higher than traditional counters, and were covered in tiered displays of various goods. The best selling lines were sweets (which cost 7d per quarter pound ), haberdashery, and pharmaceuticals. The girls serving at the sweet counters wore white uniforms, which made them look like nurses. The sweet counters were an occasion of sin, like forbidden fruit… all the sweets laid out in the open and smelling delicious. It was cruel.

The shop was big and L-shaped, getting wider towards the back. It had one of those photographic booths where you got four passport photographs. It was the first such machine in town and a very big attraction. It also had a machine that produced beautiful ice cream cones, and another that kept salted peanuts warm. It was no wonder it became such a popular hangout for young teenagers.

In the early eighties, £150,000 was spent on refurbishing the shop, but sadly, in 1984, even though most Woolworths shops in Ireland were doing well, a company decision was made to exit this country. It appeared Woolworths was selling off its real estate to raise funds for the group’s new ventures. The closure in Galway was not without dispute as staff argued over redundancy, and the trade unions insisted “no attempt had been made to dispose of the shops as a going concern to protect staff jobs”.

Our photograph today was taken at a staff social in the Warwick in 1957. In the front row are, left to right: Mary King; Eleanor Conneely; Nora Coyne; Anne Newell; Pat Quinn, who worked his way up through management before leaving to found the Quinnsworth Group; Jack Healy, manager; Una Flaherty; Teresa O’Donnell; Rita Cooley; Mary Rose Byrne. In the back row are Anne Cunningham; Mary McSweeney; Peter Carr, who sent us the photograph; Mary Canney; Kay Casserley; ------------; Mary Creaven; Nora Wynne; Maureen Nolan; Jessie Donnellan; Mary Kelly; Maureen Barnett; Marie Dever; Mary Smith; Teresa Rabbitte; Maureen Ryan; Chrissie Noone; and Clarence Quinn.

This photograph and information is included in a recently published book entitled When The Shopping Was Good, Woolworths and the Irish Main Street, written by Barbara Walsh. It is a lively and fascinating study of this distinctive retail chain store of 42 branches, how it worked, its successes and failures, and its eventual demise here. It discusses the lives of the people who worked in the company, the products they sold, and the competition they faced. It is of interest to anyone in business and is available in good bookshops.

A special thanks to Clarence and Theresa Quinn for their help on this article.

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