Businesswoman Mary Bennett, who is to be granted the Freedom of the City at a special reception next week, says she was “deeply honoured” to be chosen.
“It’s unbelievable, I thought there was some mistake,” says the owner of the Treasure Chest fashion and giftware store on William Street. “I was stunned to get the call from Mayor Michael Crowe asking my permission before it was announced. I still find it hard to believe.”
Mrs Bennett, who is originally from Boston in Co Clare and who moved to Galway 50 years ago, was singled out for promoting Galway locally, nationally and internationally. Her tireless efforts on behalf of the city were carried out in a voluntary capacity.
“It is a pleasure to be involved, this is my hobby. Being given the Freedom of the City is a huge honour that I don’t feel worthy of. There are far more worthy people. What I do I get great pleasure from. It is a privilege to live in Galway and I feel I owe it to the city to give something back. I am blessed to live in a wonderful city.”
She says membership of the tourism organisation Skal International, of which she was world president in 2002/2003, gave her a “very good” platform to promote Galway.
“Skal operates in 86 countries around the world and I was involved at an international level - I was eight years on the board. It is only when you go abroad that you realise what Galway has to offer.
“I was in New Orleans in 1984 for the St Patrick’s Day parade. It is such a beautiful city. Most of the things I admired there, such as the street furniture and old gaslights, came from Ireland. I said ‘Oh, my goodness. When I came home I was so determined to preserve our culture. As a medieval city we have great character.’”
On her return, together with Bord Failte and the then Galway Corporation, she set about changing the face of city shop fronts.
“We got 40 shops in the first year to change from boxed neon signs to handwritten ones. We were determined to bring colour into the city, too, in the way of shrubbery. Colour really changes everything and is very much an Irish thing. The skies in Ireland are very grey. Then I produced a poster of all the old shopfronts in Galway, it is still on sale throughout the world.”
Mr Clean, who patrolled city streets declaring war on litter for a two-year period during the 80s, was the brainchild of Mrs Bennett also when she was president of the Chamber of Commerce. She later went on to become national president of the organisation.
“He was dressed in snow white gear and was sponsored by the Connacht Laundry. His job was to keep the city centre clean.”
She says Galway is at a crossroads today. “We’ve got to develop our culture, we have to be different, we shouldn’t copy others. But we’ve got to be very careful. Parking is a problem, we must look at ways of making it more comfortable for customers. We must be very competitive, too, and give value for money. We must never forget the cead mile failte. We hang our hat on this.
“If you look at the Volve Ocean Race and what it did for Galway. Liners are coming next year, there are eight already booked. That’s new tourism business. Liners leave money to everybody from the butcher and baker to the candlestick maker. If passengers like an area they may come back on a based holiday later. I believe the Cliffs of Moher, Connemara, east Galway and the city will gain from the liner business. Hotels and restaurants will benefit. On the day before the liners arrive at a destination they spend the whole day showing a film of the city. The information they give about the city is worth its weight in gold.”
She believes a positive attitude and a “can do, will do” determination are the keys to riding out the economic downturn.
“I know businesses are finding it very tough at the moment but I believe we will get out of this recession. But we ourselves must be more positive. Galway has much to offer, we’re not the same as the next place. We are pedestrianised, we have the square in the middle of the town, we have the Christmas market. We in business in Galway must get the city as nice as we can.”