Máirtín Mór

This photograph of the corner of New Dock Street and Flood Street dates from the 1930s. The large three-storey house on Flood Street was formerly known as ‘The Dispensary’ and was the property of the Poor Law Guardians. It was obviously occupied by a doctor. It was in this house that the McDonogh dynasty began in Galway.

Thomas McDonogh was born on Gorumna Island in 1836. He married a formidable lady from Inis Mór named Honoria Hernon and their eldest son Máirtín was born on Gorumna in 1860. His family moved into Galway shortly afterwards. Thomas took up a position as foreman/manager in Comerford’s sawmills. He was made a partner in the firm and by the early 1870s the business was trading as McDonogh & Comerford. In November 1878, Thomas’ brother Michael, who was married to Mary Comerford, died. As there was no member of the Comerford family to take over the business, Thomas stepped in and assumed full ownership and management of the company, and put his own name over the door.

Thomas and Honoria rented the three storey house facing the Custom House at the end of Flood Street in June 1867. You can see the back of it in our photograph. Honoria acquired a lease on the vacant corner building next door which had wide windows on the ground floor and also faced New Dock Street. She established a general store here which became an immediate success. The location was ideal, close to the docks affording easy access to the skippers of the fleet of Galway hookers that regularly plied between Galway, Connemara, and the Aran Islands. She was smart enough to carry stock that was in demand in the homes and smallholdings of rural County Galway.

Meanwhile the store her husband established as part of the operation was also a spectacular success, selling everything from coal to furniture, from cart wheels to pre-cut timber. Then, Thomas set up a steam sawmill and later began to import a variety of building materials and, critically, guano, a natural manure originating in South America composed chiefly of the excrement of seabirds and used by farmers here as a fertiliser.

The eldest son of the family, Máirtín, was educated in the Jes and in Tullabeg, Co Offaly. He went to UCG briefly, but left when his father took over the Comerford business. He was described thus by Stephen Gwynn MP: “All of the men of the family were big, but he was huge: people would come twenty miles on a Sunday to see Máirtín McDonogh doing feats of strength. But he burst a blood vessel in one of those weight-liftings and the leg never healed properly, so that for fifty years his bulk could only be kept down by diet and exercise. But even in old age he gave the impression of elephantine strength – and not always an approachable elephant.”

He was universally known as Máirtín Mór, was physically imposing, a natural entrepreneur and a man of drive, ambition, and no small intellect, he took over his father’s company and expanded it to the extent that he became the largest employer in Connacht. In addition to being a merchant and industrialist, he was a farmer and politician. He led a remarkably colourful life which has been carefully documented by Dr Jackie Uí Chionnaith in a recently published book titled He Was Galway. It is much more than just a biography, it includes a lot of social history, of political history, of trade union and industrial history of Galway. A fascinating read, highly recommended, in good bookshops priced €20.


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