Mary Galway was born in Moira, County Down, to Elizabeth (née Magennis) and Henry Galway. She was one of at least five daughters. The family were Catholic and they later moved to Belfast; first to Leeson Street and then Crocus Street, off the Springfield Road, where Mary lived for the rest of her life. Everyone in her family was a linen worker. Her mother and father were retired linen weavers and Mary and her sisters Margaret and Martha were handkerchief stitchers. Having started work at the age of eleven, Mary joined the Textile Operatives Society of Ireland, which was formed in 1893, one of the new wave of women’s unions to be formed in the 1890s, affiliated to the Women’s Trade Union League, with headquarters in London. She was elected onto the executive of Belfast Trades Council in 1898 and that year she and Lizzie Bruce represented the textile operatives as delegates to the fifth annual congress of the Irish Trade Union Congress. At this time the union had one thousand members. The textile operatives were the only female representatives on Congress for the next fifteen years.
By the time of the linen strike in January 1907, Mary was listed as the president of the Society and she was heavily involved in negotiations between workers and employees, which successfully modified rules imposing fines on women talking, singing or spoiling cloth. Although it was difficult to recruit women into trade unionism, mill workers did participate in the strike actions which marked the increased militancy of the early 20th century, such as the Belfast Dockers’ and Carters’ strike of 1907, during which Mary addressed rallies and collected funds. In 1907 she became the first woman on the Irish Trade Union Congress National Executive, becoming its first woman Vice-President in 1910, when she used her position to call on Irish trade unions to support equal political rights for women. At a homeworkers’ rally organised by the trades council in the Ulster Hall in 1910 Galway urged the women in the audience to ‘agitate until they got the franchise and representation in Parliament.’
Between 1908 and 1912 Galway was called on to give evidence to House of Commons’ committees on truck, accidents, shuttles and linen homeworkers. In 1911 she attended a new Advisory Trade Committee for Ireland as a workers’ representative. Her participation in a number of Committees of Parliamentary Enquiry facilitated her campaign for better working conditions for women and children, and she is credited with playing a central role in banning the system of half-timers, whereby children divided their week between the factory and the school, and in reducing the working week by seven hours to forty-eight hours.
During the linen workers strike of 1911, when Connolly opened a women’s section of his union, which he named the Irish Textile Workers’ Union, Galway and Connolly clashed in debate at the Belfast Trades Council. She accused him of poaching members, while he retorted that the York Street millworkers had little faith in her readiness to back them. It was a difference between the older, craft union tradition and the new socialists espousing direct action, represented by Connolly.
During the war linen was a key component in the war industries and Galway was active in fighting for better working conditions for linen workers, with the Textile Operatives Society establishing new branches in Drogheda and Kilkenny. By 1918 it had over 10,000 members. She was involved in the establishment of a Trade Board for the industry, which was set up in 1915 to address the exploitation of homeworkers, the most vulnerable of textile employees.
Mary Galway remained general secretary of the Textile Operatives until her death. She stayed apart from plans by other linen unions to join a federation and continued her work on trades boards under the Stormont regime in the 1920s. She died at home of heart failure. Her union organised her funeral from Belfast to the family burial plot in Kilwarlin, County Down.
||26 December 1928