The Treasure Chest is one of the most attractive shops in Galway today. It is located on the corner of William Street and Castle Street in the very heart of Galway city. These are two ancient streets; William Street was once known as Great Gate Street. Castle Street takes its name from the Castle Barracks which housed British troops during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was also called Barrack Street or Barrack Lane from time to time. During the late medieval period, it was known as Dark Lane. The Treasure Chest occupies the site of some very old business establishments including the Edinburgh Buildings, O’Callaghan’s Butcher Shop, Fallon’s Shop, J.J. Glynn’s and the Baker’s Kitchen. As the name suggests the Treasure Chest is a shop full of treasures providing the shopper with a wide variety of gifts to suit almost every taste. It is undoubtedly one of the most stylish shops in Galway and one can see that great pride is taken with both the interior and exterior of the building. While it has a long history, the building has been extensively refurbished in an elegant and tasteful fashion.
The Treasure Chest was founded by Mary Bennett just over fifty years ago and it is now a household name in Galway. Mary is originally from Boston in County Clare. Her parents were Thomas and Molly O’Donohue and the other children include Michael, Breege, Anne, Ursula and Patricia. Mary moved to Galway in 1957 and shortly afterwards began working in the Great Southern Hotel (Hotel Meyrick). At that time people following a career in hotel management had to spend three months working in each department to gain experience. The hotel operated a small shop which was located under the stairs supplying Irish gifts and souvenir items to tourists and Mary was often asked to help. The hotel was owned by the CIE and people on the company tours began staying there. This increased business in the shop and Mary was sent to Bórd Fáilte in Dublin on a fact-finding mission and to gain more experience. The demand for Irish giftware grew dramatically during this period and so did Mary’s love of all things Irish. Through this, and other similar ventures, she gained a vast knowledge in the field of giftware and thus the hotel shop benefited greatly. She proved a huge success in the shop as she had a natural flare for sales. The challenge didn’t matter to Mary when it came to sales; in fact, she once sold a Rolls Royce under the stairs to a gentleman who stayed at the hotel annually. The sale attracted the attention of the world media. Mary also sold eleven Paul Henry paintings to a client, who later donated them to the state. She also continued to carry out her other duties at the hotel. In 1959, the Great Southern Hotel launched a new uniform for the staff countrywide. It was designed by the famous fashion designer Nellie Mulcahy and modelled by Mary Bennett.
In 1961, Mary married Eddie Bennett and they had three children Ultan, Melita and Adeline. Following her marriage, Mary was forced to resign from the hotel as it was a state body. This was the norm for working women at the time. They honeymooned in Capri and arrived back with Mary having to start exploring a new working life. She began operating a Guest House at their home in Oaklands, Salthill. The guest house operated under the name Capri and it was £1 per day for full board. It operated from June to September and was very successful. She also became involved in pyramid sales and eventually had thirty-five girls working for her selling Tupperware. She won the highest sales award in the country for her Tupperware venture and represented Ireland in the European finals hosted at the Hilton Hotel in London.
The success of her earlier business at the hotel stayed with Mary and she accepted an invitation to run a shop in the heart of the city. Thus, in 1966, Mary established her now famous business the Treasure Chest in Eglinton Street, Galway. That first morning Mary waited quietly for a few hours hoping that customers would arrive. It was quiet and a bit worrying initially as business proved rather slow that morning. However, she was soon welcomed into the business community and her ambitious plans began to pay off as Treasure Chest became known for its quality items and friendly staff. It was from these humble beginnings that Mary built her business empire. One could say it was a huge success from the beginning, but this was down to hard work, professional business ethics and the power of positive thinking. The shop attracted the attention of tourists and locals alike and over the following years the success of this business venture continued to grow. The business expanded to such an extent that by 1986, Mary had to move to larger premises on William Street, she was now situated on one of the main shopping areas in the city. The family were also involved in the business, Eddie looked after the Mail Order, Ultan looks after the Irish shop; Adeline works in accounts and Melita worked in the Fashion section. Mary’s sister, Patricia, is in the crystal and china department in the shop. Ursula also worked in the shop until she got married. Incidentally, two of Mary’s other sisters, Breege and Anne also found employment in the Great Southern Hotel after they moved to Galway. Breege went on to become the international Development Director for Penny’s.
Mary was invited to lead the St Patrick’s Day parade in New Orleans in 1984. She was very impressed by the traditional street furniture and old gaslights that adorned certain areas of the city. It seems that some of the gaslights had been sourced in Ireland. She returned home with great determination to preserve and enhance the culture of Galway. Being a medieval city with so much character, Mary began working with Bórd Fáilte and Galway Corporation to change Galway city shop fronts and add some tasteful colours. In 1985, as a director of Bórd Fáilte, Mary secured substantial funding for the ‘Heart of Galway Guidelines for Refurbishment’ project. This involved the production of a book illustrating every building in the city with recommendations on improvements that could be made to enhance the look of the shops and businesses. This had been originally planned for Grafton Street in Dublin, but Mary fought a hard battle and won it for Galway. Two conservation architects, Peter and Mary Doyle were employed to complete the work. The result was the removal of many of the neon signs and they were replaced with more traditional ones. She even had a poster produced with photographs of Galway shop fronts and it was given that same name. It is now a collector’s item. This was later developed into the well-known Irish Shop Fronts poster. Another issue that she wanted addressed at that time was the litter in the streets. To combat this Mary came up with the novel idea of having a ‘Mr Clean’ to patrol the streets and ensure that the city was kept clean. Mr Clean was dressed in a snow-white outfit, which was recognised at a glance. This campaign was sponsored by the Connacht Laundry. Along with the late Jimmy Lydon, Mary also started a campaign to have flower boxes added to the shop fronts. She worked with the local garden Centre’s and the shops to encourage them in the nicest possible way to put more flowers in the city centre.
Outside of her business interests Mary has Galway, its values and traditions at heart. Mary has worked hard to promote Galway in areas such as social and economic development and tourism since 1961. She became involved in many organisations to promote Galway. She was elected as the first lady President of SKAL International in Australia in 2002. This is a professional organisation consisting of leaders in the tourism business from around the world. Their aim is to promote global tourism and friendship and it is the only international group in existence uniting the industry. The owners, managers and executives meet at local, national, regional and international levels and pursue topics of common interest between them. Mary also served two terms as chairperson of Ireland-West Tourism, Director of Bórd Fáilte, Director of Aerlingus and Director of Galway Corrib Airport. She was also Chairperson of Galway City and County Enterprise Board; First Lady President of Galway Chamber of Commerce and later became the national president of the organisation. Over the years, Mary has displayed boundless energy in all aspects of her business and at the same time has ensured that Galway is ranked as a wonderful tourist destination across the world. In addition to the business in William Street, Mary also had a gift shop in Furbo, a mail order business on the Headford Road, a boutique in the Corrib Great Southern Hotel and another in Ashford Castle, which she operated for ten years. Mary was always open to ideas and this includes events on the international stage. Treasure Chest was also part of the Galway-Derry-Boston venture for five years. This initially began under the research and guidance of Tom O’Connor who was president of Galway Chamber for the first year and Mary who was president the following year. It was held in the World Trade Centre in Boston and was jointly attended by fifty Businesses from both Galway and Derry. The venture attracted some 20,000 people to the tourist stands and was worth more than ten million to Ireland.
Mary is also very supportive of others in business and indeed in the wider community. Her door is always open to people seeking advice on business decisions. Despite all her success, Mary is a modest woman and always gives great credit to her staff, saying that she could not have achieved all her success without them. In 2011, Mary was given the highest honour the city can bestow on one of its citizens when Councillor Michael John Crowe, Mayor of Galway presented her with the well-deserved Freedom of Galway.
The Treasure Chest now boasts of the most superb selection of fine china, crystal, linen, pottery and many other craft items, all the highest quality. It also stocks perfumes, traditional chocolate, toffies and a host of European giftware. These and many more excellent gift items can be found on the ground floor. In addition to this, there is a fashion shop on the first floor that carries an extensive range of ladies’ fashions from all the leading European designers to satisfy all tastes. One is spoiled for choice in this treasure trove of fashion ideas available for all occasions. Mary has always made a genuine effort to stock Irish crafts and goods, and continues to do so. She believes in supporting local crafts and industry wherever possible. Christmas is a very special time for Mary and one can see this in her extraordinary seasonal display in Treasure Chest. It captures that wonderful old world feeling throughout the premises. The Treasure Chest is really a hall mark of excellence and quality.
Events of Note:
– The Old Galway Society lecture ‘The History of Eyre Square and its Monuments’ by Brendan Mc Gowan Education and Outreach Officer Galway City Museum. Venue: Victoria Hotel at 8pm on 10 November 2016 and all are welcome.
– Michael John Kilgannon from Ballymacward is a campaigner on local and national issues, who challenges Church, Government and bureaucrats at every level. In his book The Man Who Stopped The Train, he takes people on a voyage of discovery through almost 300 pages of information, folklore and history. The book will be launched in Gullane’s Hotel, Ballinasloe on Saturday November 12 at 3.30pm. and all are welcome.