In 1957, Mary Bennett (then O’Donohue) was visiting Galway when she decided to walk into the Great Southern Hotel on Eyre Square and ask to speak to the manager. Mr. Brian Collins happened to be free at the time and agreed to meet with the young woman at reception that was enquiring about a job. Having fallen down the stairs at work the week before, Mary was sporting some bruising from a broken nose. Mr. Collins, was nursing the same ailment after a particularly rough rugby game and as such an unusual common ground was established between the two.
One week later, Mary received a letter offering her a job at the Great Southern Hotel, a move that would steer her path in life, both professionally under the guidance and mentorship of Brian Collins and personally where she would meet her beloved husband Eddie.
Collins was well travelled and forward thinking for his time and decided to open a shop in the foyer of the hotel like many other hotels he had seen around the world. Galway had started to attract an increasing number of visitors to the city, many of whom stayed at the Great Southern and availed of the offerings at the new shop which Mary had been assigned to manage. During this time Bord Failte were running an initiative for Irish designers to send in samples of their work with the idea of distribution to various Irish shops. Mary was invited to meet with them and from there started to order Irish made products for the hotel shop. The sale of these products and gifts was hugely successful and for Mary, was the start of a very important relationship with Irish made gifts and the tourism sector.
As was law in Ireland at the time, Mary was required to give up her job at the hotel when she married but as someone who loved to work, and with her experience in the hotel industry, she went on to set up the Capri guest house in Salthill with her husband as a way to utilise her skills and generate some income. From this venture, she was invited to join the Salthill tourist and development association and went on to serve as their Honorary Secretary for over 21 years. The links between hospitality, tourism and a passion for promoting and buying Irish would lay the foundations for an astounding series of events throughout Mary’s life that has culminated in her revered status as an inimitable, influential role model and indomitable businesswoman.
Mary lives by the motto “Can do, Will do” and along with her retail presence, namely with the iconic shop street store Treasure Chest, Mary can also count the following as positions that she has held over the years: Chairman of Ireland West Tourism, Director of Galway Corrib Airport, Director of Aer Lingus, President of Galway Chamber, National President of Chambers Ireland, Director of the Irish Goods Council, Founding member of the Galway City Business Association and of the BPW, the Galway Business and Professional Women’s Network, Chairperson of Galway City and County Enterprise Board and the first ever female World President of Skal International, the largest association of travel and tourism professionals in the world. She was also awarded The Freedom of Galway in 2011.
Her time as President of Skal International is a big career highlight for Mary and she notes one particularly memorable trip to Jordan, Palestine and Jerusalem in order to promote her mission statement of “Tourism through Friendship and Peace.” “Troubles and political unrest meant that at times I had to travel unaccompanied through the borders which was nerve wracking to say the least. However, I was determined to carry out my assignment and by the end of my trip, I had managed to bring together and chair a meeting between nationals of all three countries to discuss the benefits of working together to develop their tourism infrastructure.” Two years after this meeting, the Red Sea Club was formed under Skal uniting members of Jordan, Palestine and Jerusalem for this very purpose; Mission accomplished.
Having had the opportunity to travel all over the world, experiencing many different cultures and customs, did she ever want to live anywhere else than Galway? “I have loved every minute of living and working here. The word Galway has a magical effect when mentioned anywhere in the world so to be able to say I am from here is very special and to have had the opportunity to promote Galway through my work over the years has been a true privilege.”
“The word Galway has a magical effect when mentioned anywhere in the world”