Conroy, John (1904–69), trade unionist, was born 17 April 1904 in Wicklow town, son of Thomas Conroy, a railway signalman, and Catherine Conroy (née McNamara). He attended national school locally before beginning work at a very early age in a fertiliser factory. Subsequently he worked for a coal firm, in an iron foundry, and in lead burning, and moved to Dublin for a time (1922–3) to work as a construction labourer. The hardships of casual labour prompting his interest in trade unionism, he became an active member of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). Returning to Wicklow town in 1923 as an ITGWU organiser, he remained until his death a full-time official of the union. He was a close associate of James Everett (qv), an ITGWU organiser and Labour TD for Wicklow, with whom he engaged in the bitter labour agitation that typified the town's tradition of trade-union militancy, often marching under a red flag as well as the ITGWU's stars-and-plough emblem. Tried on a conspiracy charge, the pair were acquitted by jury (mid 1920s). Appointed ITGWU Wicklow branch secretary (late 1920s), Conroy organised throughout the county. Moved to Limerick city as branch secretary (1930s), he was involved with the local trades and labour board, and was secretary of the local branch of the Labour party, a strong supporter of Limerick TD Michael Keyes (qv).
In 1942 he was appointed head of the ITGWU's industrial (movements) section, dealing with wages and conditions, and involvement on joint industrial councils. Though based in head office in Dublin, he travelled widely throughout the country, thereby garnering both administrative experience and a national profile within the union. This led to his election as ITGWU vice-president (1946–53), and general president (1953–69). As chief executive of Ireland's largest trade union, he oversaw steady growth in the ITGWU's membership and breadth of organisation; during his tenure, membership numbers increased by some thirty per cent to 162,000. During the 1950s he initiated the important innovation of training professional union negotiators, thereby enhancing the union's position in dealings with employers. Symbolic of the union's growing prestige was the opening of the new Liberty Hall, a fifteen-storey modernist structure on the Dublin quays (1965).
From the platform of the ITGWU presidency, Conroy diligently pursued the triple goals of reunifying and rationalising the Irish trade-union movement, and recombining the movement's industrial and political wings. He served on the central council of the Congress of Irish Unions (CIU) (1947–59), and as congress president (1950–51). He responded favourably to the peacemaking overtures (previously rebuffed by the outgoing ITGWU leadership) of James Larkin Jr (qv), leader of the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI) and prominent in the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC). Conroy personally engaged in the negotiations resulting in establishment in 1953 of the trade union unity committee, and served on the committee of the provisional united organisation of the trade union movement (1956–9). He and Larkin – the two dominant trade-union leaders of their generation – were thus the principal architects of the impressive achievement of reunifying the rival congresses, pursuing an efficacious strategy whereby structural changes involving joint working arrangements were implemented prior to agreement on matters of principle, thereby allowing the relationships and practices nurtured by a de facto unity to precede and prepare for de jure unity. On formation of the new, unified Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), Conroy served as the body's first president, coincidentally in the year of the ITGWU's fiftieth anniversary (1959). An inaugural member of ICTU's national executive (1959–68), he served as congress treasurer (1960–67), and a second term as president (1967–8).
More receptive than Larkin to the partnership model promoted in the 1960s by Seán Lemass (qv), Conroy embraced the concept of joint endeavour among trade unions, employers, and government. Strongly supporting the successive programmes for economic development, and participation by ICTU in national economic planning, he provided influential service on the National Industrial and Economic Council. A champion of the interests of lower-paid workers, he continually advocated the introduction of a national minimum wage, and highlighted Ireland's longstanding neglect of social services relative to other European countries. Regarding the trade-union movement as the primary instrument in the struggle to achieve social justice and effect broad social change, he urged close cooperation between the movement's industrial and political wings, and persuaded the ITGWU to resume affiliation with the Labour party, effected in 1967 after a twenty-three-year hiatus. Asked what he expected of the Labour party, he replied ‘socialism’ (Puirséil, 247). He welcomed and recruited white-collar workers into his union and the movement generally, regarding them essentially as allies of the working class, not as harbingers of a fundamental change in the class profile of Irish trade unions. In his 1968 presidential address to congress, amid mounting industrial conflict, he decried unofficial strikes as a selfish abuse of trade-union membership and of the picket line, but criticised employers for being dilatory in negotiations, and colourfully excoriated the baleful role of international financiers, the ‘ghouls and jackals . . . who hold the moneybags’ (McCarthy (1973), 94).
Conroy was a member of the Milling Advisory Committee and the Atomic Energy Authority, and a director of Bord Fáilte Éireann. He worked with Larkin to promote the amalgamation of their own unions, a project frustrated after their deaths within five days of one another, and finally achieved only in 1990 with formation of the Services Industrial Professional Technical Union (SIPTU). With his keen judgement and percipience, deep integrity, and enormous experience, he directed the ITGWU with a firm hand, and commanded the trust of his members. He was an extremely able negotiator in discussions with employers, government ministers, and other union leaders. Soft-spoken and pleasantly mannered, lacking a flamboyant personality or rousing oratorical skills, he was said to typify the ‘business executive type of union leader’ (Business and Finance), and was credited with scrupulous fairness and attention to detail. Warm, friendly, and quick-witted, he was widely popular among fellow trade-union leaders and the movement's rank-and-file. His impeccable courtesy toward all persons and opinions was an immeasurable asset in the reunification process and in assuaging ideological tensions.
Conroy had two daughters by his first marriage. During the 1950s he lived at 20 Glenbeigh Park, Old Cabra Rd, Dublin. After being widowed, he married secondly (1959) Sheila Williams (b. 1917), from Bantry, Co. Cork; a hotel and restaurant worker, she was a prominent ITGWU activist, and the first woman to sit on the union's national executive (1955–9). The couple, who had no children, resided in Adair House flats, Sandymount Ave., Ballsbridge. Conroy died 13 February 1969 in the Adelaide hospital, Dublin, after an illness, and was buried in Dean's Grange cemetery. After his death Sheila Conroy became active in the Irish Widows’ Association (which she chaired in 1973), served on the government commission on the status of women, chaired the RTÉ Authority (1976–81), and was successively secretary and president of the People's College Adult Education Association.