Gleeson, William Joseph (‘Bill’) (1901–82), businessman, was born 24 July 1901 in Caropaden, Dunmore, Co. Galway. The distinguished Galway GAA family, the Mahons, were cousins of the Gleesons. He received his primary education at Dunmore national school and later attended night classes to further his education. His first job was as an apprentice with Fahy's Drapers of Tuam, where a colleague was Bridie Winston of the prominent Winston family of drapers. After working for a Belfast textile company, in 1929 Gleeson took up the position of manager of Martin Winston Drapers of Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. Then in 1932, in what was to be the first step in an outstanding business career, he opened his first store, Gleeson's of Camden Street, Dublin. By the end of that decade he had opened two further shops in South Great Georges Street. The Gleeson's drapery retail chain subsequently developed further stores in Drogheda, Tullamore, Longford, and Newbridge.
In 1934 Castle Hosiery was incorporated, with premises adjacent to the Blue Coat School (later the premises of the Incorporated Law Society) in Blackhall Place. In the 1940s Gleeson invested in the company and later acquired full control. Castle Hosiery had by this time become a leading manufacturer, responsible for such well-known brands as Mystic Nylons. In 1964 the company diversified into knitwear manufacturing, exporting to some twenty countries, and four decades later it remained a leading brand. The commercial skills of Gleeson and his family are brought sharply into focus when the demise of long-established competitors, such as Glen Abbey and the Sunbeam group, is taken into account.
In the 1940s Gleeson met Jefferson Smurfit (qv) and became one of the largest customers of Smurfit's cardboard box company. During that decade the Smurfit company ran into financial difficulties. Gleeson provided the financial assistance which Smurfit needed in return for shares in the company and a seat on the board. This was a critical turning point in the development of Smurfit into the international success story which it became after going public in 1964. Dr Michael Smurfit later stated on numerous occasions that if Gleeson had not made his investment in the 1940s, the Smurfit group would not have survived. The Gleeson shareholding remained the largest non-Smurfit family shareholding in the company up to the time of the leveraged buyout of the group by Madison Dearborne in 2002.
In addition to his burgeoning business career, Gleeson's interests included horse-racing. He was the owner of one of the first horses – Wren Boy – trained by the subsequently famous M. V. (Vincent) O'Brien. (A framed invoice, dated 4 December 1944, from O'Brien's stables for training fees is featured in the 2005 official biography of Vincent O'Brien.) He was a member of Portmarnock and Milltown golf clubs and was the last surviving life member of Elm Park Golf Club. In his leisure time he also farmed 1,000 acres at Cloncrane House, Clonbullogue, Co. Offaly – a farm which he bought sight unseen at an auction at Jury's Hotel in 1950. Family holidays were at the Golf Hotel, Rosslare, and an annual Easter trip to the Fairyhouse races was a family ritual. Gleeson was a lifelong Fianna Fáil supporter, albeit in a non-demonstrative fashion, and was a close friend of Senator Eoin Ryan (qv), who was a colleague on the main board of the Jefferson Smurfit group.
In 1937 Gleeson married Eileen Napier of Ranelagh, Dublin. They had five children – Desmond (died aged three), Mary, Patricia, Peter, and Billy – and the family home was at 5 Temple Villas, Palmerston Road, Rathmines. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1977 and died 31 May 1982, his wife having pre-deceased him in January of that year. He is a pivotal figure in the history of the private sector in independent Ireland from the 1940s onwards.