Grimley (Whelan), Ellen Jane (‘Nellie’) (c.1887–1960), trade unionist, the only daughter of John Whelan, a tradesman, was probably born in Belfast. Brought up in what she felt was a relatively comfortable home, she was conscious of the grinding poverty around her. She began her career as a mill worker at the age of eleven, initially working part time while continuing her schooling three days a week; as a young woman she worked as a doffing mistress in charge of spinning frames at Owen O’Cork's mill, Belfast. Her involvement with the trade union movement dates from 1912, when she enrolled as a member of the Belfast branch of the Irish Women Workers' Union (IWWU), through which she met James Connolly (qv). He was impressed by her manner, and offered to take her on as a full-time union organiser at the offices of the Irish Textile Workers' Union (ITWU) in York Street. On the advice of her elder brother, who saw in union work a chance for her to escape the mill, she accepted his proposal. Undeterred by the poor pay she received as a union organiser (she originally received no wage), she quickly found her feet in the new job and within a month had begun addressing large public meetings. She proved to be an animated speaker and was extremely popular with factory girls.
Encouraged by Connolly and other union colleagues to broaden her reading, she became increasingly active in politics. She attended the Irish Trade Union Congress in Cork in 1913 as a delegate of the IWWU, and remained in the area to address an ITGWU platform in Blackpool, Co. Cork, and a labour party meeting in Cobh. On her way back to Belfast she recalled addressing a packed meeting at Liberty Hall in Dublin. She also remembered speaking on the same platform as Keir Hardie at the Belfast Co-operative Hall; this may have been in 1913 when Hardie visited Belfast. In that year she also campaigned for Dublin workers during the lockout, and collected funds in Belfast for the strikers' families. She was a close friend of leading Belfast socialists such as Cathal O'Shannon (qv), Winifred Carney (qv), and James Grimley (d. 1959), and as a group they became known as the ‘Don't Give a Damn League’ in reference to her widely quoted comment at a meeting that she did not ‘care a damn’ about the presence of a policeman. By 1915 she was also working as a sick visitor for a national health insurance scheme.
Whelan married, in October 1906, a Belfast carter, Joseph Gordon; she was widowed and in September 1915 married James Grimley. A postman by profession, he was active in the Socialist Party of Ireland and, from 1918, the Belfast labour party. For a time he represented the Smithfield ward on the city council. The arrival of her first child in the summer of 1916 left Ellen with less time for the union movement, and though she was a member of Cumann na mBan she played no active role in the war of independence. She later ran a second-hand furniture shop near the Newtonards Road, but was forced to move to Dublin after the outbreak of sectarian violence in 1935. In later years she and her husband were often visited by Ina Connolly, daughter of James Connolly. In 1953 Ellen wrote an account of her working relationship with James Connolly; it was later edited for publication, by Helga Woggon in 2000. She died at her home at Glengarriff Parade, Dublin, on 27 October 1960.