Pirrie, Margaret Montgomery (1857–1935), Viscountess Pirrie , public figure and philanthropist, was born 31 May 1857, probably in Belfast, and probably the youngest child among three sons and two daughters of John Carlisle , English master in the Belfast Academical Institution, and Catherine Carlisle (née Montgomery). Her mother, a daughter of Alexander Montgomery of Killead, Co. Antrim, had a sister who was the mother of William James Pirrie (qv). Two of Margaret's brothers, Henry and John Carlisle (1856–1945) set up a shipping company in London, the Blue Star line, and the other brother, Alexander Carlisle (qv), became general manager of Harland & Wolff shipyards, and was described as the ‘greatest shipyard manager in Europe’ (Millin). The children were educated by their father, and on 17 April 1879 Margaret Carlisle, a handsome girl with the forceful personality characteristic of all her family, married her cousin William James Pirrie, who was already prominent in the Belfast shipbuilding firm of Harland & Wolff (he was chairman from 1895). Very unusually at that time, Margaret Pirrie became deeply involved in her husband's business affairs. They had no children, and she accompanied him on business trips and often visited the shipyard. She got to know the managers and some of the workforce, and spent every evening working with her husband on finance planning and engineering designs, at first in their Belfast home at Ormiston, and later in the London office. When Pirrie was lord mayor of Belfast (1896, 1897) she was an energetic lady mayoress, later described by Lord Dufferin and Ava (qv) as ‘the most charming and most popular lady mayoress who ever sceptred a city or disciplined a husband’ (Clarke).
The Pirries' most important contribution to the city was their work on fund-raising for the new Royal Victoria Hospital, planned from 1897 as a project to celebrate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee and to replace the old Belfast General Hospital. Margaret Pirrie was chiefly responsible for the successful campaign in which the target of £100,000 to build a 300-bed hospital was reached in less than a year. Pirrie himself gave £5,000, and his wife gave £2,000; later, to ensure that the project was completed debt-free, Pirrie gave a cheque for £11,000. Mrs Pirrie then undertook to raise a further £100,000 to endow the hospital, to provide for possible expansion as well as running costs. Her efforts resulted in the equipping, at £500 for each bed, of two thirty-four-bed wards, which were named for the Pirries; Margaret Pirrie also raised £10,000 to name a ward in honour of her own doctor, Professor James Cuming (qv). She chaired the ladies' committee and the nursing committee, and was recognised as the most important single benefactor of the hospital; she was president of the hospital from 1914 until her death. She gave two donations of 1,000 guineas (£1,050) and £1,000 to buy radium for cancer treatment in 1929 and 1931, and every year gave generous Christmas gifts to staff and patients. This was also her habit with shipyard employees; she often had the staff of her house in Surrey make quantities of pyjamas to send as presents to Harland & Wolff managers.
In 1904 she was the first woman to be made an honorary burgess of Belfast in recognition of her work for the city's hospital; in 1922 she was the first woman to be made a JP in Belfast; and she was elected an honorary life member of Belfast chamber of commerce on 25 November 1926. By 1926, however, Lady Pirrie was much less of a power in the land. After the sudden death of her husband (who had been created viscount in 1921) in the mid Atlantic on a business trip on 6 June 1924, Harland & Wolff's affairs were found to be in disarray, and her husband's personal financial situation was such that the trustees had difficulty in carrying out the provisions of his will. Lady Pirrie intensely disliked the new managing director, and sought to undermine his position; it seems she came close to challenging him for leadership of the company, especially in late 1924, when she chaired a meeting of the works committee in Belfast. She was finally obliged to accept the new state of affairs, and had to agree to the sale of her homes in England; her Belfast house, Ormiston in Strandtown, was taken over by the new company head. She died in London on 19 June 1935, and was buried in a private funeral in Belfast city cemetery. Obituaries recalled her extraordinary influence on ‘every field of useful endeavour, industry, philanthropy, social service, learning and the arts’, as well as the combined charm and force of her personality. A bust of her, presented to the Royal Victoria Hospital, appears in a photograph in Richard Clarke's history of the hospital.