Conroy, Sheila (née Williams) (1918–2012), trade unionist, social activist and administrator, was born on 22 April 1918 (or 4 April 1917) in Bantry, Co. Cork, only child of Harry and Jane Williams. A Welsh petty officer in the Royal Navy, Harry Williams was stationed at Bantry (1914–18), where he met his future wife; their marriage led her family to disown her. Her death from tuberculosis soon after Sheila's birth led to Sheila's being fostered with a local family until age 6; her father, stationed elsewhere, sent an allowance for her upkeep. Contracting pneumonia as an infant, she was cared for by the Sisters of Mercy in Bantry, who also ran the national school she attended there. Moving to the order's home in Cobh, she attended St Maries of the Isle secondary school in Cork city, where she enjoyed cookery, but endured throat infections and a bout of scarlet fever; she left after a year. In 1937 she was apprenticed to a small family confectionery firm in the city; the allowance from her father paid for her lodgings. Fearing rejection, she never tried to make contact with her mother's family.
In 1939 she lost her job and became a trainee waitress at the Victoria Hotel in Cork. Resenting the oppressive working conditions endured by the hotel staff, she spearheaded their successful clandestine affiliation to the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU). In 1944 she moved to Dublin, where she found work as a waitress at the Capitol Theatre, Princes Street North, and took courses at the College of Catering in Cathal Brugha Street. She continued her trade-union activism, serving as shop steward for ITGWU members working at the Capitol, and becoming active in the union's no. 4 branch (hotel, restaurant and catering staff) in Dublin, most of whose 4,000 members were women. Elected at the 1952 AGM to the branch committee, she was a delegate to the ITGWU annual conference that summer, and highlighted the indifference of both male officials and many female members to the conditions endured by working women.
At the union's 1953 annual conference, Conroy lamented the low attendance of women; she often noted that if ITGWU women members were to organise independently, they would form a union second in size in Ireland only to the ITGWU itself. She was the sole woman delegate at the Congress of Irish Unions from 1954, and wryly observed how the marriage bar (requiring women's resignation upon marriage) never applied in the catering industry, or other low-status, poorly paid jobs, such as domestic service, retail, cleaning or fish-gutting. In June 1955 she was the first woman elected to the ITGWU's national executive committee (NEC), and negotiated on behalf of her branch at the Labour Court and in the establishment of regional sectoral joint industrial councils, which set wages and employment conditions. She also campaigned for the establishment of a national pension scheme to cover all workers.
In the 1958 NEC elections she topped the poll, and acknowledged that her re-election was principally due to the votes of men. At the June 1958 ITGWU congress, she and the union's general president, John Conroy (qv), introduced new rules concerning the payment of marriage gratuities to women members. Becoming personally close, she and Conroy married (29 July 1959) at the church of Christ the King, Cabra, honeymooning in Southport. In advance of her wedding she resigned from the union, but missed the stimulation of work, especially union activities and conferences, and volunteered with Our Lady's Hostel for Homeless Boys in Eccles Street, Dublin. The Conroys had no children, and John's death in February 1969 left her bereft.
Before the June 1969 general election, she failed to gain the second Labour Party nomination to stand in Dublin South-East, behind Noel Browne (qv). While she was working as a playgroup leader at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, Ruaidhrí Roberts (qv) recruited her as part-time secretary-organiser of the People's College in November 1969. Established in 1948 to promote adult education, and influenced by the UK Workers' Educational Association, the college was closely linked to the trade-union movement. Conroy focused on organising evening classes, expanding both student numbers and the curriculum. She was adept at networking across union circles and lobbying government; from 1975, increased ad hoc funding allowed her to work with the college full time. In 1979 she helped secure a government grant, and through the 1980s garnered increased business sponsorship; President Patrick Hillery (qv) became patron of the college in 1984. Conroy expanded student enrolment (200 at her appointment) to 2,000 by the late 1980s. Intensely committed to the college, she served as its president from 1984, and promoted student participation in classes, trips abroad, and social and cultural activities; she was especially proud of the college's student choir, founded in the early 1990s. Conroy was on the executive and vice-president of Aontas, the National Adult Learning Organisation, and established links and exchanges with various European and international adult education bodies.
In 1970 Conroy's profile as one of Ireland's leading female trade unionists led to her appointment to the Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Thekla Beere (qv), to assess the employment conditions and pay of women. Embodying mainstream, pragmatic feminism, the commission made forty-nine recommendations to the minister for finance in its December 1972 final report, seventeen of which concerned equal pay and equality of employment. The government subsequently removed gender and marriage differentiated pay scales (1973–4), implemented equal pay (1974), and abolished the marriage bar in all forms of public employment (1977); later legislation introduced maternity leave and equalised unemployment assistance. Conroy never lost sight of domestic issues: as chair of Irish Women Against the Common Market, she opposed Ireland's accession to the EEC, fearing increased food prices that would fuel poverty. The plight of widows was one of her particular concerns, and she was variously chair and public relations officer of the National Association of Widows in Ireland (NAWI), lobbying governments through the 1970s to ameliorate the difficulties facing widows, especially diminished property rights and inequitable treatment under law compared to widowed men.
Having criticised the national broadcaster for neglecting adult education, Conroy was appointed to the RTÉ Authority (May 1973) on the suggestion of Minister for Labour Michael O'Leary (qv). Proceeding to chair the authority (1976–9), she was the first woman to chair an Irish semi-state body. Her speech at the launch of the RTÉ 2 television channel, at Cork Opera House (2 November 1978), enunciated her concerns to promote community-led programming, spur RTÉ efforts to support adult education initiatives, and adopt a bilingual approach to promoting the Irish language. She also championed greater staff participation in the organisation, and in January 1979 launched a working party to examine the role of women in broadcasting. Insisting on being referred to as 'chairman' of the RTÉ Authority, she refused to accept or use any other description. She served a third term on the authority (1979–82). Liam Ó Murchú (1925–2015), deputy director general of RTÉ, found her 'shrewd, level-headed and with an astute political mind' (Ó Murchu, 122).
Deploying her extensive contacts, forceful personality and considerable organisational abilities, Conroy effectively cajoled the Irish state to pursue just and humane treatment of women and children in public and private life. She sat on a variety of bodies, including the Commission on Adult Education (1981–3), the Health Education Bureau (1975–8), and the Rent Tribunal (1984–8). She worked closely with Dermot Kinlen (qv) in the St Patrick's Institution visiting committee to combat widespread illiteracy amongst juvenile inmates and provide them with vocational education. However, she refused to serve a second term, dismayed by the institutional brutality tolerated by the Department of Justice.
Conroy described herself as an 'Irish socialist', and was proud of her catholic faith. She had a tremendous work ethic, and continued her involvement with the People's College into her 90s. One of her few recreations was watching sport on RTÉ television, supporting Cork teams and sportspeople. In 1988 she was awarded an honorary fellowship of the College of Industrial Relations, and in 2001 an honorary doctorate by the NUI. She lived in Sandymount Avenue, Ballsbridge, Dublin, before spending her last years at the Tara Care Centre, Bray, Co. Wicklow, where she died on 11 May 2012. After a funeral mass at the church of Our Lady Queen of Peace, Bray, she was buried in Dean's Grange cemetery, alongside her husband.