MacDonagh, Maire (Mary McDonagh) (1918–97), trade unionist, was born 20 March 1918 in Kilconnell, Co. Galway, the second of three daughters who lived into adulthood of Michael MacDonagh, customs official, and his wife, Caroline, née Keary, both of Co. Galway. She appears to have received her primary education locally, before attending Taylor's Hill Convent, Galway, and Sion Hill Convent, Blackrock, Co. Dublin. First attending UCG in 1936, she graduated with a BA in French and Irish (first-class honours) and a B.Comm., both in 1939. Continuing her studies at the same college, she was awarded an MA in Old Irish (first-class honours) and a higher diploma in education in 1941. After leaving college she worked in an insurance company in Dublin and then taught for a few years at Sion Hill Convent, Blackrock, Co. Dublin. Subsequently she worked as private secretary to J. J. O'Leary, managing director, of Cahill's, a Dublin printing firm.
In 1953 MacDonagh joined the staff of the Irish Trades Union Congress and worked with well-known union leaders such as Ruaidhri Roberts (qv), Shirley Lowe and Donal Nevin (qv), serving as secretary to Nevin, at that time general secretary of congress. In 1956–8 she worked as secretary to the unity committee, playing a historic role as rapporteur at the talks that led to the establishment of the unified trades union congress in 1958. When the full-time position of general secretary of the Association of Secondary School Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) became available, MacDonagh was the unanimous choice from ninety-one applicants and was appointed in June 1959. In 1968 the Ryan tribunal recommended a common basic salary for all teachers, and proposed that secondary teachers would be paid entirely by the state. ASTI opposed the recommendations, on the grounds that secondary teachers had enjoyed a slightly higher salary scale than their primary and vocational colleagues, and that a small part of their salary had been paid by school managers; it also voted to seek affiliation to the ICTU. Under MacDonagh's leadership, a strike was called in February 1969 which closed about 570 schools, affecting approximately 135,000 pupils and nearly 5,000 teachers. The dispute was called off after three weeks when a compromise agreement was reached, but the teachers' grievances were not ultimately settled until 1971. The work of the organisation changed in 1972 and head office practised new procedures, with MacDonagh assuming a more prominent role in direct negotiations and on ASTI representative deputations. Greater recruitment to the union followed and many school managers resolved disputes more quickly. After twenty-five years as general secretary of ASTI, one third of the union's years in existence, MacDonagh retired on 31 March 1983. Her retirement function was attended by the minister for education, Gemma Hussey, former education minister John Wilson, European commissioner Richard Burke (a former minister for education), and representatives of various international teacher organisations.
MacDonagh's leadership of ASTI occurred during a period of great educational change, with the availability of free secondary education from 1968 and the introduction of community and comprehensive schools in the 1970s, and it is against this background that her many achievements must be considered, not least the massive growth in ASTI membership during her period as general secretary: a mere 1,000 members in 1958, which had risen to 10,500 by March 1983. She was renowned among colleagues for dedication and efficiency, especially her eye for detail and ability to cope with voluminous correspondence. Her prominent position made her a pioneer and a role model for many Irish women. She lived mainly in Kilconnell, Galway city, and Maretimo Villas, Blackrock, Co. Dublin. Her achievements were recognised internationally when she was elected to the executive committee of the International Federation of Secondary School Teachers (FIPESCO) in 1973. In 1982 the Educational Institute of Scotland gave her an honorary fellowship. After a short illness, she died 3 June 1997 at the home of her sister in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. She never married.