Ryan, Agnes (1890–1971), businesswoman, was born 3 April 1890 in Cutteen in Solohead, Co. Tipperary, daughter of Patrick Harding, farmer, of Cutteen, and his wife Katie (née O'Brien). Born in the middle of fourteen children, Agnes was heavily influenced by her mother's ardent nationalism, and attended the local national school and then the Sisters of Mercy in Tipperary town. Shy, serious-minded and clever, she was also strong-willed and rebelled in her mid teens against her mother's wish for her to be a teacher by running away to her sister Katy Nelligan, who ran a grocer's in Glasgow. There she went to a local convent school before working in her sister's shop for several years, these experiences of city and commercial life serving to broaden her horizons. By 1914 her mother had lured her home with a job in McGrath's bakery in Tipperary town. Anxious to maintain her independence, she did not relish the prospect of marriage, even contemplating a religious vocation. Instead she became engaged to a suitably sympathetic and dependable bachelor four years her junior.
Her fiancé, James (Seamus) Ryan (1893–1933), businessman and politician, was born 2 December 1893 in the townland of Deerpark near the village of Kilfeacle, Co. Tipperary, the son of John Ryan, farmer, of Deerpark, and his wife Katie (née MacLysaght). As a young man he favoured the moderate nationalism of John Redmond (qv) in defiance of his fanatically anglophobic mother who was embittered by childhood memories of her family's eviction from their landholding. He left Bansha national school aged 14 to serve as an apprentice in O'Connells' shop in Burk Place, Co. Tipperary.
By 1914 he was working in a large grocery store with responsibility for all the accounts. Possessing a natural flair for figures, he was a self-taught accountant, but lack of education curtailed his prospects. The nascent co-operative movement offered an escape and, on the advice of his friend Eamonn Roche (qv), a creamery manager married to Agnes's sister, he left his job in 1915 to train locally as a creamery manager. In 1918, Roche also convinced Agnes to fulfil a long-held ambition and establish a grocer's in Dublin. In partnership with James and thanks to a loan from a Jewish moneylender, she rented premises on Parnell Street close to the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), which she took as a good omen, being an admirer of the nineteenth-century patriot. The shop sold eggs, cheese and butter, and was called the Monument Creamery.
From the start, the Monument Creamery sold only Irish produce, specialising in butter when Irish butter was very scarce in Dublin city. Presumably benefiting from contacts in rural Tipperary (within Ireland's dairy-producing heartland) and in the creamery industry, they were remarkably successful in sourcing fresh, high-quality supplies. Initially, James remained in Tipperary from where he dispatched supplies, travelling to Dublin at weekends to sort out the accounts – the only aspect of the business that Agnes could not master. Over the hysterical objections of James's mother, the couple married in Dublin in February 1919, returning to work in their shop immediately after the service.
When not fumbling in the greasy till, Agnes exulted at the IRA's successful prosecution of guerrilla warfare from 1919. Back in Tipperary her family aided the IRA, whose members included childhood friends such as Dan Breen (qv) and Seán Treacy (qv), her brother Sean and her brother-in-law Eamon Roche; her sister Maggie was in Cumann na mBan. Under his wife's influence, James embraced militant nationalism. Both the Ryans' shop in Parnell Street, and a second branch opened in Camden Street in early 1920, served the IRA as safe houses, clearing centres for dispatches, and hiding places for ammunition. False bottoms were installed on butter boxes to conceal dispatches and ammunition, which James, well served by his beatific countenance, transported by horse and cart around the city. Much of the Monument Creamery's profits went to the IRA.
The British military occasionally raided the Parnell Street shop, but only because the area was considered suspect. The Ryans avoided coming to the authorities' attention in part because IRA leader Michael Collins (qv) appreciated their financial generosity and ensured that only a select few were told that 76 Parnell Street was a safe house. Among those were the Tipperary IRA's 'big four' – Breen, Treacy, Seamus Robinson (qv) and Sean Hogan (qv) – who regularly found sanctuary and assistance from the Ryans during their extended periods in Dublin. Agnes idolised the volunteers, particularly Breen, a swaggering, strapping desperado and a very different man to her slight and self-effacing husband. For his part Breen was unusually respectful towards Agnes, limiting his compulsive swearing in her presence.
In 1922 Agnes was disgusted when a bitter civil war marred what she saw as the romance and heroism of the 1919–21 insurgency. She regarded both sides as equally culpable for the violent spilt within the republican movement; Breen alone escaped her censure due to his unstinting efforts to reconcile the pro- and anti-treaty factions. She lost all interest in political affairs and focused on business matters, condemning subsequent generational iterations of the IRA. James, however, continued to harbour and financially assist IRA men. Unlike the British, the Free State forces were well aware of his sympathies and raided his shops regularly. Following the end of the civil war in 1923, he continued as an anti-treaty supporter and adherent of Éamon de Valera (qv), towards whom Agnes nurtured a visceral loathing – seemingly for responding coolly to her charm. The couple avoided discussing politics.
Meanwhile, in 1925 their brother-in-law Eamon Roche became manager of the Mitchelstown Co-operative Creamery, which he turned into the largest dairy processor in the country. The Monument Creamery became a valued outlet and both enterprises flourished symbiotically. In 1926 the opening of a third Monument Creamery shop in Rathmines untapped a lucrative market among well-heeled suburban housewives. During 1927–33, a further eighteen stores were opened throughout the city centre and suburbs, often at the behest of local residents eager to avail of its superior goods and service.
The attendant economies of scale enabled the Ryans to pay their suppliers generously while providing value for customers. Concentrating on selling butter, eggs and cream at slightly below current prices, the shops also provided all the essential foodstuffs including cheese, jam, honey, tea, cakes and confectionery. In 1931 they were moving some fifteen tons of butter and 144,000 eggs weekly. By cutting out assorted middlemen, Monument Creamery became the first retailer to provide fresh eggs to Dublin consumers.
A voracious reader of the Financial Times (and little else), James was the economic brain of the operation, pitching prices, controlling costs and juggling finances to a well-judged nicety. He identified the opportunity for dramatic expansion, its success being mainly attributable to his careful planning. But employees found him to be a remote and easy-going presence. Not so Agnes, who, assisted by a nucleus of long-serving staff, stamped her formidable personality across the Monument Creamery, utterly determined that it would boast a high standard of personal service and cleanliness. Complementing James's logic with an intuitive grasp of her clientele's preferences, her sophisticated aesthetic sensibility was reflected in the notably well-appointed shops, which combined charm with modernity. She also initiated the establishment of an immediately successful Monument bakery in O'Connell Street, being the first to use only Irish creamery butter and new-laid eggs in its cakes. By 1933 the Ryans had well over 100 employees.
Having previously moved into their Camden Street shop when they opened it in 1920, by the late 1920s they were living in an impressive red-brick residence in Rathgar, which eventually housed five daughters and three sons. Wishing to attend to her boisterous and fast-accumulating brood, Agnes attempted to retire, only to be overborne by her husband, who pointed out that they now had the means to delegate childrearing and send their offspring to boarding schools from a young age. Aside from her undoubted ability, James was anxious to retain his wife's services because he was increasingly distracted by politics.
After de Valera founded Fianna Fáil in 1926, Ryan threw himself into supporting the political party as an organiser and significant donor, his Rathgar house serving as a meeting place for activists. In 1927 he led a fund-raising drive that contributed £12,000 towards the creation of the de Valera-controlled Irish Press newspaper. He was elected to the senate for a nine-year term in December 1931 and was heavily involved in various election campaigns. Although he spoke rarely in the senate, he contributed usefully on committees relating to economic affairs. Amid an economic depression, in 1932 the Fianna Fáil minister for agriculture summoned the main retailers to a meeting and requested that they sell butter at a nominal profit. Ryan broke an uncomfortable silence by assenting, obliging his unenthusiastic rivals to follow suit.
Convivial, good-humoured and with an endearing disregard for pretension, Ryan was well suited to politics, revelling in the associated late-night socialising. In a party replete with IRA gunmen turned politicians, he provided an important dose of practical business experience, and, as de Valera's confidant, his eventual ascension to ministerial office was anticipated. To James's amusement and Agnes's annoyance, the combination of the Ryans' political links and business success inspired rumours that de Valera secretly owned their shops.
The Ryans were committed to the Irish culture, giving generously to the promotion of its language, crafts, art and music. In the 1920s James became fluent in Irish and took to styling himself Seamus Uí Riain; latterly he was generally known as Seamus Ryan. Also developing an obsession with Irish history, he amassed historical tomes and memorabilia, including miniature portraits of Robert Emmet (qv) and Sarah Curran (qv), and leaflets by Daniel O'Connell (qv).
Having harboured artistic ambitions in her youth, Agnes maintained an interest in art thereafter, being a particular admirer of the works of Jack B. Yeats (qv). She built up an impressive collection of his artwork, including her most cherished possession, Yeats's masterpiece 'There is no night', purchased in the late 1940s for £1,200. At Agnes's prompting, her husband also bought Irish art and befriended artists, most notably Seán O'Sullivan (qv), who during 1933–45 was commissioned to paint portraits of Seamus (which formed part of the 1933 RHA exhibition) and of many of the Ryan children. In 1933 Seamus purchased a portrait of de Valera by O'Sullivan, gifting the painting to its subject. Their daughter Kathleen (qv) was in 1941 the subject of a much-admired study by Louis le Brocquy (qv), 'Girl in white'. Conversely, Agnes shied away from portrait artists and the public spotlight generally.
The cares of business and politics had impaired Seamus's always uncertain health but his death in his Rathgar home on 30 July 1933 was completely unexpected, as he had appeared to be recovering from a heavy cold. He received a spectacular send off, Fianna Fáil stage-managing his state funeral as an exercise in party political triumphalism, befitting its emergence as Ireland's dominant political force. With Breen as coffin bearer, he was interred in the republican plot in Glasnevin.
Within two weeks, the grief-stricken Agnes had to cope with gossip that her husband had died bankrupt. Alert to the self-fulfilling nature of such rumours, she scotched them by expensively buying one of Dublin's first Daimler cars. Perched primly upright in the back seat and clad in the latest Parisian fashion, she spent her working days being chauffeur-driven around the various Monument branches, breaking off for 10 o'clock mass in Whitefriar Street. Under her watchful eye Monument Creameries peaked with twenty-six shops, two bakeries, two tearooms, a pub and over 500 employees, mainly young women.
Much of the staff consisted of relations and Tipperary natives all bound to her by ties of blood, territory and clientage. In combining stringency with generosity, she had decidedly matriarchal relations with her employees which rather precluded a trade-union presence. The Irish Union of Distributive Workers and Clerks (IUDWC) thought otherwise, being further aggrieved by Ryan's refusal to cooperate in efforts to secure agreements with city-centre employers regarding hours of labour and half-holidays. Failing in its efforts to recruit Monument Creamery staff, the IUDWC picketed the Henry Street shop in September 1937 after Ryan ignored demands that she compel her employees to join the union. An injunction lifted the picket after three weeks, and in May 1938 the high court ruled the picket unlawful, an important victory in her attempts to resist the anti-competitive machinations of the unions and her less efficient business rivals. (In 1969 trade unionists with long memories would thwart her widowed daughter Cora's bid to succeed her husband Seán Dunne (qv) as a Labour TD.)
In 1938 she purchased a thirty-room mansion and hundred-acre demesne called Burton Hall in Sandyford. A paradise for her children, Burton Hall regularly hosted high-society dinner parties where Breen, along with Roche a frequent visitor, was an incongruously rough-hewn presence. Always professionally charming in public, over the years she became a well-known Dublin figure, renowned for her refinement, commercial acumen, and acts of charity towards her staff and hard-up customers. Exposure to her gracious manner even shamed Patrick Kavanagh (qv) into repenting, albeit temporarily, of his unconscionable rudeness. In private, the stresses of balancing business and family responsibilities made her tired, irritable and a rather stern mother.
For all that, she set aside her disappointment when it became apparent that none of her children wanted to take on the business, and supported those that pursued creative vocations. John Ryan (qv) was variously a painter, broadcaster, pub landlord, literary publisher and editor, participant in the first Bloomsday commemoration and chronicler of Dublin's post war-bohemian set; Kathleen Ryan was a movie actress; Patrick served in the RAF, helped manage the Monument Creamery, and published a book of poetry; and Oona successively married a Russian nobleman (whom she divorced), the painter Patrick Swift (qv) and the poet David Wright, and established and managed a successful pottery studio in a Portuguese fishing village. Two of Agnes's children joined religious orders, Seamus becoming a Benedictine monk in Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick, and Ita a nun at Mount Anville, Co. Dublin (as Sr Íde Ní Riain, she published various religious and historical works including translations from medieval Latin into English).
During the Emergency (1939–45), Irish goods enjoyed a captive market, and Monument Creamery, like many Irish businesses, prospered accordingly. Thereafter, price competition intensified slowly but inexorably, effecting a sharp contraction in profits by the mid 1950s. The product of an era when an intense nationalism suffused Irish citizens' commercial relations, her business model disintegrated as consumers reacted against a long period of high prices and a lack of variety, ultimately by turning to cheaper foreign products. In 1957 she built a modern bakery with giant ovens in Upper Abbey Street, stimulating a big rise in cake production that compensated for the eroding profitability of the stores' former mainstays.
The 1960s advent of self-service supermarkets, offering customers the convenience of pre-packaged foods and of shopping for all their household provisions under one roof, rapidly pushed the business towards crisis. Labour-intensive concerns, situated to accommodate shoppers travelling on foot or by bicycle, and bound by mutual ties of obligation to its suppliers could not compete with the concentrated and ruthlessly deployed financial muscle of the car-friendly supermarket chains, which engaged in below-cost selling of butter and other Monument Creamery staples. Out of sympathy with the increasingly impersonal nature of shopping, and further hindered by a lack of car parking facilities in an increasingly traffic-congested city, she nonetheless attempted to change, investing heavily in remodelling the shop fronts and converting two of her outlets into self-service stores. In doing so she had to overcome resistance from staff, discovering that it was easier to create a modern supermarket chain from scratch than to convert a traditional retailer.
The final blow came in 1963 when the government imposed a purchase tax that fell more heavily on specialist retailers than on supermarkets. Throughout, she refused to solicit help from Fianna Fáil, denouncing de Valera being one of her great pleasures. Moreover, the decision by the Irish Press in 1948 to disregard her plea for discretion and devote extensive coverage to her son Patrick's trial for manslaughter, arising from reckless driving, had ended whatever lingering loyalty she felt for her husband's party.
By 1965 Monument Creamery was haemorrhaging cash and deeply indebted, having mortgaged three city-centre outlets. Closure seemed inevitable when in November she received an offer from a foreign supermarket tycoon whereby the business would be continued. However, she regarded the bid as derisory and an attempt to take advantage of her loyalty to her staff. Moreover, the prospective buyers proposed taking over by degrees, obliging her to continue working while in failing health. Conducted secretly for fear of panicking creditors, the negotiations reached a lengthy and, for Ryan, perilous impasse. After much agonising, in April 1966 she put Monument Creamery into liquidation and some 500 staff out of work. The disposal of the twenty-seven Monument Creamery properties that autumn realised a £176,000 surplus for Agnes, her children and a handful of employees.
Retiring to her Monkstown abode, having moved there in 1953 from a Burton Hall emptied of children, she died 5 May 1971 in St Gabriel's Hospital, Cabinteely, Co. Dublin, and was interred beside her husband in Glasnevin. In 1986 her daughter Sr Íde Ní Riain published a biography, which is the main source for her life.