Not many Irish business people can say a former American president has promised them a visit, but it’s not every Irish entrepreneur has an American president-themed business. The Obama Plaza and snack boxes are just two of the reasons why we, as a nation, owe a lot to Una McDonagh.

Una is one half of the powerhouse running Supermacs, but she wanted to be a guard when she grew up.

She grew up in a family of seven in Cappataggle, Co Galway, on a dairy, cattle and sheep farm. Una and all her sisters were very involved in farming.

“We did farming at home, we also did it for an uncle who lived nearby and the neighbours – we would be sent to help them.

“It was a great grounding for me because I was well used to long hours and hard work. I enjoyed farming growing up.”

Una grew up in an era when you had to be 21 to apply for the guards and the done thing in secondary schools at the time was to send students off to Dublin for the civil service exams.

She got through the interview and got a call to start “but I didn’t really want to go because two of my sisters got married about six weeks previously and they had left home.”

She didn’t want to upset her parents and she didn’t want to “go off to Dublin at 18”.

A few weeks after sitting her Leaving Cert, Una met 24-year-old Pat McDonagh, who was teaching in the next parish. He had just opened a restaurant in Ballinasloe and asked if she would come and work there part-time.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The first spring Una worked there Pat asked her to go with him to the Vintners Social in Ballinasloe.

“So I never applied for the guards,” laughs Una. They married in 1982 when Una was 22. Pat had opened the business in June 1978 and went back to school in September, but he gave it up at Christmas that same year.

Almost 40 years later and Supermac’s has 105 restaurants across the island of Ireland. There are 20 restaurants in County Galway alone. Supermac’s also owns a number of hotels and motorway petrol stations, called plazas. The company employs 3,500 people altogether.

The business has grown incredibly since its founding, but it’s faced challenges, particularly during the recession when, according to Supermac’s, 350,000 of its customers went overseas.

“All the people that emigrated, they would have been the age group that were our customers,” says Una. She says the quietening of the nightlife scene in rural towns “hit us a lot – and businesses like ours”.

Una says that when these towns got quieter, “the young people decided, I think, ‘oh we won’t go to Ballinasloe, we won’t go to Loughrea, we’ll go to Galway because there won’t be many out in Loughrea’, so it did hit the small towns a lot”.

Una notes that “before that the nightlife and weekend business was huge with the discos in all the local towns, and then the next thing you know there were 500 or 600 gone abroad from every town, so the business changed – the weekend and the night trade wasn’t as busy”.

Supermac’s decided to bring in new lines to attract customers. This prompted the introduction the Papa John’s pizza chain across the country. This initiative was successful and there are now 69 Papa John’s in Ireland.

Supermac’s focused on day business to attract more customers. The new lines, in some part, were healthy options for a more health-conscious society.

“The customer is looking for more fresh food, they’re looking for less processed, healthier options,” says Una. So they introduced the SuperSubs brand across the country. SuperSubs is a range of subs, salads, soups and wraps available at selected Supermac’s restaurants.

One healthy option Una is particularly proud of is the 100% fresh Irish chicken burger, which is under 350 calories.

Putting an emphasis on day business also saw Supermac’s opening petrol plazas like the Obama Plaza.

“We’re looking at more of the motorway sites and the busy roads,” says Una, who notes that barista coffee in the plazas has made a big difference to business as well.

Of course, the most famous of these motorway sites is the Obama Plaza.

Obama Plaza

“I think we had the site just bought when the announcement was made that President Obama was going to visit Moneygall,” says Una. This is of course a PR dream for a new enterprise.

“We were absolutely thrilled,” says Una, “and then the next great thing that happened was that Henry Healy applied for a job with us, who would be President Obama’s eighth cousin.”

Getting the plaza through the planning process and being allowed to call it the Obama Plaza was another feat.

The plaza receives a lot of American visitors and they can look around the visitor’s centre upstairs. Pat was invited to the White House on St Patrick’s Day two years ago and President Obama has contacted Henry Healy and says he’d like to come back and visit the Obama Plaza in the next 12 months.

“Henry tells us he’s coming,” says Una, while Padraig chips in: “And Henry is his cousin, so Henry would know.”

The Obama Plaza may seem like something of a gimmick, but there is a lot of serious business being done there. There are approximately seven meeting rooms upstairs. Some business people spend up to 20 hours a week in the Kiltullagh Plaza in Galway, on their laptops and in meetings.

Supermac’s is a serious business, but it is also very serious about its involvement in the local community.

Supermac’s sponsors rugby and soccer teams, community events, such as St Patrick’s Day parades, Renmore Pantomine and the Ballinasloe horse fair. It also sponsors all the GAA teams in Galway, including the ladies football and camogie teams.

In fact, Supermac’s is the longest-running sponsor of an intercounty team in the country – it’s been sponsoring the senior male Galway hurlers and footballers for 28 years.

When I ask how they will celebrate the 30th anniversary of their sponsorship, Una and Padraig both roar: “If we could win an All-Ireland.”

The sponsors don’t ask much. And to be fair, Canning and his army of stick-wielding warriors have delivered the goods so far.


Supermac’s sound like the dream employer for young staff trying to balance college, a part-time job and sport. It has a lot of part-timers who play hurling and camogie, and Una says “it’s very important that they can get the time off to train”.

Sarsfield GAA club is local to several Supermac’s enterprises in Galway. This club reached the camogie club All-Ireland last year (they were beaten), but nine of the girls on the starting team work for Supermac’s.


Una says they have no concrete succession plans.

“We’re too young,” she reprimands Country Living. “We’re not going anywhere fast.”

Two of their four children (two boys and two girls aged between 25 and 31) work in the business. Marie works on the hotel side of the business and John works in marketing in head office in Galway. Their other children are in Sydney and San Francisco.

While Supermac’s may be known for being quintessentially Irish, the business has ambitious plans globally.

The McDonaghs currently have a group of 12 Irish pubs in Cleveland, Ohio, where they also own a house. This operation came about thanks to an American who worked as an operations manager for Supermac’s. He wanted to move back to America, so he led the charge in terms up setting up this initiative in the States.

Supermac’s is also looking to expand into Australia and Europe. Una thinks there’s space for another fast food outlet in the Australian market, for example, not least because of the number of Irish emigrants down under.

But plans are on hold at the moment due to its ongoing trade war with McDonald’s which looks set to come to a head in September when the European Union Intellectual Property Office is due to adjudicate on Supermac’s application to have McDonald’s trademark of the Big Mac removed.

The McDonaghs may be imperialistic in terms of expanding, but the power hasn’t gone to their heads. Una and Pat are known for how hands-on they are in their business.

“We would go around to the various shops and I think customers love that, they love to see you working in the shop, they love to see you in on a Saturday night. I think it makes a big difference in how they look at the business.” CL