Century of Endeavour

The Irish Co-operative Movement

Its History and Development

by Patrick Bolger, Institute of Public Administration, Dublin, 1977

(c) Roy Johnston 2000+
(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

Although this book was published long before I sat down to write 'Century', to my eternal regret I had not come across it. I wrote the following notes on it, initially (2000) in support of the Plunkett et al background to JJ's political work, and also later (2006) with particular reference to the contemporary need for a re-evaluation of the need for co-operative organisation.

Notes written in 2000:

This important book deserves re-publication and updating, in the light of the developments since it was written. Most of the major Munster co-operatives have since become public limited companies, and have joined with global capitalism, expanding into the UK and the US food commodity markets, with mergers and takeovers. The dynamics of this transition process deserve analysis.

My own personal working hypothesis is that the key factor in the process was the fact that the Munster creameries were based on a single commodity, milk, and never successfully evolved into general purpose agricultural co-operatives, servicing the production process and the sourcing of supplies for a cohesive managed co-operative farming community. They sourced milk from their members, and concentrated on adding value to it, and marketing it, though this was constrained by the seasonality of supply problem, with the result that the bulk of their activity was a disposal operation, with the production of powdered skim milk as a bulk commodity, a by-product of butter production.

Paddy Bolger covers the pioneering work of Robert Owen, William Thompson and the Ralahine commune in the 1830s, as over-viewed by James Connolly in Labour in Irish History. This false dawn depended on a contract between the commune and the landlord, Vandaleur, which came to an end when the latter had to sell the estate to pay gambling debts. The model however was influential, and JJ undoubtedly was influenced by it, as he was by Plunkett and by Standish O'Grady, who initially projected it as the means of social transformation of the Irish landed estates.

Horace Plunkett, whose name is primarily associated with the founding of the modern Irish co-operative movement, was a son of Lord Dunsany. Plunkett had encountered the co-operative movement in England, where he met with Beatrice and Sidney Webb at the Co-operative Congress in Ipswich in 1889. The movement in England had been primarily oriented towards consumer co-operation, in the industrial towns of northern England, where retail trade tended to be dominated by the 'company store'. He took this model with him back to Ireland, and his first venture in Dunsany was in this direction.

He soon came around to the opinion that in Ireland the prime opportunity was to organise the marketing of the produce of the primary producers of agricultural produce. In the 1890s, with the aid of RA Anderson, Father Finlay and others, and with the support of the Dublin intelligentsia, including George Russell ('AE'), Edward Martyn and others, the movement became well established, with 374 societies in existence at the end of the century.

Plunkett was instrumental, via what became known as the 'Recess Committee', in getting the Government to set up in Dublin a devolved Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, which he headed for a time, handing over the Presidency of the emerging co-operative movement to Lord Monteagle. In this context Plunkett wrote a book Ireland in the New Century, which however got him into political trouble with the Catholic Nationalist establishment, with the result that the movement was in the minds of many Home Rulers linked with an aura of Unionist landlord-domination, if not 'ascendancy do-gooding', in the context of the 'kill Home Rule with kindness' campaign.

Relations with the English co-operative movement also were uneasy; the latter attempted to organise the Irish farmers as suppliers, as a top-down operation, run from Manchester. This led to a break, despite the Co-operative Union conference which took place in Dublin in 1914, and which led to a brief flowering of consumer co-operation in Dublin, of which JJ's Dublin University Co-operative Society was an example.

Patrick Bolger's book goes on to treat how the movement was dismembered under Partition, and subsided into a variety of small commodity-based local producer co-ops, some of which survive, clustered round the mainstream organisations of the Munster milk-producers.

Under Co-operative Fishing he credits the foundation in 1968 of the Federation of Fishing Co-ops to a meeting organised by the Co-operative Development Trust, with which the present writer had a hand in the 1960s. There were 14 societies involved, and the Federation subsequently became influential.

Notes added 2006:

I felt the need to expand on the foregoing, having re-read the book, and to link the concepts in it to a number of current issues. I had in mind one or more detailed constructive critical follow-up papers, which may yet evolve. RJ Dec 2006.

The first four chapters link the origins of the movement to Robert Owen, who had pioneered a co-operative form of organisation of industrial production with the New Lanark mills on the Clyde. Owen had himself obtained ownership of the mills by marrying the daughter of the previous owner, David Dale. His co-operative reform in the interests of the work-force was thus well-intentioned but top-down. Despite this, he was influential in support of the early Trade Union movement and the Chartists, who were agitating for electoral reform. The co-operative and trade union movement in Britain were closely linked, whence the development of the consumer co-ops in Britain.

Owenite producer communes however were rare; he tried to promote the idea in Ireland and in the US; the Ralahine co-op in Co Clare was successful for a time. The latter was led by Edward T Craig, who had been the Editor of the Lancashire Co-operator, an Owenite journal; he had come at the invitation of JS Vandaleur who owned the estate, had been influenced by Owen, and aspired to improve the situation by leasing it to a co-operative working on Owenite principles. Craig arrived in the spring of 1831; the co-op was set up the following November, and terms were agreed. There were 52 people involved, and the system worked well in 1832 and 1833, but it came to an end when it turned out that JSV was a gambler and had pledged the estate for debts. The history was written up by Craig; there was a 1919 edition of this, with preface by George Russell, published by Lester in Dublin. Connolly had earlier been aware of it, and had used is as a basis for a chapter in his Reconquest of Ireland.

William Thompson, a Cork 'improving landlord', had independently developed what amounted to an Owenite approach to production, based on the 'labour theory of value' picked up from Ricardo and subsequently taken up by Marx. Owen used Thompson's writings as a basis for his work in America. Thompson also was a feminist, developing the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, and linking them with those of Anna Wheeler, with whom he collaborated, encountering her on the Jeremy Bentham network. He came across the Ralahine project in its second year, and evaluated positively its economic performance. He died shortly after, leaving his estate to the co-operative movement, to the consternation of his relatives, who contested the will.

It will be evident from the foregoing that the early experience of producer co-operation was dependent on philanthropic input of capital and was unlikely to thrive in a bourgeois-dominated or landed-gentry-dominated political environment. The consumer co-operative movement, on the other hand, was pioneered in Rochdale in 1844 among the weavers, as an alternative to the 'company store' as a source of domestic supply. The key principles which emerged were democratic control, open membership, fixed or limited return on capital subscribed, dividend on purchases, no credit, pure unadulterated goods, education provision for members, and political and religious neutrality. Bolger introduces these 'Rochdale Prnciples' as the distinguishing features of the true co-operative, as seen from the consumer perspective. The consumer co-op movement thrived in Britain, and to some extent in Northern Ireland, but in Ireland as a whole it was successful only in a few isolated cases. We need to try to understand why this was....

The contemporary opportunities for the re-develoment of the movement, to my mind, are as follows:

  • The organic growers' movement, and its interface with the urban consumers, via the 'boxmen' and the farmers' markets. Is there perhaps scope here for finding an organised co-operative approach to the food production and distribution system, in which producers, distributors and consumers would all be involved, in a non-exploitative manner?

  • The energy crisis and the need for small-scale urban power systems supplying electricity locally and to the grid, as well as domestic hot water locally; such 'combined heat and power' (CHP) systems could be fed by a local supply of biomass, in the form of forestry waste, wood chips, elephant grass or whatever, but this local supply would need to be planned and guaranteed; does this imply the need for a co-operative organisation of producers? Might these local biomass producers also be involved in the local food production system?

  • Given the implied relatively large area involved (typically a town hinterland), does this not imply a need to reconsider the classic 'Agricultural Organisation' model to which Plunkett and Russell aspired in the 1890s, and which was again promoted by Richards Orpen and Joe Johnston in the 1940s and 50s, though without success at the time? See JJ's Irish Agriculture in Transition.

  • Given the trend into apartments in the towns, is there not a need for a co-operative approach to organising the management of the apartment blocks by the residents?

  • Given the energy load due to transportation, is there not a need to develop local retail outlets in housing estates, in walking distance of where people live, thus re-inventing the village principle, and does this not make the case for a revival of the consumer co-op principle on the Rochdale model?

We need to develop full-scale analysis of these options with specific pilot locations in mind. RJ Dec 2006.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999